Journal article
“The use of Creole alongside Standard English to stimulate students’ learning” by William Henry in Forum, vol.42, no.1, 2000, pp.23-7). The author of this article is a teacher of English and History at a Caribbean Saturday Supplementary School in London, attended largely by students of African and Caribbean origin, with ages ranging from 5 to 16. The article explores the question: What are the advantages of valuing Creole in the school when the teaching is aimed at the acquisition of standard English? Several answers are given. The first has to do with cognitive reasons: it is easier for students to use their home language, rather than a new language, to acquire knowledge and develop intellectually.

The second answer is concerned with issues of identity: “All dialects or Creoles are close to the speakers’ identity and feelings of self worth” (p.24). Black people in Britain already face prejudice, discrimination and negative stereotyping in the media, and their history and culture are not sufficiently regarded by society in general, including the schools. The author notes that “by allowing black children the freedom to use some Creole in their written work, we are exposing them to their roots and introducing white children to the richness of another culture. This should lead to greater mutual respect…” (pp.24-5).

Another benefit of using Creole in the classroom is that children enjoy it, and this increases their motivation and enthusiasm for learning. Although some parents oppose the use of Creole in education because of the dominant standard language ideology, many others support the idea.

Back to top

Books and Book Chapters

On Jamaican Creole

Two publications have appeared concerning Jamaican Creole and education. The first is The Role of Jamaican Creole in Language Education by Velma Pollard (Society for Caribbean Linguistics Popular Series Paper No.2, 2002). This short booklet (10 pages) first describes the place of Jamaican Creole (JC) and English in Jamaica, and the social and linguistic relationships between them. The author notes that in talking about the role of JC in language education one is actually talking about the role of JC in teaching English. She argues that the first step is to acknowledge the existence of the two languages in Jamaica and how they complement each other, and to teach the appropriate contexts of use of each of them. Pollard believes that the main goal of teachers should be teaching English so that children can become bilingual. She recommends literature as an important resource for teachers, particularly in making students aware of the distinctions between JC and English, and also suggests the use of translation activities.

Language in Jamaica by Pauline Christie (Arawak Publications, Kingston, 2003) has a chapter on “Language in Education” (pp.39-49). The author reports that a large proportion of Jamaican students come to school as monolingual speakers of JC with little exposure to English. Up to 1998, fewer than half of the candidates from Jamaica who sat for the Caribbean Examinations Council exams passed in English (p.40).

Christie cites the stigmatization of students’ home language in the schools as one reason for this failure, and she defends the idea of stopping the rejection of children’s mother tongue in the school environment:

It could at least lead to a lessening of the culture shock experienced by some children when they first arrive at school and the feeling of alienation this often engenders. … If children do not feel at home in school, some of them soon reject it and simultaneously set up a block against learning English which is associated in their minds with school. (p.40)

With regard to suggestions that standards would improve if children heard only standard English at home and school, the author says that this is completely impractical in the real Jamaica, where code-switching is the norm, and many parents do not know much standard English.

Christie also refers to the work of Dennis Craig showing that school children often fail to recognize the structural differences between their own language and standard English, and suggests that “teachers have to know more about the structure and also the social roles of both English and Creole” (p.42).

The chapter continues with a discussion of recent calls from different interest groups for the place of JC in the education system to be formalized. There have been strong reactions against these calls by the media and the general public, expressing the following concerns: that using Creole would threaten English as the medium of instruction, that
Creole is not qualified to have a role in education (and never could be), and that such proposals are aimed at keeping Jamaicans backward. The author observes (pp.43-4): “Those who consider that Creole is an extra resource to be exploited rather than kept in a back room are treated as hypocrites.”

Three main viewpoints about the use of JC in education are then described. The first view is to use Creole as a medium of instruction. This view does not deny the importance of English, but rather promotes bilingual education. Its two main priorities are “(1) to minimize the psychological problems arising from the gap between home and school [and] (2) to help the child achieve proficiency in English” (p.44). Another related perspective is that Creole should be used orally in the schools to facilitate ease of transition and early learning, but English should be introduced early and take over as the medium of instruction as soon as students are proficient enough in it. This perspective “is informed by research findings that children learn best in their native language in their early years” but “it acknowledges that Creole is not ready for use as a language of literacy, nor is establishing literacy in Creole, even at the initial stage of schooling, considered a priority” (p.45).

The second view is to teach Creole in schools. This view is often misunderstood to mean teaching the language to children who already know it. However, it really refers to teaching about the language, its varieties, and its written form, much as English-speaking students are taught English in other countries.

The third view is to “make use of Creole in school as considered necessary in specified situations” (p.45). According to this view, English should remain the medium of instruction, but teachers should use Creole where necessary to make sure their students understand the subject matter. (Of course, as Christie points out, many teachers have been using Creole informally in this way for a long time, both consciously and unconsciously.) This view is the one currently advocated by the Ministry of Education. Christie reports (p.46):

The ROSE (Reform of Secondary Education) programme endorsed by the Ministry also proposes that students should be allowed to express themselves freely, employing whatever variety makes them comfortable in the classroom and outside. In other words, while English should be the sole formal medium of education, teachers should help their pupils to acquire it by making it easier for them to learn all subjects and also by making them feel less self-conscious about the language they bring to school.

This policy comes a long way from the days when Creole was officially banned from classrooms.

Christie goes on to mention some practical criticisms of each of these views – some concerning costs of classroom materials and training teachers and others concerning negative public attitudes. The linguistic problems also exist with regard to the difficulty of separating Creole and English, and the fact that a significant number of children would not be familiar with a standardized Creole. But with regard to the criticism that using Creole in schools would “keep Jamaicans backward”, Christie points out that the traditional education system, in which over half the students fail, has already kept many Jamaicans backward (p.48). She concludes:

[T]o recognize the potential of Creole is neither pandering to more or less monolingual Creole speakers nor “descending” to their level. Rather, it is going where they are, in an effort to improve their status in society by helping them to gain more from their schooling, including more English. The aim is to have learning designed for them rather than in spite of them. The real issue today is not whether Creole should be taken seriously into account in educational planning but rather whether we can afford not to take it seriously into account in one way or another.

The final chapter in the book, “The Jamaican situation in perspective” also contains a section on “Creoles in education” (pp.56-61). This section first describes the use of creole languages as the medium of instruction to teach initial literacy in three different countries: Haiti, Curaçao (Netherlands Antilles) [see report above], and the Seychelles. It also describes other initiatives using pidgins and creoles in the classroom, including Ron Kephart’s efforts to teach initial literacy in Carriacou Creole and Katherine Fischer’s Carribean Academic Program in Evanston, Illinois, and the current editor’s research on the use of Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea. Christie summarized the most important lessons that Jamaicans can learn from these cases (p.60):

1. Learning to read and write in Creole initially does not negatively affect the learning of the official language.
2. Learners readily transfer reading and writing skills learned in Creole to learning to read and write the official European language.
3. Social and political factors, from both the leaders’ viewpoint and that of the alleged beneficiaries, play a significant role in the success or otherwise of policy decisions about language.
4. Teaching children about Creole is a useful means of overcoming the stigma traditionally attached to it.

Back to top

On African American English
Lisa J. Green’s African American English: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) has a chapter titled “Approaches, attitudes and education” (pp.216-242). This begins with a discussion of the relationship between African American English (AAE) and mainstream English (ME), the variety closest to the standard, and attitudes toward AAE as a distinct variety. She points out that many African Americans do not like to see AAE characterized as unique and substantially different from ME because it once again sets them apart from other Americans. This could mean “buying into, if not providing more evidence for, the claim that African Americans are inferior and language is just another deficiency” (p.222). Green says such misconceptions and negative attitudes toward AAE can be countered to some extent by more clear descriptions of its rules and patterns in order to show that it is a legitimate variety, and not slang or incorrect English.

After a discussion of attitudes toward AAE and employment, Green goes into the topic of education. First she describes the issue of the “over-diagnosing and mislabeling child AAE speakers as being communica-tively impaired” (p.227). Part of the problem is that AAE children’s language is judged according to standards of the ME-speaking community. She describes a research project at the University of Massachusets to develop a language assessment instrument specifically for child AAE speakers.

Green goes on to review AAE and education from the 1960s to the 21st century. She demonstrates how African American children still lag behind whites in reading levels, and notes that since the 1960s sociolinguists have been advocating that the differences between children’s language (AAE) and ME should be taken into account. Suggestions have also been made that texts and other materials written in AAE should be used in the classroom. However, as Green points out, most parents would not agree with these methods because “schools are viewed as the very places where children can and should be able to escape from the nonstandard language of the street and the less educated” (p.230). Another criticism against the validation of AAE in the classroom is that those who are advocating it have already learned the standard and are benefiting from it; using AAE in the classroom will deny children the chance to use the standard and therefore deny them the chance to receive the same benefits.

With regard to classroom strategies, Green shows how constant correction is a “very ineffective and counterproductive” practice (p.234) because it inhibits students’ participation in the educational process. (This is not to say, however, that poor performance should be accepted.) She presents five principles put forward by Labov that may be useful for teaching reading to AAE speakers.

Green continues by describing the “contrastive analysis” approach which helps students to analyse the differences between their own home varieties and the standard. This approach has been advocated by many sociolinguists and teachers. Finally, she discusses the use of reading materials in AAE or “dialect readers”. These have produced some positive results and are also advocated by many sociolinguists as a means not only for teaching reading, but also for legitimizing the language. However, Green points out some complications with using them, in addition to parents’ resistance. These include changing lexical items, no conventional ways of spelling, and no information about children’s development in AAE.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the role of teachers in implementing classroom strategies for AAE speakers. First of all, these strategies do not require teachers to teach AAE, because children have already acquired it. Instead, teachers should “be responsible for understanding and respecting students’ language and providing accurate mainstream English patterns that correspond to the patterns in the child’s native dialect” (p.240).

Back to top

Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture by Marcyliena Morgan (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002) also has a chapter on educational issues: “Language, discourse and power: outing schools” (pp.132-52). The author stresses that “even though much of the cultural activity, creativity and intelligence [of African Americans] described in earlier chapters have been ignored or denigrated within school systems, black people believe that education is the key to success” (p.134). However, she attempts to answer two important questions: “First, how does the education system understand and address African American language and cultural practices? Second, why do some scholars consistently insist that black students oppose formal education… and what, if anything, does this have to do with language? (p.134).

Morgan points out that during the public ridicule of AAE in the Ebonics debate following the Oakland School Board resolution in 1996, one view which emerged was that “black people speak AAE because they don’t want to participate in American society in the same way as whites” (p.135). The educational policy that goes along with this view is that African American children should be taught only basic skills that prepare them for “non-career employment”. The opposing view was that “black people speak AAE for cultural and historical reasons and because of race and class discrimination” (p.135). The educational policy that goes along with this view is that African American children should be taught not only basic skills but other areas that will enable them to choose any employment that they wish. She then gives some historical background about the “educating to do and work” versus the “educating to know and learn” positions (p.136). But in the wake of the Ebonics debate, there was widespread agreement in the African American community that all children should learn to speak “good English” – i.e., mainstream English.

The chapter then goes into a discussion of “social pyschological theories about literacy, race and social class in research and educational policy” (p.137), including the deficit and deprivation approaches and the teaching Standard English as a Second Dialect (SESD) approach of the 1970s, which included some dialect materials. She observes:

[A]dministrators of SESD programs did little to explain these programs to parents and inform them about the dialect materials and how they would be used in the teaching of standard literacy. Nor did they train teachers about stereotypes, racism and the relationship between language and culture, historical and language loyalty issues. This failure to inform both parents and teachers had dire effects on all SESD programs.

Parents were rightly concerned that these programs “did not highlight the social functions of literacy” (p.140).

Next is a brief description of the origins of the Ebonics philosophy – focussing on AAE as a unique variety of language that has African roots, and as an important part of African American culture and heritage.

Morgan continues by describing the mismatch between working-class and African American culture and the white middle-class culture of the schools. She notes (p.143):
It is the unspoken dirty secret of public education: to receive a middle-class education you must criticise working-class and African American cultural practices. This creates a crisis of identity and loyalty for students who want to excel academically without sacrificing member-ship in their community.

Morgan describes Carter G. Woodson’s notion of the “educated fool” – “one whose education has made him or her ashamed of African American history and culture” (p.144). And she implies that educated African Americans who are opposed to AAE are in this category. It is therefore true that many African Americans associate the education system with whiteness and see it as responsible for perpetuating negative attitudes toward their culture and language. But Morgan argues that this does not mean that African Americans do not value education, and she presents a list of studies showing that education was a prestige indicator in African American communities until the 1960s.

The chapter concludes by citing research which shows that rather than resisting education in general, African American students are resisting racial stereotypes and the denigration of the language and culture in the education system. Morgan asks (p.151):

The question that arises is whether African Americans want to be like the very people who seem to want to eradicate their language and culture, and whether refusing to be like them will result in exclusion from the resources and rewards deemed necessary to survive in the United States.

Back to top

Part IV of Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English edited by Sonja L. Lanehart (Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, 2001) is titled “African American English and Education” and contains four chapters. The first is “The role of family, community, and school in children’s acquisition and maintenance of African American English” by Toya A. Wyatt (pp.261-80). The author first gives an overview of various theories of child language acquisition/development, and then describes how children from African American English (AAE)-speaking backgrounds are virtually the same as children from General American English (GAE)-speaking backgrounds in their language development up to age 3. She then discusses language diversity in the AAE child speech community as a function of social class, region, and language change, and cautions that educators “must avoid viewing the language development of all African American children as homogeneous” (p.268). Speech and language clinicians should also be careful to distinguish speech disorders from normal AAE use for a particular social group.

Wyatt goes on to describe variation as a function of linguistic context and setting, and looks at the development of bilingual abilities with regard to the second-dialect learning of GAE. She points out that reactions and views of teachers, parents and peers to AAE and GAE have an important effect on second-dialect learning, and warns (p.275): “The unconscious or conscious denigration of a child’s home language by teachers – whether direct, indirect, or implied – can have deleterious consequences for second-dialect learner success.” In addition, educators need to be aware that some African American students may experience social pressure not to use GAE where AAE is a key badge of social identity or solidarity – especially during the teenage years. Finally, they should be aware of “African Americans’ resistance to the use of AAE in the instructional process” (p.276).

The next chapter, by Michèl Foster is “Pay Leon, pay Leon, pay Leon paleontologist: Using call-and-response to facilitate language mastery and literacy acquisition among African American students” (pp.281-98). The author advocates the use of AAE prosody or discourse modes, not just AAE phonology and syntax, in the educational process. Here she describes the use of one such discourse mode, “call-and-response” by one teacher in primary school classrooms in San Francisco, and shows how it was successful in teaching phonemic awareness, vocabulary development and other skills, as well as in increasing enthusiasm and motivation among the students. Foster notes that in using call-and-response, the teacher used the students own social, cultural and linguistic knowledge “to help students become skillful and adept at handling new vocabulary words” (p.295). She continues:

At the same time that the teacher honored and drew upon students’ indigenous linguistic abilities, she juxtaposed these abilities with other linguistic forms that she helped the students appreciate and learn. This included patterns of discourse that invited students to articulate a deeper understanding by talking aloud about the process of problem solving or decision making…

William Labov is the author of the following chapter, “Applying our knowledge of African American English to the problem of raising reading levels in inner-city schools” (pp.299-317). He describes the “profound and persistent” gap between reading achievement of “Euro-Americans” and African Americans (p.301), and reports on a teaching method aimed at reducing this gap. This method involves “direct instruction on the ways in which letters of the alphabet combine to signal the sounds of English” (p.307) – for example, that in a word with the structure C-V-C-(e) the final -e is not pronounced and the preceding vowel is long (with a few exceptions). The experiments reported in this chapter show that the method is effective in significantly reducing error rates in reading and raising children’s reading levels to the Basic level that is required by the educational system. However, the method is not so successful in teaching the decoding of final consonant clusters, which in AAE have a higher rate of simplification than in other dialects of English. In this regard, Labov reports on a program going beyond phonemic awareness to teach “morphophonemic awareness”, to “develop the recognition of the abstract rule that hides the inaudible – and invisible – stops in ghosts, wasps, desks” (p.315).

The final chapter in this section is by John Baugh: “Applying linguistic knowledge of African American English to help students learn and teachers teach” (pp.319-330). Baugh argues that “all successful education is a cooperative enterprise” (p.319), and to improve the educational prospects for African American students, there must be collaborative cooperation among “adult educational advocates” (including parents and teachers), professional educators (teachers, administrators, staff members), and the students themselves. At the same time, progress cannot be made as long as uninformed linguistic stereotypes about AAE being incorrect English prevail among educators, and as long as a large number of schools continue to lack resources and adequate standards. He concludes by saying that “teachers who are respectful of their students, including their linguistic heritage and vernacular culture, are much more likely to be successful than are teachers who devalue students who lack Gerneral American English proficiency” (p.329).

In the last chapter of the book, “Reconsidering the sociolinguistic agenda for African American English: The next generation of research and application” (pp.321-62), Walt Wolfram also touches on some educational issues. He asserts that there is no rigorous evidence of success in teaching GAE as a second dialect, and articulates some principles that “might promote the prospects of success without compromising the sociolinguistic integrity of speakers” (pp.349-50). These are also relevant to teaching standard varieties to speakers of creole, and include the following:

The teaching of GAE must take into account the importance of the group reference factor. Students will not be motivated to study a dialect that they cannot imagine themselves using; but if they see that their own group uses the dialect for certain purposes or groups that they would like to be included in use the dialect, they are more likely to regard dialect development as a sensible, natural extension of their language knowledge.

The teaching of GAE should produce an understanding of the systematic differences and social marking between GAE and vernacular forms, beginning with heavily stigmatized features which affect large classes of items. (p.350)

Wolfram also advocates teaching about the nature of dialect diversity, especially through “dialect awareness programs”. He observes (p.351): “The level of misinformation and prejudice about language diversity in general and African American speech in particular remains abysmally high; hence there is great need for the adoption of school-based and community based language awareness programs.”

Back to top