ERIC Identifier: ED289364
Publication Date: 1987-12-00
Author: Christian, Donna
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
Vernacular Dialects in U.S. Schools. ERIC Digest.
Children from different backgrounds come to school speaking a wide variety of
dialects. Should our schools try to produce students who use a standard dialect?
If so, how? If not, how should different dialects be handled in the school
setting? What impact does speaking a non-school dialect have? These complex and
controversial questions have been debated through the years, but they have
become increasingly prominent in the last two decades. The close relationship
between minority and dialect groups makes civil rights an issue along with
One central issue in this controversy concerns the requirement of a standard
dialect in schools. Some people consider this requirement to be discriminatory,
since it places an extra burden on certain students and may deny them the same
educational opportunity that others receive. An insistence on standard English
forms may hinder the acquisition of other educational skills and make it more
difficult for some students to succeed in school.
Others argue that it is a responsibility of the education system to teach a
standard dialect to broaden students' base of opportunity. 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, then, may be related to mastery of standard
EDUCATIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF DIALECT DIFFERENCES
Dialect differences can affect the quality of education received by some
students in at least two ways. One possibility is that 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, Michigan in 1979, a group
of black 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 and Bond, 1983; Farr Whiteman, 1980).
Specifically, they maintained that the schools were failing to teach their
children to read because they did not take into account the language differences
represented by their children's vernacular dialect. The parents won their
lawsuit, and the schools were ordered to provide special staff training related
to dialects and the teaching of reading. Some educators have also claimed that
speaking certain dialects can interfere with learning in other areas, such as
mathematics and science (Orr, 1987).
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 (Williams, 1976). 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 the so-called slower groups, or even placed in special
classes for the mentally handicapped because of their vernacular speech
patterns. In the process, the negative opinions may do damage to the student's
DIFFERENCE VS. DEFICIT
Negative attitudes about speech start with the belief that vernacular
dialects are linguistically inferior to standard versions of the language. Two
viewpoints on dialects have emerged, often identified as the deficit and
difference positions. The first position maintains that speakers of vernacular
dialects have a handicap because of the language system they have acquired--they
have a cognitive or language deficit. According to the difference position, the
language systems of various groups of speakers may differ, but no one system is
inherently better than any other. Research evidence that has been collected
clearly supports the difference position, pointing to the conclusion that
variation in language is a natural reflection of cultural and community
differences (Labov, 1972; Philips, 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. The uses of language, both oral and
written, are centrally involved (Farr and Daniels, 1986) in this "new" culture.
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. Language forms, such as
the use of double negatives, as in "They don't have none," as well as patterns
of usage, such as rules governing when and how to make requests or how to take a
turn in a conversation, are among the many aspects of behavior that children may
have to adapt to in order to move closer to school expectations.
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, whether or not
the choice is made to teach standard English. Educational priorities should also
be carefully considered. Studies of attitudes have shown that use of vernacular
grammatical forms is much more negatively viewed than use of distinct
pronunciation features. Given this observation, a school might decide that
grammatical usage, not pronunciation, should be the focus of oral language
instruction. Alternatively, the focus might be set on writing rather than oral
language, since the ability to speak a standard variety may not be as crucial
for later success as the ability to use standard forms in writing.
If the decision is made to teach standard English at any level, certain
general guidelines should be followed (Wolfram and Christian, in press).
--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 are less likely to do so. The
utility of standard English must be clear to the learner in terms that are
meaningful to an appropriate reference group.
--The goals of teaching standard English should be clearly recognized in the
instructional program. If the goal is to add a standard variety, for example,
teaching might include contexts where the vernacular is more appropriate, giving
students the chance to switch between the two. If the goal is to work toward
standard forms in writing, but not necessarily in pronunciation, strategies and
materials would reflect this decision.
--The teaching of standard English should be coupled with information on the
nature of dialect diversity. By giving students information about various
dialects, including thir own, teachers can demonstrate the integrity of the
native varieties as language systems. This approach clarifies the relationship
between standard and vernacular varieties, underscoring the social basis for
evaluation, and strengthens the pragmatic rationale for adding a standard
--The teaching of standard English should be based on an understanding of the
systematic differences between the standard and vernacular forms. Both materials
and instructional strategies benefit from this information, so that broadly
relevant features such as negation are given more prominence than more
--The dialect of spoken standard English that is taught should be realistic
in terms of the language norms of the community. The goal of instruction should
be 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 forms. Speaking a standard variety includes the use of
particular conversational styles as well as particular language forms. In other
words, using a standard language variety in a business telephone conversation is
not merely a function of using only standard grammatical and pronunciation
features. It also means that a speaker knows 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. This discussion can only scratch the
DIALECT DIVERSITY: OPPORTUNITY, NOT LIABILITY
Some educators are encouraging active dialect study in the curriculum,
including vernacular and standard varieties. This study can benefit students
from all linguistic backgrounds.
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 (where do they say "soda" vs. "pop"? "bag" vs.
"sack" vs. "poke"?) can be both fun and instructive. When treated more
comprehensively, dialects 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 as well as
gather samples from other residents in the area. Such investigations can have
the added advantages of enhancing self-awareness and the understanding of
cultural diversity. Further, sending students into the community can contribute
to the preservation of cultural and oral traditions of the region.
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 study.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chambers, J., and J. Bond (eds.). BLACK ENGLISH: EDUCATIONAL EQUITY AND THE
LAW. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma Press, 1983.
Farr, M., and H. Daniels. LANGUAGE DIVERSITY AND WRITING INSTRUCTION. Urbana,
IL: ERIC/Institute for Urban and Minority/National Council of Teachers of
Farr Whiteman, M. (ed.). REACTIONS TO ANN ARBOR: VERNACULAR BLACK ENGLISH AND
EDUCATION. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1980. ED 197 624.
Heath, S.B. WAYS WITH WORDS: LANGUAGE, LIFE AND WORK IN COMMUNITIES AND
CLASSROOMS. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Labov, W. "The Logic of Nonstandard English." In W. Labov (ed.), LANGUAGE IN
THE INNER CITY: STUDIES IN THE BLACK ENGLISH VERNACULAR. Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972. ED 082 196.
Orr, E.W. TWICE AS LESS: BLACK ENGLISH AND THE PERFORMANCE OF BLACK STUDENTS
IN MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987.
Philips, S.U. "Participant Structures and Communicative Competence: Warm
Springs Children in Community and Classroom." In Cazden, C., V.P. John, and D.
Hymes (eds.), FUNCTIONS OF LANGUAGE IN THE CLASSROOM. New York: Teachers College
Williams, F. EXPLORATIONS OF THE LINGUISTIC ATTITUDES OF TEACHERS. Rowley,
MA: Newbury House Publishers, 1976. ED 146 797.
Wolfram, W., and D. Christian. DIALECTS AND EDUCATION: ISSUES AND ANSWERS.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall/Regents (in press).