Letter to Senator Specter
John R. Rickford
Department of Linguistics
January 22, 1997
Senator Arlen Specter
Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
Washington DC 20510-6034
Please allow me to submit the following statement to be read into the record of the Ebonics panel which will testify before your Subcommittee on January 23, 1997.
Exordium: I am a Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, where I have been employed as a faculty member since 1980. My professional qualifications include an M.A. (1973) and Ph.D. (1979) in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. I have been involved in the study of Creole languages and American English dialects, including African American Vernacular English [AAVE] or "Ebonics," for over twenty-five years, and I have taught several courses on these topics at Stanford. I am currently co-authoring a book on African American English for Cambridge University Press, and co-editing another on the same subject for Routledge. I am a member of the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America, and in that capacity, wrote the draft of the resolution on Ebonics which was unanimously approved, with minor amendments, at the Society's business meeting in Chicago on January 3, 1997. I wish to emphasize that I am an independent scholar and researcher, committed to the highest standards of scientific inquiry, and to the pursuit of scientific truth regardless of the direction in which the evidence may lead.
Role of vernacular language varieties in school success. Since the Oakland School Board passed its original Ebonics resolution on December 18, 1996, I have stepped up my research on the role of vernacular varieties in school success, considering evidence not only from the United States, but also from other countries.
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 related subjects which require competence in the standard variety.
More surprising, however, and of particular relevance to the Oakland School Board's proposal, is the evidence of several studies that taking the vernaculars of students into account can facilitate their mastery of the standard variety, as well as the curriculum-central skills of reading and writing. I will cite six such studies, beginning with two European cases and then turning to US cases involving AAVE:
1. Tore Osterberg, in his 1961 book, Bilingualism and the first school language--an educational problem illustrated by results from a Swedish dialect area (Väster-bottens Tryckeri, Umeå), describes an experiment in which an experimental group of dialect speakers (D) in the Piteå 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, he found that:
the dialect method showed itself superior both when it was a question of reading quickly and of rapidly assimilating matter which comes fairly late in the course. The same applied to reading and reading-comprehension. (p. 135) Instruction in dialect has thus resulted in a good general reading technique in both dialect and standard language. This technique was better, that is, quicker and surer, in comparison to R group's. D pupils also understood better what they read. (p. 136)
2. Tove Bull, in a 1990 article entitled "Teaching school beginners to read and write in the vernacular" (in Tromsø linguistics in the eighties, Novus Press, Oslo), discusses a Norwegian research project conducted between 1980 and 1982 in which 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 above show that the vernacular children read significantly faster and better than the control subjects. It seems as if particularly the less bright children were the ones to benefit from this kind of teaching. They made superior progress during the year compared with the poor readers in the control group. (p.78)
Bull's proposed explanation for the superior progress of the vernacular children (ibid.) is that "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 phonological maturity, than the principle of traditional teaching of reading and writing achieved."
3. Ann McCormick Piestrup, in a 1973 study of 208 African American first grade children in Oakland, California (Black dialect interference and accommodation of reading instruction in first grade, Monographs of the Language Behavior Research Laboratory, #4, University of California at Berkeley) 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 the teacher's teaching style--the way they responded to their pupil's language--and the children's success in reading. Piestrup distinguished six different teaching styles, but I will report only on the two which were correlated with the lowest and the highest reading success. 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, speaking softly and as seldom as possible; others engaged in ritual insult and other forms of verbal play apart from the teacher" (ibid.). By contrast, teachers in the "Black Artful" group "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.
4. Gary Simpkins and Charlesetta Simpkins, in a 1981 article entitled "Cross-cultural approach to curriculum development" (in Black English and the education of Black children and youth, ed. by Geneva Smitherman, Center for Black Studies, Wayne State University) describe an experiment involving the Bridge readers which they had created in 1974 together with Grace Holt. The Bridge readers, which were published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977, provided reading materials in three varieties: AAVE, a transitional variety, and Standard English [SE]. The Bridge materials were field tested over a four-month period with 417 students in 21 classes throughout the United States (Chicago, Illinois; Macon County, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee, and Phoenix, Arizona). A control group of 123 students in six classes was taught using "regularly scheduled remedial reading" techniques. At the end of the four-month period, students' 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, emphasis in original). It should be noted parenthetically that the gain of only 1.6 months for four months of instruction which was evidenced by the control group is consistent with the evidence we see all over the US that African American inner city children tend to fall further and further behind mainstream norms with each year that they remain in school.
5. Hanni Taylor, in a 1989 book entitled Standard English, Black English, and Bidialectalism (Peter Lang, New York), reported that she tried to improve the Standard English writing of inner city Aurora University students from Chicago using two different methods. With an experimental group of twenty students, she raised students' metalinguistic awareness of the differences between Ebonics and Standard English through contrastive analysis, and tailored pattern practice drills. With a control group, also including twenty 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 AAVE features. One of Taylor's points was that students were often unaware of the precise points on which AAVE and SE differed; raising their awareness of this difference through contrastive analysis helped them to limit AAVE intrusions in their SE usage.
6. Doug Cummings, 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 (ongoing in fifteen school districts since 1981), 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."
These experimental results lead me on the one hand to support the Oakland School Board's decision to take the vernacular of their students into account in teaching them to read and write and to master SE, and on the other to urge that your Subcommittee continue Title 1 funding for programs like SEP and the Atlanta program, and even consider increasing it. 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 significant factors are controlled for, approaches which take the vernacular dialects of students into account are more likely to succeed on a large scale than those which do not.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your important deliberations. Should you require further information, please do not hesitate to contact me, either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or at the address and phone number above.
John R. Rickford