(No. 8)



[Most readers are probably aware of the “Ebonics” debate that took place in the USA earlier in the year. This arose from the December 1996 decision by the Oakland [California] School Board to recognize Ebonics, also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), as the home language of a large proportion of the school district’s students. The purpose is not to teach this variety or to validate it as the school language. Rather it is to use the students’ home language as a basis for learning standard English.

There is a great deal of information on the internet about the issues surrounding the debate. One valuable website with many links to others is John Rickford’s:

Here is a piece John Rickford submitted to the New York Times in January 1997 (but, like other pieces favourable to the decision, it was not published). This is taken from the website with the author’s permission. }


The Evolution of the Ebonics Issue


John R. Rickford
Dept of Linguistics
Stanford University
Standford, CA 94305 USA

In the month that has elapsed since the Oakland School Board passed its original Ebonics resolution on December 18, 1996, public discussion of the subject has evolved in several respects. Particularly since the Board's recent revisions of its wording, more people now realize that the School Board's goal is to help vernacular speakers master Standard English, so the holiday party jokes and the editorial fulminating about limiting students to the vernacular seem somewhat passé.

Some people – most of them bereft of linguistic training and unaware of relevant linguistic research – are still knotted up over questions of whether Ebonics is a language or a dialect, or the extent to which its features can be attributed to African languages, English dialects, or pidgin-creole influences.

But many of us, although intrigued by these sidebars, have come to realize that the central issue is the limited success which schools across America have had in educating African American youth from the working and under-classes, particularly in the curriculum-central areas of reading, writing and the language arts. These devastating failures were the starting point for the Oakland task force’s deliberations, and their causes and solutions have become the focus of many recent editorials…

In one respect, however, discussions of Ebonics have NOT evolved. Whether pro or con, most commentators have failed to consider research evidence on the value of recognizing the vernacular in teaching the standard, the kind of evidence which California Superintendent of Education Delaine Eastin called for one month ago.

Such evidence is not that easy to come by, since experimental programs of this sort (for instance in Chicago, Washington DC, Hawaii and Toronto) have either not lasted long enough to produce measurable results, or they have been conducted over several years without the rigorous experimental methods, including control and experimental groups, pre and post tests, that would make assessment possible.

But by scouring the library and sending out research queries to cooperative colleagues worldwide, I have been able to locate several relevant studies, six of which I will briefly mention – two from Europe, and four from the United States.

One perhaps unsurprising finding of this research is that, almost universally, students who speak non-standard or vernacular varieties of a language tend to do relatively poorly in school, especially in reading, writing, and in subjects which require competence in the standard variety. More surprising, however, and of relevance to the Oakland School Board’s proposal, is evidence that taking students’ vernaculars into account can facilitate their development of reading and writing skills as well as mastery of the standard variety.

One of the earliest relevant studies is Tore Osterberg’s 1961 book, Bilingualism and the first school language – an educational problem illustrated by results from a Swedish dialect area. It documents an experiment in which an experimental group of dialect speakers (D) in the Pite district of Sweden was taught to read first in their nonstandard dialect, and then transitioned to standard Swedish, while a parallel control group (R) was taught entirely in standard Swedish. After thirty-five weeks, Osterberg reported that the “dialect method showed itself superior both when it was a question of reading quickly and of rapidly assimilating matter ... The same applied to reading and reading-comprehension” (p.135).

A recent replication of Osterberg's approach in a Norwegian dialect context was provided by Tove Bull, in a 1990 article entitled “Teaching school beginners to read and write in the vernacular” (in Tromsø linguistics in the eighties). In her research project, ten classes of beginning students, including nearly 200 students each about 7 years old, were taught to read and write either in their Norwegian vernaculars (Dialect group) or in the standard language (Control group). After assessing their progress on several measures, Bull concluded that, “With respect to reading and reading abilities, the results ... show that the vernacular children read significantly faster and better than the control subjects. It seems as if particularly the less bright children ... made superior progress during the year compared with the poor readers in the control group” (p.78).

The US study most similar to these European studies was described in Gary Simpkins and Charlesetta Simpkins’ 1981 article entitled “Cross-cultural approach to curriculum development” (in Black English and the education of Black children and youth, edited by Geneva Smitherman). Their Bridge readers, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977, provided reading materials in three varieties: AAVE, a transitional variety, and Standard English [SE]. They were field tested over a four-month period with 417 students in 21 classes throughout the United States. A control group of 123 students in six classes was taught using “regularly scheduled remedial reading” techniques. After four months, scores on the Iowa test of Basic Skills indicated that students taught by the Bridge method showed an average gain of “6.2 months for four months of instruction, compared to only an average gain of 1.6 months for students in their regular scheduled classroom reading activities” (p.238). Despite this success, the experimental program was discontinued because of hostile attitudes towards the use of the vernacular in the classroom, attitudes not dissimilar to those which have been expressed across America over the past month. (See John and Angela Rickford, 1995, "Dialect readers revisited," in Linguistics and Education 7/2, for discussion of other experiments and the attitudinal issues.)

It should be noted that while these studies all suggest that teaching initial reading in the dialect and then transitioning to the standard is an effective technique (note that far from “dumbing down”, it represents a considerable challenge to students, who have to negotiate through at least two varieties, but seem to do so successfully), this is NOT what Oakland has so far proposed to do. Oakland appears to have more in mind an extension of the contrastive analysis techniques used in California's “Standard English Proficiency” program, in which students are taught explicitly the differences between vernacular and standard features.

One US study which suggests the value of this approach is reported in Hanni Taylor's 1989 book, Standard English, Black English, and Bidialectalism. Taylor tried to improve the Standard English writing of inner-city Aurora University students from Chicago using two different methods. With an experimental group of 20 students, she raisedstudents’ metalinguistic awareness of the differences between Ebonics and Standard English. With a control group of another 20 students, she did not do this, but simply followed “traditional English department techniques”. After nearly three months of instruction, the experimental group showed a 59% REDUCTION in the use of Ebonics features in their SE writing, while the control group, using traditional methods, showed a slight INCREASE (8.5%) in the use of such features.

One of Taylor’s points was that students were often unaware of the precise points on which AAVE and SE differed, and that raising their awareness of this difference through contrastive analysis helped them to limit AAVE intrusions and improved their language skills generally. Bull’s explanation for the superior progress of the Norwegian vernacular group was similar: “… the principle of vernacularization of the medium of initial teaching may have made illiterate children more able to analyze their own speech, thus increasing and improving their metalinguistic consciousness and phonologi-cal maturity” (p.78).

Even more recently, Doug Cumming, writing in The Atlantic Constitution on January 9, 1997 (p.B1), reported on a program that has been going on for the past ten years in DeKalb county, Georgia in which fifth and sixth grade students in eight schools are taught to switch from their “home speech” to “school speech” at appropriate times and places. The program, originally emphasized differences between AAVE and SE, but now stresses bidialectalism more generally, taking into account the international backgrounds of many students. The program, which is similar to Taylor’s, and to the methods followed in California’s “Standard English Proficiency” program in some respects, has produced excellent results. According to Cummins, “The program has won a ‘center of excellence’ designation from the National Council for Teachers of English. Last year, students who had taken the course had improved verbal test scores at every school. At Cary-Reynolds, their scores rose 5.2 percentage points.”

Finally, there is a wonderful 1973 study of 208 African American first grade children in Oakland itself which has escaped the notice of everyone. Ann McCormick Piestrup, in her UC Berkeley dissertation, Black dialect interference and accommodation of reading instruction in first grade, showed first of all the typical relationship in which children who used more AAVE features also had lower reading scores. What was more interesting, however, was the relationship between teachers’ teaching styles – the way they responded to their pupil’s language – and the children's success in reading. The LEAST successful teachers were those in the “Interrupting” group, who “asked children to repeat words pronounced in dialect many times and interpreted dialect pronunciations as reading errors” (p. iv). They had a stultifying effect on their students’ reading development, reflected not only in lower reading scores, but also in the fact that some children “withdrew from participation in reading” (ibid).

By contrast, teachers in the “Black Artful” group, the MOST successful of Pielstrup’s six groups, “used rhythmic play in instruction and encouraged children to participate by listening to their responses. They attended to vocabulary differences of Black children and seemed to prevent structural conflict by teaching children to listen for standard English sound distinctions”. Not only did children taught by this approach participate enthusiastically in reading classes, they also showed the highest reading scores.

These studies, although varying to some extent in philosophy and method of implementation, all demonstrate that the vernacular variety which children bring to school IS relevant to their scholastic success, especially if teachers recognize and use it creatively to build bridges to the standard variety which everyone agrees is vital. Although some commentators have rightfully pointed to the importance of school facilities, teacher training and other factors which retard the progress of children in inner city and low income schools, the experimental evidence suggests that when these factors are controlled for, approaches which take the vernacular dialects of students into account are more likely to succeed, in general, than those which do not.

Once we recognize that we agree on the ends, and that there IS evidence in favor of the means which Oakland and other educators have attempted/are attempting, then we can take the discussion of this Ebonics issue to a higher and more fruitful level.


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