“Language is the road map of a culture, it tells you where its people come from and where they are going.” - Rita Mae Brown
As more and more educators discover the decades-long evidence behind the Science of Reading (SoR), the field is beginning to address the foundational gaps in their pre-service programs. An even larger number of teachers have not been exposed to the imperative concepts and prejudices surrounding bidialectal language, or speaking two varieties of one language, such as African American English (AAE), and how it can influence the path of literacy for many students. As people with a stake in pedagogy, the shared intention must be to have all students achieve success in reading, and many teachers will need to unlearn the notion that children who are multilingual (speaking/reading more than one language) or bidialectal are more likely to lack proficiency in the skills needed to attain achievement in reading.
While more and more schools begin to align themselves with evidence-based practices and navigate towards the incorporation of explicit, structured, sequential literacy instruction (ESSLI), it is vital for all educational communities to underscore the importance of a wider knowledge of linguistic difference in bidialectal children and how it affects student outcomes, both academically and socially.
Just as a percentage of monolingual children struggle to “crack the code” due to a specific language-based learning disability, deficits in instruction, or both, a portion of children who are bidialectal (or multilingual) will also encounter difficulties in learning to read. What is essential to understand is the difference between a learning disability and the multidimensional demands of acquiring aptitude in the rules and usage of a dialect not spoken in one's home. While many might hold onto unfounded beliefs that AAE does not follow a set of rules for usage or was an inadequate language system (Gupta, 2010), both General American English (GAE) and AAE include specific features of language, such as morphology, phonology, pragmatics, semantics, and syntax (Wolfram, et al., 1999).
The same methods teachers use to instruct a child who is monolingual (learning and communicating in one language) or multilingual (learning and communicating in two or more languages at once) should be employed with a child who is operating in more than one dialect. This includes, but is not limited to:
providing sufficient opportunities to learn;
using materials and practices that are effective given the students’ backgrounds/
eliminating unwanted stigma associated with using AAE (Washington & Seidenberg, 2021).
In order to enact these reforms, teachers must first have the resources to implement them thoroughly and thoughtfully. One way to increase this equity in education is through an emphasis placed on empowering educators with the intricate knowledge base of phonological awareness. If teachers are aware of the key pieces involved with building literacy skills, they will be able to better attune to the differences between the students who speak GAE at home and in the classroom and students who speak AAE at home. This, in combination with effort placed on basic accommodations such as visual supports and transcribing important information delivered orally (Beyer et al., 2015), will provide a safe, supportive, and productive environment for all students.
Another key element which should umbrella all instruction, including for AAE/GAE students, is explicit instruction. “Like speakers of any nonstandard dialect, from Swiss German to Cypriot Greek, most speakers of African-American English do learn to code-switch naturally,” Washington explained (Brennan, 2018).
She continued, “Some start during kindergarten, then we see a big wave at the end of first grade and another at the end of second grade. Then you get to third grade and it’s over.” At that point, about a third of them still can’t speak the standard dialect (GAE), and “code-switching isn’t going to happen unless you teach it. We know those kids will have trouble.”
Just as Snow and Juel (2005) said in reference to direct instruction for reading, “Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some.” We are under obligation as educators to address the specific needs of specific children in our classroom while understanding that it is not a detriment to the classroom as a whole. This will also help reinforce the destigmatization of AAE use.
By the end of fourth grade, “switching” students—that is, students who are proficient in both their home dialect and standard English—score at least a full academic year ahead of their non switching classmates in reading” (Brennan, 2018). The “wait to fail” model has resulted in thousands of children being deprived of a proper education and in the simplest terms, the right to read.
“Including common dialect variants in whole-class lessons is one means to avoid shame associated with AAE and a powerful technique to further the classroom language development.”
It is not simply best practices in instruction that should be prioritized, but related adjustment in assessment as well as instruction must be considered. Research has shown that African American students score lower on fluency than their peers when they read aloud as they slowed down their reading in order to improve the grammatical accuracy (Craig, et al., 2004). Accounting for fluency in reading being affected by the discrepancy in rate vs. accuracy is a key to not over-identifying AAE speaking children for special education. Including common dialect variants in whole-class lessons is one means to avoid shame associated with AAE and a powerful technique to further the classroom language development.
“It is important that teachers understand that language varieties are linguistically equal, even when they are not socially equal.” - Washington and Seidenberg, 2021
It is not enough to address the knowledge gap of teachers; we also must speak to the larger systems in place which further injustice for Black students, such as preconceptions involving the usage of AAE in a predominantly GAE setting as well as the opportunity gaps for these students from lower-socioeconomic status backgrounds. In a survey study that took place in a high-needs school district in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region, most teacher respondents felt that AAE contributed to problems with reading, writing, and performance on standardized tests (Gupta, 2010). This viewpoint linked with feelings that AAE is inherently incorrect or improper English minimizes the highly complex cognitive task of code-switching.
“This viewpoint linked with feelings that AAE is inherently incorrect or improper English minimizes the highly complex cognitive task of code-switching.”
Regarding the Matthew Effect, or equity in education, with nearly 100% of high-density (dialect influence greater than or equal to 50 percent of speaker’s oral language) speakers of AAE from low-income families (Washington et al., 2018), income inequality and educational inequality can sadly be considered synonymous (Hanushek, 2019). With the intention to stop the cycle of classism in the classroom, educators must prioritize understanding the nuances of AAE while simultaneously reflecting on their bidialectal biases.
Educators are meant to meet children where they are in their abilities, build the foundations of learning, and provide reinforcement of the skills comprised in multifaceted tasks, such as reading. This is especially imperative for children who are navigating in two dialects synchronously.
As American activist Verna Myers famously said, "Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” Now that all children have been invited to the classroom, we must teach them to read.
African American English (AAE): the variety of English spoken by many African American communities in the United States
Bidialectal: speaking using two dialects of the same language
General American English (GAE): the variety of English spoken in the greater part of the United States, particularly with reference to the lack of regional characteristics
Monolingual: a person who speaks only one language
Multilingual: a person who speaks two or more languages