Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Teachers Must Respect Non-Standard English

The single greatest ally young children bring to learning to read is their oral language. Oral language provides the foundation for learning to decode, comprehend, and create written language.  I have written about developing oral language in the classroom here.

But what if the oral language you bring to school is not valued and respected by the teacher in the classroom? What if your language, the language you grew up with, the language you learned at your mother's knee, is considered inferior and is constantly corrected? Robbed of your oral language in the classroom, you might well withdraw into yourself, refusing to take learning risks or ask a question or answer a question for fear of being corrected.

This is the issue addressed in an important article in the April issue of The Atlantic, Julie Washington's Quest to Get Schools to Respect African American English. Washington brings new attention to some things we have known for a long time. While I hope you will read the article, I will try to summarize the key points here.
  1. African American English (AAE) is a dialect of English, rich with its own rules of grammar and pronunciation. 
  2. Children who use AAE are at a disadvantage in literacy learning.
  3. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the lack of respect AAE receives from many classroom teachers.
  4. Children who use AAE when they enter school are similar to second language learners and benefit from similar instructional strategies used for second language learners.
  5. Children who use AAE need to learn to "code switch." That is they must learn an academic language for school based learning, while maintaining the ability to use AAE in appropriate (family, friends, neighborhood) environments. 
The article does not say, but I will add, that the only reason that Standard English is considered standard is because of money and power, not because it is inherently superior to other dialects. Those in power make the rules. This, I think, is important to understand if we are going to teach AAE speakers with the kind of respect their language deserves. That AAE is a dialect of English, with its own grammar, structure and rules has been well established since the work of the linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania in his Language in the Inner City in 1972.

Of course, in order to move into the corridors of higher education, power, wealth, and influence AAE speakers must learn facility with Standard English, but this facility can be developed without destroying AAE. Indeed, we are more likely to be successful in helping all children achieve literacy, if we embrace the language they come to school with as the ally it is.

Right now, I am sure some of you are having flashbacks to the Ebonics era of the 1990's, when everything I have said above was recognized and some schools, particularly in Oakland, California, adopted programs that used AAE as a tool for instruction. Whatever you think of that movement, we now know that these folks were on to something. (In fact, we always knew it, but the implementation became the target of jokes on late night comedy shows, the sure death knell for any program.)

While we might want to stop short of Ebonics readers, there is nothing stopping us from treating AAE with respect in our classroom. What would that respect look like? First and foremost it would mean acceptance. Children do not need correction that shows a lack of respect for their oral language; they need to have their responses valued and standard structures modeled. 

The article tells the story of the author, Julie Washington, observing a retelling of P. D. Eastman's, Are You My Mother? by a 4-year-old in a pre-school class near Detroit. You will remember that the story has a structure like this.

                      "Are You My Mother?" asked the baby bird.
                      "How could I be your mother?" said the cow. "I am a cow."

The child recounted the story this way.  
                      Is you my mama?
                     I ain't none of your mama!

What is important here is not the non-standard dialect being used, but that the child clearly understood the story and was able to retell it. In fact, as Washington noted in the article, a close examination of the response shows that the child was able to understand a story read in standard dialect and then translate it into her own dialect and recreate the story orally in AAE. If anything this demands a higher level of linguistic functioning than a reader who already navigates the world in standard dialect. This is the cognitive load that all speakers of AAE carry in literacy learning, Washington suggests, and I would agree, this cognitive challenge is a contributing factor in the achievement gap. 

This story also demonstrates an important understanding for teachers. We do not need to speak in AAE to show respect for AAE; we just need to allow it and honor it as the child's language and help them negotiate the pitfalls that are sure to come. As an example, if a child who is an AAE speaker reads aloud the word "told" as "tol'", there is no need to correct the child, who has obviously both decoded and comprehended what word was needed. On the other hand, if "told" is a part of a spelling lesson, we can model the standard pronunciation, help the child sound out all the letters and see the "d" at the end as a way to help the child move toward standard usage. 

By the same token, if a child uses a construction like, "He be running in the hall.", we need to model the correct usage without pejorative judgment about correctness saying, "Oh, yes, he is always running in the hall." Note that the meaning of "He be running down the hall" as Labov has noted, is not a grammatically incorrect usage of the to be verb, but an entirely different grammatical construct meaning that "running in the hall" is something "he" always does.

Most children will learn to code switch, that is, toggle between AAE and Standard English naturally as a part of being in a classroom and hearing, reading, and writing in the standard dialect. Some will not. For those who do not, specific code switching instruction, along the lines of ESL instruction is necessary. These strategies include the introduction of new concepts and vocabulary by building on student background knowledge, guided oral interaction, explicit instruction in standard structures, contextualized instruction which takes something from students everyday lives and builds knowledge of standard dialect, and modeling that includes lots of use of visual aids, graphic organizers, and visuals.

We need to think of AAE as what it really is - an ally for us in bringing a child to literacy. Not something to be eradicated, but something of value to be used as a scaffold on which to build the ability to navigate Standard English. 

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