To the editors, Newsweek Magazine:

John R. Rickford
Department of Linguistics
Stanford University

(E-mail sent to on 1/23/1997)

Dear Sir/Madam:

Ellis Cose's "Lifestyle" column (Jan 13) on Ebonics was right to focus on "America's dereliction of its educational duty to Black Americans." And the principles which he associates with successful school programs, including greater challenge and motivation, are ones with which we can all agree.

His contention that Ebonics is irrelevant to school success, is, however, simply wrong. On theoretical grounds alone it is unlikely that the mastery of curriculum-central linguistic skills like reading and writing would be unrelated to the language that children bring with them to the classroom. And empirically, studies both in Europe and the United States have shown that with other factors held more or less constant, the ways in which schools respond to the vernacular dialects of their pupils can play a major role in the children's chances of success.

Paradoxically, but quite in line with the principle of increased challenge which Cose espouses, programs in Norway, Sweden, Atlanta, Chicago, Oakland and elsewhere have shown that if teachers and students go through the additional enterprise of recognizing the systematicity of the vernacular and contrasting it with the standard variety, kids learn to read and write more quickly and manage the transition to the standard more successfully than if schools attempt to ignore the vernacular or legislate its demise.

Stanford, California
(Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2150. Phone: 415-497-0915)