Investigating the Relationship Between African American English Use and Early Literacy Skills

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Presented at: ADS 2015

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, African American children lag behind their White peers in all subjects and grades. While home and school factors clearly affect scholastic outcomes, the fact that this gap widens throughout childhood and adolescence suggests that additional elements also impact academic outcomes. Some researchers have hypothesized that differences between classroom language and the language varieties that many African American children use at home may influence student success, particularly with regard to literacy (e.g., Baratz & Shuy, 1969; Rickford, 1999; Rickford & Wolfram, 2010).

This paper addresses the possible contribution of home dialect by investigating whether African American English (AAE) use at the beginning of elementary school is related to children’s reading and vocabulary skills in third grade. Data are taken from a longitudinal study of 78 African American children from central North Carolina, and language samples were transcribed and coded for the presence of 43 common AAE features (Craig & Washington, 2004). Standard scores on the Letter-Word Identification, Passage Comprehension, and Word Attack Skills components of the Woodcock Johnson III Test of Achievement in third grade were used as measures of reading ability. Because each subtest evaluates a different component of early reading skills, each was investigated using a separate multiple regression model which included gender, mother’s education, and measures of home and classroom quality as covariates.

Results indicate a relationship between use of AAE and early literacy skills and development. When AAE use was considered independently, higher levels of vernacularity were related to lower scores on all three reading-related assessments. Models that controlled for confounding home and school factors showed that AAE use was only significantly related to lower scores on Letter-Word Identification, suggesting that differences between home and classroom language varieties may make it especially difficult to build alphabet and vocabulary skills.