ERIC Identifier: ED406846
Publication Date: 1997-05-00
Author: Christian, Donna
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Vernacular Dialects in U.S. Schools. ERIC Digest.
THE DIALECT ISSUE - Children from different backgrounds come to school speaking
awide variety of dialects. Should our schools try to teach allstudents to use a
standard dialect? If so, how? If not, howshould different dialects be handled in
the school setting?What impact does speaking a non-school dialect have
onstudents' academic success and on their interactions withothers in and out of
school? These complex and controversialquestions have been debated through the
years, but they havebecome increasingly prominent in the last three decades.
Inparticular, the controversy aroused by the December 1996announcement of the
Oakland (CA) School board about its policyon the instruction of African American
vernacular dialectspeakers underscores the fact that these issues have not
One central issue in this controversy is whether mastery and use of a
standard dialect should be required in schools. Some people consider such a
requirement to be discriminatory, because it places an extra burden on certain
students. Others argue that it is a responsibility of the education system to
teach a standard dialect to broaden students' skills and opportunities. For
instance, students who do not develop facility with standard English may find
that their employment or educational potential is restricted. A student's
chances for success in school and in later life may be related to mastery of
CONSEQUENCES OF DIALECT DIFFERENCES
Dialect differences can
affect the quality of education received by some students both academically and
socially (Labov, 1995). A child's dialect may interfere with the acquisition of
information and with various educational skills such as reading. In a court case
in Ann Arbor (MI) in 1979, a group of African-American parents sued the local
school system on behalf of their children, claiming that students were being
denied equal educational opportunity because of their language background
(Chambers & Bond, 1983; Farr Whiteman, 1980). Specifically, the parents
maintained that the schools were failing to teach their children to read because
the language differences represented by their children's vernacular dialect were
not taken into account. The parents won their lawsuit, and the schools were
ordered to provide special staff training related to dialects and the teaching
The social consequences of belonging to a different dialect group may be more
subtle, but are just as important. The attitudes of teachers, school personnel,
and other students can have a tremendous impact on the education process. Often,
people who hear a vernacular dialect make erroneous assumptions about the
speaker's intelligence, motivation, and even morality. Studies have shown that
there can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in teachers' beliefs about their
students' abilities (Cazden, 1988). If an educator underestimates a student's
ability because of dialect differences, the student will do less well in school,
perhaps as a direct result of the negative expectations. In some cases, students
are "tracked" with lower achievers or even placed in special education classes
because of their vernacular speech patterns.
DIFFERENCE VS. DEFICIT
Negative attitudes about speech
start with the belief that vernacular dialects are linguistically inferior to
standard versions of the language. In fact, the language systems of various
groups of speakers may differ, but no one system is inherently better than any
other. Research clearly supports the position that variation in language is a
natural reflection of cultural and community differences (Labov, 1972).
Despite linguistic equality among dialects, students' language and cultural
backgrounds may influence their chances for success. When children from
nonmainstream backgrounds enter school, they are confronted with new ways of
viewing the world and new ways of behaving. Uses of language, both oral and
written, are centrally involved in this new culture (Farr & Daniels, 1986).
Heath's (1983) detailed account of language and culture patterns in two rural
working class communities demonstrates clearly the conflict between language and
cultural practices in the community and in the school. To move toward school
expectations, children may have to adapt to language structures and patterns of
usage that are different from those they have been using: for example, saying
"They don't have any" instead of "They don't have none" in school settings, or
learning rules governing when and how to make requests.
GUIDELINES FOR TEACHING A STANDARD DIALECT
The fact that
language differences do not represent linguistic and cognitive deficiencies is
an important premise for any education program. Given the advantages that may be
associated with the ability to use standard English in appropriate situations,
most schools include it as a goal of instruction for all students. Some general
guidelines should be followed in teaching standard English at any level (Wolfram & Christian, 1989).
* The teaching of standard English must take into
account the importance of the group reference factor. Speakers who want to
participate in a particular social group will typically learn the language of
that group, whereas those with no group reference or with antagonistic feelings
toward the group are less likely to do so.
Instruction in standard English should be coupled with information about the
nature of dialect diversity. By giving students information about various
dialects, including their own, teachers can demonstrate the integrity of all
dialects. This approach clarifies the relationship between standard and
vernacular dialects, underscoring the social values associated with each and the
practical reasons for learning the standard dialect.
Teachers and materials developers need a clear understanding of the systematic
differences between standard and vernacular dialects in order to help students
learn standard English.
The dialect of spoken standard English that is taught should reflect the
language norms of the community. The goal of instruction should be to learn the
standard variety of the local community, not some formal dialect of English that
is not actually used in the area. Regional standards are particularly relevant
in the case of pronunciation features.
Language instruction should include norms of language use, along with standard
English structures. Speaking a standard dialect includes the use of particular
conversational styles as well as particular language forms. For example, using
standard English in a business telephone conversation does not involve simply
using standard grammar and pronunciation. It also involves other conventions,
such as asking the caller to "hold" if an interruption is called for, or
performing certain closing routines before hanging up.
The teaching of standard English requires careful thought, ranging from
underlying educational philosophy to particular teaching strategies, if it is to
be carried out effectively and equitably.
DIALECT DIVERSITY, NOT LIABILITY
The active study of
dialects can benefit students from all linguistic backgrounds by helping them
gain a better understanding of how language works (Adger, 1997; Wolfram,
Christian, & Adger, in press). At one level, dialect differences may be
treated as an interesting topic within language arts study. For example, a unit
on vocabulary differences from different parts of the country can be both fun
and instructive. (Where do they say "soda" vs. "pop"? Or "bag" vs. "sack" vs.
"poke"?) When treated more comprehensively, dialect study can provide the
opportunity for students to do empirical research and to develop critical
thinking skills: observation, comparison, argumentation. Every school has nearby
communities that are linguistically interesting, both in themselves and in how
they compare with other communities. Students can examine their own speech
patterns and gather language samples from other residents in the area. Such
investigations can have the added advantages of enhancing self- awareness and
the understanding of cultural diversity (Erickson, 1997). Further, sending
students into the community can contribute to preservation of the cultural and
oral traditions of the region. The exploration of varieties of English can also
help students gain insight into differences between spoken and written language,
as well as variations related to formality, genre, and special registers. The
concept of using dialect diversity and the cultural diversity that accompanies
it as a resource in the curriculum presents a viewpoint that is very different
from many traditional approaches. Instead of seeing differences as barriers to
be overcome, the differences provide fascinating topics for scientific study.
Adger, C. (1997, March). Dialect education: Not
only for Oakland. "ERIC/CLL News Bulletin, 20," 1,4-5. Washington, DC: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
Cazden, C. (1988). "Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and
learning." Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Chambers, J., & Bond, J. (Eds.). (1983). "Black English: Educational
equity and the law." Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma.
Erickson, F. (1997). Culture in society and in educational practices. In J.A.
Banks & C.A. McGee Banks (Eds.), "Multicultural education: Issues and
perspectives" (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Farr, M., & Daniels, H. (1986). "Language diversity and writing
instruction." Urbana, IL: ERIC/Institute for Urban and Minority
Education/National Council of Teachers of English.
Farr Whiteman, M. (Ed.). (1980). "Reactions to Ann Arbor: Vernacular Black
English and education." Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. (ED 197
Heath, S.B. (1983). "Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities
and classrooms." Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Labov, W. (1972). The logic of nonstandard English. In Labov, W. (Ed.),
"Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular."
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. (ED 082 196)
Labov, W. (1995). Can reading failure be reversed: A linguistic approach. In
V. Gadsden & D. Wagner (Eds.), "Literacy among African-American youth:
Issues in learning, teaching, and schooling." Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (1989). "Dialects and education: Issues and
answers." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall/Regents.
Wolfram, W., Christian, D., & Adger, C. (in press). "Dialects in schools
and communities." Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.