The Oakland Ebonics decision: Commendable attack on the problem
John R. Rickford
Department of Linguistics
Original text of Op Ed article printed in the San Jose Mercury News, 12/26/1996)
The Oakland School Board's decision to take Ebonics into account in teaching Standard English to African American (and other) students deserves commendation rather than the misinterpretation and vilification which it has received over the past week.
The first good thing about the Oakland decision is that it brings to national attention the fact that while existing methods of teaching English work superbly for white and middle class children, they fail miserably for working class African American children. For instance, in the 1990 California Assessment Program, third grade kids in the primarily white, middle class Palo Alto School District scored on the 94th percentile in writing; by the third grade, they had topped out at the 99 percentile. By contrast, third grade kids in primarily African American working class East Palo Alto (Ravenswood School District) scored on the 21st percentile in writing, but by the sixth grade, they had fallen to the 3rd percentile, almost to the very bottom.
Several other studies show that the longer African American inner city kids stay in school, the worse they do. William Labov (in the 1995 book, Literacy Among African American Youth, ed. by Vivian Gadsden and Daniel Wagner) reported that in1976, 73% of of the kids in one African American elementary school scored below the mean; by the senior high level, that failure rate had soared to 95%, and the 1992 results were equally ominous.
The second good thing about the Oakland decision is the fact that what the mass of African American kids come to school speaking--African American Vernacular English or Ebonics (which is NOT the same as slang)--is a highly structured and systematic language. Given this fact, it is possible to do contrastive analysis between Ebonics and Standard English, and shortcut the process of helping Ebonics speakers master Standard English. (Remember that this goal is shared both by the Oakland School board and by its numerous critics across the country).
The third good thing about the Oakland decision is that studies from over three decades, both in this country and abroad (e.g., Sweden) show that teaching methods which DO take vernacular dialects into account in teaching the standard work better than those which DO NOT. For instance, Hanni Taylor, in a 1989 book entitled Standard English, Black English, and Bidialectalism, reported that he tried to improve the Standard English writing of inner city university students from Chicago using two methods. With the experimental group, he raised students' metalinguistic awareness of the differences between Ebonics and Standard English through contrastive analysis, and tailored pattern practice drills. With the control group, he 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.
Other studies have shown similar results for the teaching of reading. Students at all levels who are taught by methods that take the dialect into account show dramatic improvement in their skills in reading and writing as well as in the standard variety. (See John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford, "Dialect Readers Revisited" in Linguistics and Education 7.2, 1995)
In the light of linguistic and educational evidence, continuing to accept existing methods rather than innovating as the Oakland School Board is doing represents, if I may turn the words of the words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson on their head, an "unacceptable surrender, bordering on disgrace."
(John R. Rickford is Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, and is currently coauthoring, with Lisa A. Green, a book on African American English for Cambridge University Press.)