Struggling readers who speak African-American English need support and respect


Many black children may face additional barriers in learning to read due to the differences between the dialect they are used to and the language used in classrooms and books.

As told in an article in The Atlantic, when Julie Washington was a newly created doctoral student. in speech therapy, she found herself reading Are you my mother? to a four-year-old black girl at a school near Detroit. The book consists of a series of scenes that look like this:

“Are you my mother?” the young bird asked the cow.

“How could I be your mother?” Said the cow. “I am a cow.”

When she finished reading, Washington asked the child to tell the story. The girl hesitated for a moment then began: “Are you my mom?” I am not a mom.

Simply charmed at first, Washington later realized what an extraordinary cognitive effort it took for the child to absorb the story into a version of English she didn’t speak, and then translate it into her own version to tell. It occurred to Washington that having to jump through these cognitive hoops could pose serious problems for many black children – and help explain the persistent gap in reading test results between themselves and their white peers.

This idea set Washington on an academic path that led, more recently, to an article in American educator, the magazine published by the American Federation of Teachers, co-authored with cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg. Washington and Seidenberg explain that African American English (AAE) differs from what they call General American English (GAE) – by avoiding the term “standard” – in a way that can make it harder to understand. correspondences between spoken and written language.

For example, it is essential that children can hear the individual sounds of words in order to relate them to letters. if a teacher asks if the words cold and hole have the same end, a child who pronounces cold like cabbage could say yes. If a teacher shows how sounds are mixed to form the word gold, a child who says the word like gole must translate the version of the word written on the board to the one she is used to using.

Teachers need to understand that AAE speakers can read or answer questions more slowly, say the authors, not because they are less able, but because they need more time to translate between dialects. And while children need to learn GAE to read, write, and communicate orally in some contexts, teachers need to avoid making them feel like GAE is incorrect or inferior.

It has long been known, at least among linguists, that AAE – or “Black English,” as it is sometimes called – has its own rules and conventions, just like GAE. Granted, it’s not a separate language like Spanish, but Washington and Seidenberg argue that navigating the more subtle differences between AAE and GAE can pose even greater challenges for children learning to read and write. . And yet, they say, speakers of AAE are generally less lax in teaching literacy than speakers of other languages.

At the same time, programs designed to help speakers of other languages ​​understand English grammar can also help AAE speakers. After a predominantly black elementary school Washington studied implemented a “bilingual curriculum,” the number of students who passed the state’s reading tests increased by 75%.

The issue of linguistic variation, including the terms used to describe it, has long been politically heavy. While linguists make a technical distinction between a dialect and one Tongue on the basis of mutual intelligibility, a linguist joked a long time ago that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. (He was thinking of Yiddish, which was once considered a mere dialect.) Washington and Seidenberg reject the term standard english because this implies that other varieties are “of inferior quality” and that they prefer variety of languages To dialect due to negative associations with these.

To some, this caution about terminology may seem overdone in terms of performance, but it may be necessary to counteract the long-held view that AAE is simply incorrect English, even among many in the black community. When, early in her career, Washington was trying to get parental consent to study children who spoke what she then called “black English,” she met the opposition. “What is black English?” A mother asked him angrily. “We don’t speak black English! When Washington, who is black, next switched to AAE, the parents sheepishly admitted they were using the strain, but they didn’t like the label.

A poignant example of the sensitivity of black children to correcting their speech is the story of Dasani, recounted in a recent book this has been extracted in The New York Times Magazine. At 13, Dasani won a full scholarship to a reputable boarding school for children who, like her, live in poverty. She has difficulty adjusting for a number of reasons, but the main one is her feeling that the pressure to speak ‘standard English’ is robbing her of her identity.

Dasani’s family soon notice that she doesn’t drop the final “g” in words anymore, and on a phone call, her sisters tell her, “You look so white right now. Dasani’s mother oscillates between thinking her daughter is “speaking classy now” and jokingly saying “we’ve come to rob you” because of the changes in her speech. Although Dasani has black mentors who advise her to learn to “change the code” while remaining the same person, she doesn’t see it that way. “If I speak like I speak to them naturally, with them something is wrong with me,” she said. Eventually, she acts in a way that leads to her expulsion from school.

Dasani’s experience may have been particularly difficult due to the immersive nature of the school: students live in surrogate families with stay-at-home parents who need to use the GAE around the clock. may be easier for children to change codes when they can return to the language variety they are used to at home. But even in the typical school environment, teachers should be able to teach GAE without conveying the idea that PTA is inferior.

It is also important to understand that oral language variation and the challenges it brings exist on a continuum. Not all black children speak AAE, and Washington and Seidenberg say those who speak a “denser” variety need more help changing codes.

Linguistic variation is also linked to poverty. The authors point out that almost all high-density AAE speakers come from low-income families. And while prejudices against AAE can be particularly damaging, many students from other races who live in poverty speak versions of English that differ to some extent from the version found in books. It would be interesting to know if they also face additional challenges connecting spoken language to print.

Beyond this, it should be remembered that due to gaps in their training, teachers often use methods of teaching reading it does not work same for many GAE speakers. Because they don’t teach phonics effectively, these approaches are even less likely to work for speakers of other varieties of English.

And because written language is generally more complex than spoken language, all children should familiarize themselves with its particular syntax and conventions, first by listening to adults read aloud. These readings aloud, as well as class discussions, should also be organized in such a way that all children acquire the academic knowledge and vocabulary they will need to understand a complex text. Unfortunately, most primary schools do not use programs that meet these criteria.

In short, learning to read can be an extremely difficult task, and learning to write even more so. If there are ways to make it easier for children to acquire these vital skills, including those who speak AAE, we need to start implementing them as quickly and effectively as possible.


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