Hooked on Ebonics
Validating Home Language
Understanding how others communicate is key to community cooperation
Walt Wolfram discusses the direction of American English with Robert MacNeil
Students play a form of the TV game to test their understanding of American English varieties
The Coalition on Language
Diversity in Education describes its mission as being committed to leading a coherent, informed response to the Ebonics controversy, and to supporting excellence and equity in the education of Ebonics speakers and other African American students. The following has been reprinted courtesy of the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL).
Variation in the English language at any level—pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, discourse style—often provokes comment. People may be curious, pleased, or disapproving of others' ways of speaking, depending on which variety of English is being used and in what setting. But the pervasiveness and intensity of public discussion about the Oakland, CA School Board's December 1996 policy concerning language variation was unprecedented. Suddenly, intrinsic beliefs about language in schools were being expressed and broadcast widely, exposing fundamental misunderstandings about language variation in the United States. Unwarranted claims regarding the nature of variation and appropriate educational responses proliferated without adequate critique in public and private conversation. In response, leaders of national organizations concerned with issues of language diversity in education determined to address this situation together. They formed a coalition committed to leading a coherent, informed response to the Ebonics controversy that would support excellence and equity in the education of Ebonics speakers and other African American students. The Coalition on Language Diversity in Education has 13 members:
In January 1998, the Coalition sponsored a national invitational conference, Language Diversity and Academic Achievement in the Education of African American Students, that brought together some 50 national leaders in language, education, and public policy. In presentations and group discussions, conference participants articulated their views of what the United States must do to meet the academic needs of African American students, as well as those of other students with respect to language variation. They outlined essential dimensions of programs and policies and cited research that provides a solid basis for continuing investigation.
This volume presents the proceedings of that conference. In chapter 1, John Rickford's overview suggests what we need to do to address language issues in the education of African American students: recognize the scope and nature of the problem, including its non-linguistic components; improve teachers' and students' attitudes toward and knowledge about African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics; improve the teaching of Standard English; and improve the teaching of speaking, reading, and writing. The chapters that follow his overview address five domains in which various dimensions of language use, including the differences between standard dialects and vernacular dialects, affect the education of Ebonics speakers: classroom discourse (chapter 2), the school curriculum (chapters 3 and 4), teacher education (chapters 5 and 6), language policy (chapter 7), and testing (chapters 8 and 9).
Making The Connection: Language and Academic Achievement Among
African American Students
Carolyn Temple Adger, Donna Christian, & Orlando Taylor, Eds
A substantial body of sociolinguistic research describes the features of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that differentiate it from other dialects of English. The regular, predictable occurrence of these features defines AAVE (also known as Ebonics) as one of many varieties of the English language, not a faulty version of an idealized English, as some see it. Other research in sociolinguistics, as well as in education, anthropological linguistics, sociology, social psychology, and speech/language pathology, sheds light on discourse dimensions of speaking and writing by Ebonics speakers. The contributors to this volume remind us of the potential of this research to explain the linguistic performance of African American students and to support their educational achievement. But, as many of them argue, this potential has barely been acknowledged, let alone mined, because of unwarranted beliefs about language and because of disciplinary traditions, indifference, and racism.
Reviewing research on variation in language structure and style in classroom discourse (chapter 2), Courtney Cazden points out that classroom talk assumes greater importance in the current understanding of how cognitive development occurs and in some of the high stakes testing associated with school reform. Educators' attitudes toward language differences thus have an increased potential to influence educational outcomes: Positive attitudes reinforce opportunities for students to build on the language skills they bring to school; negative attitudes increase the risks often associated with language differences.
Conference participants agreed with Cazden that we need to know more about language use in classrooms and about students' opportunities to participate academically. In particular, we need to know more about the ways in which teachers' behavior influences students' talk. We need research on how teachers gain expertise in language variation and language use, how their own language backgrounds and ethnicity affect that, and how expanded teacher expertise supports student achievement.
Issues in Ebonics and the educational achievement of African American students cut across the school curriculum, as Cazden's and Rickford's chapters emphasize, because oral language and literacy are intrinsic to learning mathematics, science, social studies, literature, and the rest. Yet the Ebonics debate has correctly highlighted a particular curricular area that demands development the teaching of Standard English. Oakland's intention to do just that touched off the national firestorm suggesting public demand for this curricular focus if not agreement on goals and methods. Schools have been teaching standard English but using traditional methods that ignore or trivialize research on language variation. Resources are limited, and teachers are not sufficiently knowledgeable about crucial details. There is little research on pedagogical methods. But the new Standard English curricula that are being developed, tried out, and evaluated use contrastive analysis approaches that make dialect contrasts clear, as Rickford suggests they should (chapter 1). The DeKalb County (GA) school system's bidialectal curriculum, which Kelli Harris-Wright describes in chapter 3, is one of these. Conference participants agreed that we need much more research and development to support programs like this one. We need to learn how teachers understand the process of developing proficiency in a standard dialect and how they promote it. We need to know more about how language diversity pertains to learning in the content areas and how it can be accommodated.
Teachers' obligations to Ebonics speakers are not exhausted by supporting their development of Standard English, even when that is done in ways that respect and make use of the students' Ebonics proficiency, as does the program Harris-Wright describes. Walt Wolfram (chapter 4) urges expansion of the typically vestigial approach to dialect knowledge in the school curriculum by introducing students to the facts of language variation through scientific methods: examining language data, forming hypotheses about patterns, and testing them against more data. The program he outlines, which is appropriate for language arts, social studies, and cross-disciplinary study, would not only update the curriculum but also combat the dialect stereotypes so shockingly evident in most discussions about Ebonics.
CHAPTERS 5 & 6: Teacher education
At present, however, it appears that few teachers are prepared to teach students about language variation or even to respond to evidence of it in ways that support students' language development and academic achievement. Among conference participants, there was consensus that education for teachers about language and language variation is simply inadequate. As John Baugh points out (chapter 5), institutions that prepare teachers often fail to provide courses that give detailed information about language variation and about students' dialects. There are few materials about the effects of language and dialect diversity in education for teacher educators to use themselves and as texts for teachers. There are even fewer for classroom teachers to use with their students. Promising approaches, such as those discussed by Terry Meier in chapter 6, are not yet widely used. But both Baugh and Meier point out that as important as linguistic education is for teachers, information alone will not solve all the problems of linguistic bias in education. Attitudes must be examined. Baugh points also to universities' failure to support teacher education as fully as they do other professions.
Echoing Cazden (chapter 2), Meier provides examples of what can happen in schools when teachers dismiss their students' cultural backgrounds, interpreting differences as deficits. They are likely to overlook or discount children's language strengths and to create instructional settings that do not engage students linguistically or cognitively. Meier argues that teachers need to learn about African American literary traditions in order to help their students build literacy from oracy.
To build teachers' and teacher interns' capacity to support language and literacy development in vernacular speakers, we need detailed descriptions of approaches that work and answers to related questions. Can these approaches be supported through collaboration across university departments and between schools and universities? What is the ultimate effect on student achievement when teachers appreciate a wider range of language skills than those used in their own communities? We need long-term applied research that documents the process of developing and institutionalizing more effective programs on language in education and their ultimate effects on teaching and learning in the schools.
The weaknesses in educational practice concerning dialects of English continue to exist because they are tolerated, not because of an impoverished research base on which solutions can be built, nor because policy is lacking. Geneva Smitherman profiles U.S. language policy regarding language variation, presenting in full the National Language Policy developed by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), an affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Some of the other, outdated language policies that she mentions saw new life in Ebonics diatribes evidence that a research-based, practice-informed language policy such as that of the CCCC is needed at every level of education to undergird a more linguistically realistic, practical language education for U.S. citizens.
The last two chapters confront the persistence of linguistically naive testing that discounts the abilities of vernacular dialect speakers. In chapter 8, Asa Hilliard recounts his experiences seeking fairness in assessment and mental measurement by challenging the assumptions of universality on which testing and measurement rest. He points to linguistic differences, such as syntactic contrasts among varieties of English; to psychometric constructs, such as basic word lists that are incorrectly assumed to be invariant across social groups; and to testing conditions that may have different meanings for different groups.
In chapter 9, Fay Vaughn-Cooke points out that testing and placement in speech/language pathology services is conducted by professionals whose views of language are influenced by the same language attitudes that revealed themselves in the Ebonics debate. She asserts that linguists' attempts to present facts to a poorly informed public are largely futile because myths about language variation, and about Ebonics speakers in particular, may be impervious to science. She concurs with Smitherman (chapter 7) and Baugh (chapter 5) that science must partner with policy.
The volume closes with Orlando Taylor's testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, delivered within the first month of the Ebonics debate. It captures the essence of language scholars' reactions, formulated for policy makers but suitable for the public.
Partners in the Walk to Equity
The chapters in this volume explicate important language issues in the educational achievement of African American students. They also point out dimensions of a necessary program of research and development to solve problems of educational inequity due to language prejudice. The Coalition on Language Diversity in Education, the authors of these chapters, and other conference participants are engaged in a walk to the linguistic freedom that Smitherman (chapter 5) mentions—a state in which everyone's language is honored in fact and every student's academic achievement is supported. This volume advances us a step in our walk. It is offered as a resource for others in the partnerships—schools, school districts, boards of education, schools of education, state and federal departments of education, parents, students, and others who share the vision of educational excellence for linguistically diverse African American children and for all children in our schools today.
Carolyn Temple Adger Donna Christian Orlando Taylor
Washington, DC July 1, 1998
Carolyn Temple Adger is a program associate at CAL in Washington, DC, where she conducts research on teaching and learning in linguistically diverse schools. With Walt Wolfram, she led a project that developed equitable speech/language assessment procedures for speakers of African American Vernacular English in a large city school system. Her classroom research includes a study of how instructional activity influences students’ dialect choices, reported in Kids Talk: Strategic Language Use in Later Childhood (Hoyle & Adger, 1998). She also co-authored Dialects in Schools and Communities (1999).
Donna Christian is president of the CAL, where her research focuses on the role of language in education, including issues of second language education and dialect diversity. Among her research projects are studies (with Walt Wolfram) of Appalachian English, Ozark English, American Indian English, and Vietnamese English. She has co-authored Appalachian Speech (1976); Variation and Change in Geographically Isolated Speech Communities: Appalachian and Ozark English (1988); Dialects and Education (1989); and Dialects in Schools and Communities (1999).Orlando Taylor is dean of the Howard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and graduate professor in the School of Communications. He is president of the National Communication Association. He has written books, articles, and monographs in the fields of communication disorders, sociolinguistics, educational linguistics, and intercultural communication. These include Treatment of Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations (1986); and (with Patricia A. Cole) "Performance of Working Class African-American Children on Three Tests of Articulation" in the July 1990 issue of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.
William and Flora Hewlett
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