Navigating Dialect: Facilitating Mainstream English Learning With First Grade African American
This qualitative study investigated how three Euro American first grade teachers in three urban classrooms facilitated mainstream English learning with low-income African American English speaking students. The study called upon the sociocultural and critical views of literacy in the New Literacy Studies. Writing conferences between 44 first grade students and teachers were observed to ascertain the methods by which the teachers scaffolded the children into mainstream English. Teacher interviews focused on familiarity with African American English, views on its use in the classroom, strategies for teaching mainstream English, and the importance of building upon the linguistic resources and literacy practices of the home.
Qualitative data analysis included modified grounded theory methodology. Constant comparison was used to identify teacher responses to African American English utterances in the writers' conferences. Axial coding integrated the data into categories. Selective coding enabled thematic analysis of the interviews.
The study findings revealed that two of the teachers were largely unaware of dialectal features and how to build upon the linguistic resources students brought from home. The teacher with an English as a Second Language background was aware of features of African American English as well as the strategies needed for scaffolding her students into mainstream English.
We set out to look at sociolinguistic negotiations in the classroom. Instead we learned that two teachers in our study navigated their course of language/literacy learning without being aware they were in uncharted waters. Our preliminary grounded theory from the findings is that teachers who are not aware of the strengths and potential of linguistic resources are insufficiently equipped to negotiate language and literacy learning. Instead they are navigating linguistic waters without essential knowledge of their depth.
It is recommended that teacher education programs include courses on sociolinguistics and critical literacy so that preservice teachers can learn how to work with diverse linguistic systems. School districts should provide professional development on African American English as a complex linguistic system, investigate the use of second language learning strategies to scaffold literacy learning, and incorporate critical literacies into the classroom to build upon the resources young students bring from home.
Keywords: African American English, Mainstream English, Standard English communicative competence, critical literacies, culturally relevant pedagogy
Literacy achievement among African American children of lower socioeconomic status has long been an issue of considerable concern in the United States. Literacy acquisition requires proficiency in Standard or Mainstream English. Those who speak non-standard dialects of English must learn how to speak, read, and write within the standard variety of language, while also demonstrating proficiency on standardized assessments. African American English (AAE) is a "non-standard" dialect of English, often called Ebonics, Black English, or African American Vernacular English. Due to the complex linguistic structure, some scholars (Boutte & Johnson, 2013; Smitherman, 2000) consider African American English to be a language instead of a dialect. Many African Americans speak AAE when feeling comfortable and safe with family and friends.
The issue of African American English use is immensely complex, fraught with complicated issues and imbued with cultural, racial, educational, legislative, and political overtones.
Educators and scholars challenge the validity of accurately assessing students of color and others who do not speak Mainstream English through standardized assessments. Yet, standardized testing is the national criteria upon which much educational policy is decided. The stakes for literacy learning are high for African American children, especially for those students in low-income urban schools who speak African American English.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE: PEDAGOGICAL EXCELLENCE
A considerable body of literature addresses the needs of African American English speakers in school where dominant views of Mainstream English learning persist. Scholars, among them, Ball (2002), Richardson (1995), and Smitherman (1998), believe that African American students are not being successful in the current educational paradigm that stresses accountability and relies upon traditional methods of addressing the language differences between African American English and Mainstream English. Thompson, Craig, and Washington's work (2004) also suggested that students who speak a non-standard variety of Mainstream English might be at a disadvantage in school because instruction, curriculum, and standardized assessment instruments are based upon the vocabulary and linguistic rules of academic or, Mainstream English. Ramirez (2005) asserted that African American English speakers do not receive the linguistic education that they need in our schools. Although some teacher educators believe that pre-service and in-service teachers must learn about sociolinguistic issues pertaining to Black students, such training is not uniformly provided across schools.
In 2004, Charity, Scarborough and Griffin wrote that "research efforts on the relationship of dialect to reading were probably abandoned prematurely 20 years ago" (p.1354). They proposed that a fresh examination of the issue could lead to greater literacy acquisition among African American children as well as new approaches for instruction. Craig, Connor, and Washington (2003) reported that ascertaining valuable pedagogical practices for African American students is an immense task. Their research indicated that culturally relevant teacher discourses, direct or indirect instructional approaches, appropriate classroom environments and early literacy materials for African American Students warranted re-examination. Although excellent studies of accommodations designed to facilitate the acquisition of Mainstream English among African American English users have been reported in the literature (e.g., Hollie, 2001; Labov, 2001; Piestrup, 1973; Siegel, 1999), additional research must center upon if and how teachers actually carry out the suggestions provided by experts. It is critical that more study be conducted in classrooms for further understanding of how teachers navigate sociolinguistic issues in relationship to Mainstream English language acquisition and literacy development.
In this article, we share a qualitative study of language and literacy practices encountered in classrooms with three Euro American teachers and 44 African American English speakers. We share the purpose of the study and situate it within sociocultural and critical literacy lenses. For those unfamiliar with African American English as a linguistic system, we offer a brief explanation of some of its key features. (For those interested in learning more, we recommend consulting Meier, 2008; Rickford and Rickford, 2002, and Smitherman, 2006). We consider research on the relationship between African American English and literacy learning in Mainstream English as well as recommended strategies for teachers of African American English speakers learning to read and write. These bodies of literature can assist the reader in the consideration of a very complex issue. We share our study, findings, and a preliminary theory that emerged from our work. We conclude with a discussion of implications for teacher education programs and school districts.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to look closely at the process through which Euro American teachers crossed cultural borders to teach African American English speaking students how to be proficient in Mainstream English on their road to literacy achievement. We entered the study eager to discover how teachers and students would negotiate the differences between Mainstream and African American English. Our research considered to what extent the teachers in the study recognize the linguistic competence and resources of children who speak African American English in their classrooms as well as to what extent the teachers build upon these competencies and resources in literacy learning. In order to conduct such an investigation, we called upon the sociocultural and critical views of literacy exemplified in the New Literacy Studies (Heath, 1983; Street, 2003, 2005; Gee, 1996, 2001), which we will examine next.
Historical Research on African American Schooling
Educational historian Vanessa Siddle-Walker has written extensively about the nature of schooling for African American children during the period of legalized public school segregation (2005, 2000, 1996). From this in depth examination she concluded that schooling for African American children was highly "valued" within the African American community. She wrote, "Inequalities notwithstanding, many African Americans valued the cultural form of teaching and learning that developed in the segregated schools" (Siddle-Walker, 2000, p. 255). This conclusion challenged the prevailing assumption that early Black educational efforts were axiomatically inferior in its recognition of African American standards of exemplary teaching. She found that good teachers during this time demonstrated a deep commitment to student learning and success, and a demanding nature guided by an unflinching belief in the intellectual ability of students. Through her analysis, Siddle-Walker 's cannon of scholarship contributes the psychological stance, or disposition of exemplary educators to the framework of pedagogical excellence. This stance was manifested in the teacher's appropriate enactment of care and authority, and is also referred to as warm demanding (Bondy, Ross, Hambacher, & Acosta, 2013; Ford & Sassi, 2013; Ware, 2006). Her work also provides a historical grounding, or social history, of pedagogical excellence, which demonstrates the systematic and sophisticated approach good teachers of African American children consistently enact to promote educational excellence.
African American English in School through the lens of the New Literacy Studies
The New Literacy scholars believe that culture is produced through language and that when participants of a community engage in meaningful action, their actions become part of identity, evolving into practices. As people learn a practice, they develop beliefs, values and a sense of belonging and identity within the community. When practices change over time, language develops according to the needs, purposes and context(s) in which language is found (Gee, 1996, 2001; Heath, 1983; Street, 2003). Oral and written communications are considered a social practice, and in a sense, the dichotomy between oracy and literacy is fused.
Critical Literacies are a particular branch of the New Literacy Studies. The premise of critical literacy is that literacy encompasses more than the mechanical skills and processes entailed in reading and writing; literacy is also concerned with social, cultural, and political processes and entails a call to equitable educational praxis. Originally drawn from the work of Bourdieu (1973) and Freire (1970), critical literacies validate the languages and literacies from the homes and cultures that the children bring to school. According to Street (2003), critical literacy is a culturally sensitive, ideological model of literacy as a social practice. Classroom interactions in language arts also become social practices, reflecting the players' views of literacy, especially those players without power.
It is hoped that teachers embrace linguistic differences in the classroom, build upon the language and literacy practices found in communities, acknowledge dominant ideologies in our society that may harmfully affect students' well-being, and work to promote social justice in the classroom community. But in order to do so, they must understand the linguistic systems that are spoken by their students. Teachers of African American English speakers need to become familiar with African American English. A wealth of information, some of which is shared below, has addressed how African American English is a highly structured and rule-governed linguistic system (Godley, 2006; Green, 2002; Labov, 1972; Siegel, 1999; Smitherman, 2000).
African American English is a Complex Linguistic System
African American English has unique grammatical features, such as: (a) multiple negatives; (b) invariant use of the English verb to be (commonly referred to as the copula) to denote a recurring state of affairs, e.g., He be lookin' good (Smitherman, 2000, p. 22); (c) absence of verb to be that refers to the present only, e.g., He lookin' good; (d) absence of "r" at the end of many words, demonstrating W. African language influence, e.g., Sista, Brotha; (e) use of the word "done" for completed action, e.g., They done been sitting in the car; (f) use of finna for going to in the immediate future (derived from fixin to), e.g., I finna go to the store; (g) initial voiced th that sounds like d, e.g., dem for them; (h) final t that sounds like f, t, or d, e.g., birf-day; (i) a shift of stress to the front of the word, e.g., PO-lice; (j) reduced consonant pairs, which are ordinarily heard as the deletion of a final consonant, e.g., tes for test (Smitherman, 2000, p. 22-25). Although linguists and sociolinguists refrain from privileging one linguistic system over another, Mainstream English is the language of dominance and power in the United States. Milroy (2001) reminded us that when standardized forms of language become legitimized as part of a state's identity, other forms of language become illegitimate. Those who speak non-standardized varieties of language are regarded as persons who make language errors and who need to learn how to speak correctly, especially in the United States' schools where speaking and writing in Mainstream English are part of the language arts curriculum. African American English is often viewed in a pejorative manner without regard to its intimate connection with identity or its complex and meaningful structure (Godley, Sweetland, Wheeler, Minnici, & Carpenter, 2006). Deficit views in the United States are promoted by high profile figures such as Bill Cosby. Unfortunately, even those who study literacy are often unaware of the strengths African American English speakers bring to reading and writing or of the existing research on the relationship between literacy learning and African American English, which we consider next.
Research on the relationship between literacy learning and African American English
Recognizing that literacy is dependent upon oral language development and language use (Lonigan, Burgess, & Anthony, 2000), the academic community continues to examine how literacy learning may be related to African American English. Labov (1969, 1972, 2001) has studied inner city children and African American English since the 1960s, concluding that teachers must become aware of the structural differences between the two linguistic systems and pay close attention to decoding errors that occur at the end of words as these errors can affect reading comprehension.
Piestrup (1973) found that linguistic mismatch between students and teachers was not as important as the way teachers handled the differences. She identified two groups of teachers: those who accommodated linguistic misunderstandings, through clarification and appreciation of word play, and those who interfered with learning by ignoring, correcting and/or confusing the children. Piestrup identified some of the teachers who accommodated linguistic misunder-standings as Black Artful teachers. These teachers assisted the children in hearing differences in words in both linguistic systems, involving them in engaging lessons and incorporating some African American English features into their pedagogy-animated communication, rhythmic language play, and playful, ritualized insults called "signifying" (Meier, 2008, p. 248). On assessments, students taught by Black Artful teachers earned the lowest mean dialect score and the highest mean reading score among the groups. In addition, these scores were substantially higher than the national norm (Piestrup, 1973, p. 163). Interestingly, Piestrup noted that not all Black Artful teachers are Black and not all Black teachers are Artful.
Some have hypothesized that learning how to code switch, or dialect shift (translating African American English into Mainstream English) will facilitate literacy acquisition (e.g., Connor & Craig, 2006; Craig & Washington, 2004; Kohler et al., 2007; Terry, 2006). Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin's (2004) research indicated that familiarity with African American English is correlated with reading achievement. Craig and Washington (2004) found that first grade African American speaking students able to dialect shift, or code switch, into Mainstream English outperformed their peers in both vocabulary and reading achievement, indicating that first grade is a critical time for children to learn how to dialect shift. Acknowledging that empirical data to investigate dialect shifting in African American students is in need of expansion, Craig and Washington (2004, p. 452) emphasized that this information could improve our overall understanding of how to work toward enhancing the cultural congruence between African American English speakers and their Mainstream English classrooms. Recently, conducting two experiments with young children, Edwards et al. (2014) examined the relationships between African American English, understanding of Mainstream English and awareness of differences between the two. These scholars found that children with greater expressive vocabularies had greater understandings of Mainstream English and dialectic differences, suggesting greater facility in learning how to dialect shift.
Also studying code switching, Craig, Hensel, Quinn, & Zhang (2009) reported results from a study of 165 first through fifth grade African American students. They found that reading scores were inversely related to African American English production rates and that use of African American English decreased significantly between oral and written narratives, supporting the hypothesis that students who are able to dialect shift into Mainstream English will achieve more literacy success than those who are not able to do so.
Several of the aforementioned studies have included recommended practices for scaffolding African American English speakers into Mainstream English. We now turn our attention to other intriguing strategies in the literature.
Recommended Practices for Teachers of African American English Speakers
Just as it is important to examine studies that suggest the correlation between decreased use of African American English and reading achievement, it is also essential to examine the recommendations noted in the literature so that teachers may cross cultural borders in teaching African American English speakers how to be proficient in Mainstream English.
Dyson (2006) indicated that the Mainstream English (or the language of wider communication as she prefers to call it) children speak in school might not be representative of their complete linguistic repertoire. Teachers must be sensitive in their assessment of linguistic capabilities of their students. Educators must also assist children who speak a non-dominant form of vernacular to develop communicative competence: "an unconscious knowledge of linguistic and social rules that enable them to use language appropriately in different social contexts" (Dyson, personal communications, Spring, 2006).
In order to assist students, teacher candidates and teachers need to learn about the linguistic and discursive features of African American English just as they must learn about the linguistic systems of second language learners. Noting the paucity of programs in the United States to assist American English users, Charity and Mallinson (2011) describe the system in its richness, offering educational implications and many strategies to address linguistic and discursive differences. For example, African American English speakers often use direct commands, where Euro American teachers often use indirect commands, such as "I love how Anne is sitting quietly" (p. 103). White teachers must become aware of these features so as not to confuse students. Also, conversational norms and storytelling differ in both systems. In topic-chaining or topic-associative discourse, African American English speakers often address more than one issue at a time and build upon each other's statements in a creative and circular manner. This discourse differs considerably from Euro American linear discourse (Gay, 2000). Heath (1983) and Lawson (1986) found that Black children may answer questions through description of an object as it relates to themselves or their experience (analogical responses) rather than providing 'the facts' Euro American teachers may expect in response to what, where, when, who, or why questions. In addition, African American children may bring the call and response style evident in Black worship services (the speaker's voice alternates with the audience's response) into the classroom. Knowledge of this style is useful for approaching the issue of "blurting out" in school.
Those who write about culturally relevant pedagogy indicate that teachers need to build upon the linguistic systems and literacy practices that students bring from home to facilitate the acquisition of Mainstream English and communicative competence (Ball & Lardner, 1997; Cazden, 2001; Delpit, 1998; Dyson, 2003, 2006; Genishi & Dyson, 2009; Smitherman, 2000). Foster (2001) and Piestrup (1973) advocate that teachers utilize active participation in African American English discourse styles. Use of rich discussion and storytelling in the classroom builds upon an important resource in African and African American culture. As students are encouraged to collaboratively tell stories, classroom practice can move towards collaboratively written stories. Integrating cultural resources into the classroom through books, music and artifacts is an important part of culturally relevant pedagogy in general.
Some research has demonstrated that children learn more effectively in the linguistic system with which they are most familiar, and then engage in a transfer into reading Mainstream English (Collier, 1997). Fogel & Ehri (2000) recommended that teachers explain how rules of English differ from rules of African American English, perhaps giving their students permission to initially write in African American English and then to transform their writing into Mainstream English. Siegal (1999) and Wheeler, Cartwright, and Swords (2012) described programs that encourage students to compare differences between their own language system and the standard, using the students' language system as a bridge toward learning the standardized variety, commonly called contrastive analysis. A number of scholars (Smitherman, 2000; Delpit, 2002; Wheeler, Cartwright, & Swords, 2012) recommend that teachers offer direct instruction in when to use each code, commonly known as code or dialect switching. Describing discourse with their grandchildren, Boutte and Johnson (2013) highlight the importance of teaching children to translate code from African American Language to Standard English as well as from Standard English to African American Language, thereby uplifting the linguistic system spoken in the home and culture to its important place. However, a person in the United States still needs to acquire Mainstream English. Boutte and Johnson (2013) call this process becoming bilingual or bidialectal, depending upon one's perception of African American English as a language or a dialect.
The early childhood classroom (preschool through Grade 2) offers a wonderful opportunity to learn about language through language play, if the classroom is not weighted down with mandated curricula and de-contextualized text. Boutte and Johnson (2013) offer wonderful ideas for classroom teachers such as using music and movement activities to incorporate traditional African American songs as well as music from other cultures. Children can bring in rhythmic, clapping games. Teachers can also incorporate books written in African American English. Children can experiment with different sounds and pronunciations present in Mainstream English and in their home language, becoming attentive to the way words feel with lips and tongue or sound to their ears. Even preschoolers can begin to contrast language sounds through fun phonemic awareness activities. These activities presume that the teacher has a working knowledge of African American English, appreciates the sophisticated abilities her African American English speakers bring to school, truly listens to what they say, is willing to play with language, and does not correct what she perceives to be errors.
Contrary to what often happens in classrooms, literature on linguistic education indicates that correction of African American English is the least effective strategy to use in teaching Mainstream English (Allington, 1980; Collins, 1996; Cazden, 2001). Furthermore, Dyson and Smitherman (2009) cautioned teachers against asking dialect users if a word sounds right when children read their writing to their teachers, as what may sound right to Mainstream English speaking teachers may not sound right to the African American English speakers.
As suggested by Dyson and Smitherman (2009), ignorance about the components of African American English can lead to errors and remarkable misunderstandings on the teacher's part. These authors proposed that writing proficiency would be increased if teachers understand exactly what it is that their dialect speakers are saying and writing. This can prevent misinterpreting oral or written text through mainstream eyes and ideology that is focused on fixing.
Our study took place in three first grade classrooms in a public school district where 83% students in the district, of the students are considered economically disadvantaged. Of the approximately 20,000 roughly 20% were White, 40% were Black, 30% were Hispanic, 1% were Asian/Pacific Islander, 1% were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 10 % were Multiracial.
The assessment specialist for the district, who also served as the Institutional Review Board, gave the first author, Susan, suggestions for schools with higher numbers of African American children to contact. Susan asked the principals in each of these schools in the district for permission to contact their Euro American first grade teachers. After permission was given, Susan contacted the teachers. Three middle class female teachers expressed interest in the study. These women self identified as good teachers of diverse learners. All had degrees in Elementary Education and advanced training in reading instruction. Each teacher will be described in the Findings section below.
The three teachers identified African American English speakers in their classroom and obtained parental consent on 44 African American children. Susan asked each child if s/he were willing to participate in the study and all were agreeable. The teachers and students were assigned pseudonyms.
The primary research interest of this study was to examine how Euro American teachers who are expected to be effective instructors of diverse learners facilitated the acquisition of Mainstream English with speakers of African American English. English. Research questions included:
- How familiar are the teachers with African American English and its rhetorical components as a linguistic system?
- How do the teachers respond when African American English speakers speak and write in African American English during the conferencing period of Writer's Workshop?
- How do the teachers describe the way they addressed the dialectal differences in the classroom as a whole?
- Do teachers explicitly teach about the need to acquire Mainstream English?
- Are specific strategies, such as code switching, taught to enable children to cross the borders between the non-dominant and dominant language forms?
- To what extent are the teachers able to identify the verbal repertoires, linguistic resources and literacy practices of the African American English speakers in their classrooms?
This study utilized a qualitative research design, including purposive sampling, multiple observations of classroom discourse, and an interview with each teacher. Offering a thick description of classroom experience, the study enabled exploration, description, and analysis of the natural sociolinguistic practices in a place where the language of the home and the language of the school met (Creswell, 2003). Guided by the research questions, data analysis employed constant comparison, which is a form of modified grounded theory methodology, for coding and analysis of the classroom observations and teacher interviews (Richards, 2005)..
Grounded theory methodology was originally an inductive research method developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967), whereby one can observe certain phenomena pertinent to a study and converse with people involved with the phenomena. Originally grounded theory was post-postivistic, i.e., there was thought to be a truth that the researchers would reveal. The researcher employing grounded theory methodology usually openly codes all data as it is collected, and writes memos about the process, the results, and/or the coding. Constant comparison embraces the coding forms of grounded theory but does not necessarily include theory building.
We chose to use constant comparison methodology that allowed us to code teacher responses to African American English utterances in the writers' conferences from the beginning of the observations. Then we open coded the teacher interviews. Thus, our coding process was both deductive and inductive. We were also reflective and attentive to our role in the research process; therefore, our results were recognized as co-constructed between researchers and participants, hallmarks of modified grounded theory methodology.
The first grade teachers in the school district were held accountable to use "writer's workshop" -- a literacy framework where students write as a meaningful part of the curriculum. In writer's workshop for first graders, after receiving a mini-lesson on writing as well as a writing prompt from the teacher, each student writes his/her own thoughts or a story. When students have finished writing/illustrating on their own, they confer with the teacher regarding the connection of their thoughts, the fluency in their writing, and the logical ordering of their stories. For example, in this study, the teacher may have said, "Read to me what you wrote." The student may have read, "I finna go to my grandma's house for my birfday." The teacher may have responded with "I am going to go to my grandma's house for my birth (th) day," helping the student rephrase the sound, word or sentence into Mainstream English.
The interchanges between African American English speaking students and teachers regarding the children's written texts were observed and audiotaped. Susan observed and recorded processes that centered not only on the grammar and function of both dialects but also on the pragmatics of each. She noted issues surrounding narrative style and topic-associative vs. topic-centered discourse (Gee, 1996). Susan carefully observed non-verbal behaviors (e.g., body language) and characteristics of speech delivery (e.g., intonations) that accompanied verbal expression and could be of interest. Thirty-six classroom observations were conducted. Each observation lasted approximately 1.50 hours. These observations were audiotaped, transcribed, and member-checked. After each observation, Susan also wrote memos on the strategies teachers used as well as the themes and issues that seemed to arise during the observed session.
Susan then conducted an extensive interview with each teacher regarding thoughts, struggles, and practices about children speaking African American English in school. Interview questions included: (1) How would you describe African American English? (2) What are your opinions/thoughts about children speaking African American English in the classroom? (3) What kind of language strengths do the African American children bring into your classroom? (4) What kind of literacy practices do the African American children bring to your classroom? (5) How do you build upon the language the child brings from home? (6) What kinds of issues do you struggle with around the use of African American English in the classroom? The interviews were audiotaped, transcribed, and member-checked. (Please see the Appendix for a complete list of the interview questions).
As noted above, this study employed constant comparison from modified grounded theory methodology. Constant comparison was guided by the research questions and utilized for coding and analysis of the classroom observations (LaRossa, 2005; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In this study, strategies that the teachers used informed the coding process; thus, it is best to describe the first coding process as deductive coding rather than as open coding.
In examining the transcriptions, we paid close attention to the utterances spoken and written in African American English by the children and the response(s) of the teacher to each utterance. We were mindful of whether or not the teacher addressed the dialectal differences, how the teacher addressed the dialectal differences, and whether or not the differences were used to teach Mainstream English. For example, did the teacher ignore the dialectal differences? Rephrase utterances? Correct students? Encourage students to listen to differences? Address differences in narrative style? Play with language?
In order to begin to break down, investigate, conceptualize, compare, and categorize data, we developed a strategy table for each teacher as well as a codebook for the study. Working with one set of classroom data at a time, we searched for each utterance in African American English and its teacher response. We entered each utterance and response into the strategy table and developed representative codes. For example, for the student utterance, "I's just doin' de back," and the teacher response, "O.K., let's see," we developed the following codes:
Itb: teacher ignores the "to be" form
IOfinC: teacher ignores omitted final consonant
IthR: teacher ignores "th" replacement
SW: teacher scaffolds writing
In addition, because of their high frequency in the recordings, we also entered non-standard teacher responses to mainstream student utterances into the strategy table; for example, "We were goin' to the store." We then engaged in axial coding where connections were made between categories, integrating the data together. Although this was a qualitative study, its very nature lent itself to some simple numerical analysis, as the next step in classroom observation analysis was to calculate the totals of each teacher's responses within the axial codes. This process enabled us to see which categories of responses were most prevalent for each teacher and to compare their styles of response.
We then utilized selective coding to begin analysis on the teacher interviews. We identified several pertinent themes and subthemes in the research and coded the interviews using these themes: (a) ideologies around language and literacy practices (which will be explored in another article); (b) understanding of African American English; and (c) pedagogy with African American English speakers. Naturally, relationships between categories, both within and across cases and across the classroom observation data, became evident, yielding a more accurate picture of the dynamics that played into the linguistic systems. Each of the teachers had distinctive belief systems, knowledge bases, and experiences with language and literacy practice with their African American English speakers.
The term "trustworthiness" refers to both reliability and validity in qualitative research (Gall, Gall, & Borg; 2003; Marshall & Rossman, 2006). The concept of researcher as "detective" (Johnson, 1997, p. 286) was particularly useful in thinking about this research. The qualitative researcher establishes validity by carefully looking for causes and effects, systematically rejecting those that do not fit the research problem. Using the term more broadly, we watched for opportunities taken and opportunities missed to build upon the home language. Furthermore, we contemplated how and why both students and teachers expressed themselves the way they did. Patterns were identified within and across cases.
For the purpose of this project, the extent of the fieldwork and its documentation was one step toward ensuring trustworthiness. The first author, Susan, completed thirty-six classroom observations; confident that an adequate sampling of the ways each teacher worked to address dialect differences in the writer's workshop conferences with African American English speakers was obtained. She incorporated triangulation (Gall, Gall & Borg, 2003; Richards, 2005) through close observation of the three classrooms as well as through semi-structured interviews with each teacher that addressed not only the observed strategies but also teacher beliefs and ideologies about first grade African American English speakers. Susan audio recorded the observations as well as the interviews, writing theoretical memos after reflection on each observation and interview. Both authors, Marsha and Susan, reviewed the audiotapes and the transcripts. In addition, we used member checking; each teacher confirmed the validity of the transcriptions. We used peer de-briefing and key informants, consulting with trusted colleagues during the entire process. We kept an audit trail (Richards, 2005) from the inception of this project. In addition, writing memos enabled us to attain some distance from the data, fostering metacognition about it.
In our documentation and analysis, it was imperative to remain very close to the verbatim text (spoken and written words of those in the sample); this text provided a thick description of the language-in-use between students and teachers. The thick description facilitated external validity, often seen as a weakness in qualitative research (Marshall & Crossman, 2006).
This particular study focused upon Euro American teachers with African American English speakers. Our intention was not to exclude voices. In the future, we plan to study teachers of other races, ethnicities, and cultures who may contribute important information to our understanding of how Mainstream English learning is acquired.
Although the study design was not a case-study design, each teacher's pedagogy and interview were remarkably distinct. As a result, the findings will be shared by case.
Maiah taught first grade at Douglas Elementary School which was a Reading First School. It served Pre-K through Grade 8 students. Approximately 80% of its students were African American; 8% were Hispanic, 7% were Multiracial, 5% were White, and 1% were American Indian. 96% of the students were eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. Maiah had a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education and an early childhood endorsement. She had also attained a master's degree in teaching and curriculum. Serving in all high-need schools, Maiah had taught in the district for ten years. Although the district website stated that the student teacher ratio at Douglas is 14:1, there were 27 first graders in Maiah's classroom. Some of the children there had never been to preschool or kindergarten; first grade was their first formal educational experience. After Maiah agreed to be part of the study, we procured consent on 21 of her African American English speakers.
Maiah seemed to have a serious teacher presence. Her voice remained even-toned; she raised the volume of her voice only when she spoke to the group at large in order to ask them to become re-engaged with their work or to work in silence. Although Maiah had worked with African American English speakers for years, she said that she did not know much about African American English. She reported that although she had attended many inservice trainings on literacy the past few years, she had not encountered any training on cultural competency or African American English. Describing the dialect, Maiah stated, "If I could use just one word to describe it, it would be 'choppy' or 'unclear.' And that's very general. I don't want to say everybody is unclear, but…it's almost mumbled with some of the kids' talk." When asked for an example of what she meant by "choppy," she answered, "Not talking in complete sentences. Leaving off 'He done this,' or 'He doin' that'. . . not talking clearly." Similarly, she was unaware of call and response as a communicative strategy, although during the interview, she realized that her students built upon each other's stories. When asked about the tendency to switch between "t," "d" and "th" as beginning sounds in words, Maiah stated that it was difficult to know whether that tendency was indicative of age or culture.
Maiah was respectful in "not calling students out on their errors in front of others." Her primary mode of response was to ignore African American English utterances, which she did 71 times. She also rephrased utterances, focusing on the last consonant 25 times. Sometimes she said, "That sounds funny" or "Does that sound right?" No instances of African American English rhetorical style and little expression or enthusiasm were heard in her voice, except when she asked her students to be quiet, which was often. She used a variety of nonstandard responses, such as Gonna, gotta and whatya?
Maiah believed that it was important to address language issues in literacy learning, alluding to her belief that children's use of the non-standard dialect needs to be changed early. She stated that she primarily focused upon what she views as "correction" of pronouns, verb tenses, and African American English phrases, although she did not utilize correction as we had defined it ("the term for when a teacher informs a student that his/her utterance is incorrect and offers a word/phrase as a replacement"). It did not appear that Maiah explicitly taught about the need to acquire Mainstream English. Nor did she teach specific strategies such as code switching to enable children to cross cultural borders. Maiah did not believe that her first graders were able to learn code switching through teacher scaffolding or on their own.
When asked if she struggled with issues relative to the use of African American English in the classroom, Maiah stated that the biggest struggle she faced was in writing, because "they write what they say and we have to correct them." When asked about the language strengths the African American children brought in to her classroom, Maiah replied: "I don't know what strengths they bring. They haven't been exposed to that much…well, sometimes they've been exposed to inappropriate language." Then, softening her previous statement, she went on to say that some children were able to communicate clearly and that "a lot of them just need help finding that big word or the other meaning to a word." In terms of building upon the home language, Maiah stated that if the language is appropriate, she built upon and reinforced it. When asked about literacy practices the children brought into the classroom, Maiah said she believed that most of the students' literacy came from looking at books or watching television and not necessarily from being read to at home.
Lauren taught first grade at Highland School of Arts. Highland's website stated that it offered its students not only a strong academic foundation but also classes in art, music, dance, and drama. More diverse than the other two schools in this study, Highland's school population hosted approximately 40% African American, 25 % White, 20% Multiracial, 10% Hispanic, and <1% Asian/Pacific Highlander students. 87% of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Lauren immediately agreed to be part of the study. Each of the eight African American English speakers in Lauren's classroom agreed to be part of the study after their parents gave consent to the participation.
From the beginning, it appeared that Lauren was a decisive, no-nonsense person. This perception was confirmed throughout the data collection process. Lauren was enthusiastic as she taught; her voice was filled with expression and voice modulation. She had an excellent sense of humor, which she demonstrated on occasion for the children, but much more during her interview.
When asked how much she knew about African American English, Lauren indicated that she did not know much about it and had never really given it any thought. She concurred with Maiah that she had not been offered any training in cultural competency or African American English. She thought of the children in her classroom as first graders who spoke like first graders. Lauren said that after she had been invited to join the study, she looked into African American English and then could understand why the children in her classroom were dropping the final endings of their words so often. She was not aware of the call and response rhetorical style, believing that all children "blurt out." Similarly, Lauren asserted that all her students told stories the same way, interrupting each other and confusing pronouns. She taught lessons on staying on topics, so she reported that she did not experience topic-associative discourse.
Similar to Maiah, Lauren did not utilize correction as we had defined it during the writing workshop. She ignored African American English utterances 100 times. She rephrased African American English utterances 28 times and focused upon omission of the final consonant six times. Lauren's teaching incorporated some rhetorical elements important to the African American communicative style. She used rich vocabulary, enthusiasm, expression and highly engaging stories. Lauren also used non-standard responses, dropping the final consonants of her own words 38 times. She expressed embarrassment about this feature after she reviewed her transcripts.
Lauren's response to the question about how she addressed dialectal differences in the classroom reflected her understanding of code switching. Lauren said, "There is a time and a place where it's O.K. to speak this way and there's a time and place where it's not O.K. And that's something we have to teach…" Lauren was asked if she ever discussed how the way we speak is often very different than the way we need to write. She said she had just recently taught how "when we talk quickly, we often omit the final consonant." Describing the daily oral language exercises the teachers were required to do, Lauren described how, in the language arts curriculum, poorly constructed sentences were posted in the classroom and that the children corrected the sentences together. Sometimes Lauren wrote these sentences in a way that represented African American English. In her estimation, this was an explicit way of saying that "This isn't the way you would write that or say that." She then described re-phrasing as an implicit way of addressing nonstandard issues. When asked if she heard her students code switching, Lauren said she had only noticed code switching between two boys who were cousins. Lauren indicated that she did not struggle with any issues around the use of African American English in the classroom.
Lauren mentioned that teachers usually notice weaknesses in students prior to strengths as some children "do not have vocabulary or oral language." Referencing the famous Hart & Risely (1995) study whose findings suggested that well-resourced children come to school with 30 million more words in their experience than those in a low socioeconomic status, Lauren stated that she prepares for this phenomenon and builds oral language in the classroom. Lauren reiterated that her students spoke like first graders, so she begins with language development and vocabulary and goes on from there. "I try to model appropriate language, standard English language, what you would call it." When asked about student exposure to print and any other experiences with letters or lists in the home, Lauren said that it depended on the family – some have an abundance of books and some have no books, magazines, or newspapers.
Sheri taught at Brentwood Park School, near some of the suburbs. Most of the children who attended Brentwood were bused in from the core city. Approximately 70 % of the children were African American, almost 15 % were Multiracial, nearly 10% were White, <1% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and < 1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native. In Sheri's classroom, 15 African American English speakers participated in our study.
Sheri was certified as an ESL teacher, having recently completed her master's degree in reading. She was entertaining the idea of attaining a Ph. D. in the future. The discussion with Sheri revealed immediately that she understood language and literacy issues and their implications with dialect and second language speakers, even more so because she was married to a man from Mexico. Both English and Spanish are spoken in her home. Sheri warmly agreed to this study in her classroom.
Sheri's knowledge of English as a second language teacher was considerable. She viewed African American English as a "more free flowing form of English with definitive rules, some of which I recognize and some of which I don't." Sheri was aware of the call and response rhetorical pattern, but said she struggled with its use in the classroom and saw Euro American children calling out or, blurting, responses, too. Although she realized that her African American English speakers came from an oral culture with communal storytelling and that they built upon each other's stories, she knew she needed to teach her students to write their own stories. In terms of African American English speakers answering questions in a way that was different from their Euro American peers, Sheri said that usually they didn't, although, "Sometimes it's more tangential than I would expect. They want to be able to expound on things." She believed that storytelling and self-expression are part of African American culture and that children have a right to use their voices in the classroom. Sheri did not seem aware of topic-associative conversation patterns.
Like Maiah and Lauren, Sheri did not use correction during the writing workshops that were observed. She encouraged her students to stretch out sounds. She focused on teaching specific elements of Mainstream English, including subject/verb agreement 33 times. In addition, Sheri rephrased African American English utterances 13 times and ignored them 13 times. (We believe that some frequencies were lower for Sheri due to over talk on the recordings). Calling upon African American rhetorical strategies, Sheri utilized voice modulation, expression and volume, enthusiasm, and rich vocabulary. She also included some African American English words and expressions, word play, and vivid story telling that seemed to call for a response. Sheri used a variety of non-standard responses 71 times.
Sheri believed that teachers must honor the resources with which children come to school. When asked what kind of language strengths she believed African American students brought to her classroom, Sheri immediately replied,
More diverse story telling ability . . . African American kids are very similar to Hispanic children. They have a really rich and descriptive means of oral languaging…Everybody joins in to help each other fill in the words and help each other as if they were there... Yup…so I think that's a definite strength and one that we don't monopolize on enough.Sheri believed that she needed to "validate and accept what children come [to school] with," and thus, part of that validation meant that students should be able to express themselves through oral storytelling. It also meant that Euro American teachers should tell stories that build upon the children's home and cultural experiences. For example, Sheri told the children the story of her baby brother's birth because one student was very excited over the impending birth of a sibling and because several African American parents had told her that their children attended the birth of a sibling.
In terms of building upon the language that the child brought from home, Sheri looked at African American English as another dialect and did not do anything different for these students than she did for other English language learners in her classroom. Posing that the teacher's job is to "fill in the gaps," Sheri asserted that when their vocabulary is insufficient, students need to be steeped in language experiences in school.
When asked about the literacy practices the children brought to school, Sheri replied: "Well, I don't think that is related to race. I think it is much more related to socioeconomic status." Stating that: "Many students of lower socioeconomic status have never held a book prior to coming to school," Sheri asserted that students who have been highly stimulated are very different from those who aren't and that this difference "generally translates into reading success, writing success. It's not about color."
In this study, three teachers worked diligently to encourage language and literacy learning for students in the classroom despite the absence of in-service training on African American English. Although each teacher had worked with low-income African American students for years and was in agreement that her African American English students needed to acquire Mainstream English, two of the teachers were largely unaware of dialectal features and building upon the linguistic resources students brought from home. If teachers are not aware of the features of African American English, they are missing a rich opportunity to learn and play with language.
In terms of creating a grounded theory from our findings, our original expectation was to discover sociolinguistic negotiations in the classroom. Instead we learned that two teachers in our study navigated their course of language/literacy learning without being aware they were in uncharted waters. Although our findings were primarily descriptive, we offer this preliminary theory from our findings; teachers who are not aware of the strengths and potential of linguistic resources are insufficiently equipped to negotiate language and literacy learning. Instead they are navigating linguistic waters without essential knowledge of their depth.
While the focus of this study was on the dialogic process between the teachers and students, the first graders were overheard speaking with one another in African American English. The communication sounded elaborate –accelerated, rhythmic, and complex. When the students spoke during the writing conferences, less African American English was noted than we expected based upon what we had learned from our literature review. It appeared that the first graders were engaged in a code-switching process. Craig and Washington (2004) found that young students able to dialect shift outperformed their peers in both vocabulary and reading achievement, noting that first grade is a critical time for children to learn how to dialect shift (p. 460). This casual observation may support the assertions of Goodwin (1990), Dyson (2003, 2009), Heath (1993), and Labov (1972) that African American speakers, including those from lower-income families, come to school with sophisticated linguistic abilities. As reported earlier, Dyson (2006) asserted that teachers should not assume that they hear a child's complete linguistic repertoire in the classroom. It is difficult to support communicative competence in young children if one is unaware of or unable to elicit the full magnitude of students' verbal repertoires. In language and literacy practice, the goal is to scaffold children into communicative competence so that they, too, can participate in the world of dominant discourses.
Sheri, the teacher with an English as a second language background, was aware of many features of African American English as well as the strategies needed for scaffolding her students into Mainstream English. Because of the school district's mandates around literacy learning, Sheri was not able to negotiate linguistic differences as much as she would have liked to. Still, Sheri most closely fit Piestrup's (1973) concept of the Black Artful Teacher, assisting her students in hearing differences in words in both linguistic systems, involving them in engaging lessons, and incorporating some African American English features into her pedagogy. Sheri also called upon home and cultural experiences when she told stories to support writing. She was aware of the connectedness in the culture of the African American children and how that connectedness is integrated into thinking, enabling them to create imaginative stories. Piestrup's (1973) descriptions of the Black Artful teacher may be considerably useful for all teachers seeking to improve their practice with African American English speakers.
The three teachers in our study were in agreement that even though the district gave many directives for content and pedagogy, the literacy framework mandated by the district was a useful one for their students. They reported that the range of literacy scores in each classroom met their expectations for an urban school. A strong emphasis on phonics and a balanced literacy curriculum are advantageous for African American English speakers; yet, these elements are insufficient for working with diverse populations. Sheri had a vague awareness of critical literacies where the premise is that literacy entails not only the mechanical skills and processes of reading and writing but also validates the languages and literacies from the homes and cultures that the children bring to school. This more culturally relevant view of literacy as a social practice of a people as well as a social practice of a classroom would be advantageous for both teachers and students to learn. The resources of the students could be honored as they transition into Mainstream English reading and writing. The teachers would be called to equity in their praxis and could embrace a pedagogy of sociolinguistic negotiation. (Godley, A. J., Sweetland, J., Wheeler, R.S., Minnici, A., Carpenter, B.D., 2006.)
Boutte (2007) and Holli (2001) wrote that little information about African American English has infiltrated instruction in district classrooms. If school districts put as much time and energy into cross-cultural and critical literacy competencies as they do on trying out new literacy curricula, implementing accountability measures, and engaging in rhetoric about the achievement gap, perhaps greater equity in literacy learning could be realized. School districts are paying considerable attention to pedagogy for English language learners through professional development. Some of this focus must be shifted to African American English and other non-dominant dialects. As suggested in Sheri's practice, English language learning strategies are beneficial for African American English speakers.
In the same way, the academy must join these efforts (Boutte, 2007). Teacher preparation institutions should include sociolinguistic courses and incorporate critical literacies into student programs. Local university and college professors can partner with school districts in order to learn about the beauty and richness of African American discourse and how best to work with its speakers.
Solely focusing on problems in dialect speakers and their families rather than also considering pedagogical strategies and the systems within which the speakers reside is a near-sighted perspective with the potential for long-range deleterious effects. Unfortunately, such a stance is all too common in dominant culture thinking; it stands in direct contrast to the praxis of educators who embrace social justice and bring culture into the classroom in order to inform practice.
Educational systems need to work together to advocate for sound pedagogy with our young language and literacy learners who have little voice in our schools. Scholars recommend that teachers will become more respectful and effective through the gaining of knowledge about African American English, strategies for scaffolding its speakers into Mainstream English, and critical literacies (Labov, 1972; Perry & Delpit, 1998; Smitherman, 2000). Yet we should be careful to assume knowledge will transform practice. Meier (2008) emphasizes that although teachers must gain knowledge about African American culture and African American English, we also need to reflect on our own practice as well as the political and sociohistorical perspectives that profoundly influence it. Clearly, we can choose to become involved in a generative process of transformation.
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