[stormingheaven] ebonics?

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Sat Aug 21 20:18:59 PDT 1999

Gordon wrote:
>> Wojtek doesn't care about Ebonics one way or another, nor is he interested
>> in the facts of the case. He's simply using this topic in order to indulge
>> himself in an illusion that the weakness of the American Left are caused by
>> 'campus radicals,' 'identity politics,' 'symbolic politics,' 'white liberal
>> guilt,' or what have you. It's a form of therapy or entertainment for him.
>If anyone is actually interested in the subject, William
>Labov's work may prove amusing.

Thanks for sending us the relevant URLs. The same thanks goes to Curtiss as well. I read Labov's and Rickford's papers with interest.

John R. Rickford explains three different approaches to teaching English:

***** 1. The linguistically informed approach. The first is what I call the "linguistically informed' approach. This encompasses the specific suggestions made by Labov (1995) based on decades of research on Ebonics or African American Vernacular English. One of these is that teachers should "distinguish between mistakes in reading and differences in pronunciation"; so the kid who reads "I missed him" as "I miss him" should not automatically be assumed to have misread, in the sense of not being able to decode the letters. On the contrary, he may have decoded the meaning of this Standard English sentence correctly, but he may then have reproduced its meaning according to the pronunciation patterns of his dialect, in which a consonant cluster like [st]--the final sounds in "missed"--is often simplified to [s]. Labov (ibid.) also suggests giving more attention to the ends of words, where Ebonics pronunciation patterns have a greater modifying effect on Standard English words than they do at the beginnings of words. He also suggests that words be presented in contexts that preserve underlying forms, for instance, words that are followed by a vowel which favors retention of final consonants--testing or test of--rather than test in isolation. He also suggests using the full forms of auxiliary verbs (e.g. "He will be here," He is tall") and avoiding contractions (e.g. "He'll be here," "He's tall"), because of evidence that once you go through a contraction stage, Ebonics is much more likely to proceed to deletion ("He Ø be here," "He Ø tall"). These are sound ideas that should not be terribly controversial, but how much of an impact they will make on reading instruction for African American kids is not yet clear, since no one has systematically implemented them or assessed their effects.

2. Contrastive Analysis. The second approach is to do some form of Contrastive Analysis where you draw students' attention specifically to the differences between the vernacular and the standard language. One of the best examples of this was some work that was done by Hanni Taylor (1989). She's at Aurora University, just outside Chicago, and she was faced with a number of students from inner city Chicago who used a lot of Ebonics features in their standard English writing. She divided her students into two groups. With the control group, she used conventional techniques of teaching English and made no reference to the vernacular . But with the other, experimental group, she used Contrastive Analysis, specifically drawing their attention to the points on which Ebonics and Standard English were different. What she found after eleven weeks was that the kids who were using traditional techniques showed an 8.5 percent increase in their use of Ebonics speech in their writing while the kids who had benefited from Contrastive Analysis showed a 59 percent decrease in their use of Ebonics features in their writing. This is a very dramatic demonstration of the fact that even if we agree with the pundits across the country that you want kids to increase their mastery of Standard English, the Contrastive Analysis approach --essentially what Oakland wanted to do--is more likely to be successful than the conventional approaches that are currently being used. If I can give a very specific example, one of the features that she looked at was third person -s absence, as in "He walkØ" , instead of "He walks.". Taylor found that students taught by traditional techniques did show a small reduction (-11%) in the use of this feature over the course of eleven weeks, but the kids who were taught by Contrastive Analysis showed a massive decrease in the use of this feature (91.7). The point Taylor made overall is that this process of comparing the two varieties seems to lead to much greater metalinguistic awareness of similarities and differences between the vernacular and the standard and allows kids to much more effectively negotiate the line between the two.

There are at least two other instances in which this approach has been successfully used to help Ebonics speakers improve in Standard English and reading. Parker and Christ (1995)--both extol the virtues of the Bi-dialectal Contrastive Analysis approach in teaching minorities to play the corporate language game. In this approach you try to respect the home variety of the kids and help them negotiate between that variety and the standard language, teaching them about appropriate contexts for different varieties of speech. They have used this approach successfully with vernacular speakers in Tennessee and Chicago at the preschool, elementary, high school and college levels. There's also a program which I just visited in DeKalb County, Georgia, just northeast of Atlanta; it's the brainchild of Kelli Wright Harris, and involves use of Contrastive Analysis to help fifth and sixth grade students switch between home speech and school speech. According to Cummings (1997), the program "has won a 'Center of Excellence' designation from the National Council of Teachers of English. Last year, students who had taken the course had improved verbal scores at every school" So we have evidence from these programs that Contrastive Analysis works.

3. Introducing reading in the vernacular, then switching to the standard. The last kind of approach I want to talk about is one in which you actually begin by teaching kids in the vernacular--introducing them to reading in the vernacular and then switching to the standard.7 This follows a principle that was established from research dating back to the 1950's. A classic work is Cheavens' (1957) dissertation on Vernacular Languages in Education. Cheavens reported on studies around the world which showed that when you began by teaching kids in their vernacular or native language before switching to a second language which was not their vernacular, they tended to do better than if you began by teaching them in that second language directly. One of the most dramatic examples was a study done between 1948 and 1954 in fourteen schools in Iloilo Province in the Philippines (see Orata 1953). In this study, half of the kids were taught completely in English for four grades while other kids were first taught for two years in Hiligaynon, their native Philippine language, and then switched to English. What the researchers found is what other researchers have found in many other studies, namely that the kids who began in their own vernacular, when they switched to the second language, very rapidly caught up with the kids who started in English, and even surpassed them. The kids who started in the vernacular were outperforming in English the kids who started in English, in subjects ranging from reading to social studies, and even arithmetic. This was a massive study done over a fairly long period of time.

The closest parallel to this in terms of the United States and Ebonics or African-American English, is the "Bridge" study reported on in Simpkins and Simpkins (1981). This was a study involving five hundred and forty kids in the United States in twenty-seven different schools in five different parts of the United States. Four hundred and seventeen of the kids were taught with an experimental series of "Bridge" readers which began with narratives and exercises written in Ebonics, went through a transitional series written in a variety intermediate between Ebonics and English, and ended up with a final series written entirely in Standard English . A control group of one hundred and twenty-three kids was taught entirely in Standard English using conventional methods, without the "Bridge" readers. What the researchers found, after four months of instruction and testing, is that the kids who were being taught by the conventional methods showed only 1.6 months of reading gain, which would be consistent with the evidence presented earlier that the longer African American kids stay in school with existing methods, the further they fall behind. By contrast, the kids that were being taught with the Bridge Readers showed 6.2 months of reading gain after four months of instruction. The experimental evidence was dramatically in support of the approach--the method offered the hope that African American kids would finally be able to read above and ahead of the norm rather than below it. But the inclusion of the vernacular in some of the "Bridge" readers elicited knee-jerk negative reactions similar to those which emerged in the Oakland Ebonics debacle of 1996. The publisher of this innovative series of readers, embarrassed by the negative reactions, quickly decided against continuing production of the "Bridge" series, and this very innovative and promising experiment came to an abrupt end despite its dramatically demonstrated pedagogical success.8 *****

These sensible suggestions for innovations in teaching methods have nothing to do with Wojtek's favorite boogeyman: "the substitution of symbolic politics for real politics". In fact, they are primarily of professional interest to teachers who should like to improve their craft of teaching and to do their work better, and there is no reason why e-list politicians and instant educational experts should carp & cavil about them without doing any homework.

That said, I (as a non-linguist) humbly submit that the Contrastive Analysis approach described above seems to make more -- rather than less -- cognitive demands upon pupils than conventional approaches do, which may eventually make it recommend itself (as a preferred method to stimulate analytical capacity) to the education of not only black children but all children. If we could silence carpers & cavillers, that is.

Gordon wrote:
>The Ebonics controversy was of some interest to me because
>of the vehemence and absolutism of those who denied that
>Black English Vernacular (as it's sometimes called) could
>be anything but a degenerate form of Standard English. In
>discussing it on Usenet, I received death threats for no
>more than soberly posting the URLs above and others like
>them, or reciting their contents, while in the mass media
>all sorts of lies and misconstructions were purveyed. It
>was all something like lifting a rock and finding an
>unsuspected scorpion beneath it. Or perhaps one did
>In regard to "identity politics", an article appeared a
>few days ago in Salon Magazine about "Disability Studies"
>which I think shares a certain sensibility with the
>outragists of language -- that is, a sense that one belongs
>to not a master race but a master culture, and is rendered
>incredulous by the suggestion that one's worldview can be
>criticized or challenged.

I agree with you here. Ebonics opponents' _rage_ comes from a source other than their opinions on what educational methods may be the best for kids.


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