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Volume 20, No. 2 March 1997

Dialect Education: Not Only for Oakland

Carolyn Temple Adger, Center for Applied Linguistics

When has any language issue gotten such public attention as the Oakland (CA) school district's new policy on teaching standard English to Ebonics speakers? Perhaps one reason that the discussion has been so pervasive and so passionate is that people misunderstand the basic sociolinguistic issues that the school district is addressing. Under-informed about what dialects are, how they relate to each other, and what functions they fulfill, people have voiced views about language in society that cannot be scientifically justified. Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), has been erroneously called "slang," "broken English," "poor grammar," or "improper usage," instead of the full-fledged dialect that it is. This is not just another harmless case of the lay audience having less technical information than the scientist. It is a matter of perpetuating the myth that there is one correct English. When this myth goes unchallenged, it is difficult for schools to treat students' competence in a vernacular dialect as relevant to developing additional uses and varieties of language. It is even more difficult for schools to present language as an intriguing system for scientific investigation. Without those two ingredients, however, dialect instruction is unlikely to succeed any better than it has in the past.

The Myth

The "correct English myth" holds that there is one real English, standard English, and that deviations from it are impoverished and unworthy. Sometimes standard English is located geographically in the Midwestern United States. In point of fact, casual observation confirms research showing that standard English is not the same everywhere. Even within the United States, standard English in the Northeast is different in some respects from standard English in the Southwest. All linguistic systems-phonology, syntax, lexicon, pragmatics-show regional variation. What is standard English in Oakland contrasts with standard English in Tampa or in Detroit.

Certainly standard written English is not as variable as standard spoken English. The distinction between written and spoken English seems to have been overlooked in the Ebonics debate, perhaps because the correct English myth holds written standard English as the criterion against which speech may be judged. Actually, written standard English contrasts both with oral standard English used for informal purposes and with AAVE.

Not only is standard English not standard in the sense of being invariant from place to place, situation to situation, and oral medium to written medium; it also is not standard in the sense of representing an ideal against which to judge other dialects. Socio-linguistic studies show that all dialects have linguistic integrity. None is more regular than another. The features of AAVE that contrast with standard English varieties are patterned and predictable, not random deviations. In other words, AAVE is just as standardized as standard English-though it is not subject to prescription as is standard English.

What makes standard English standard is a matter of social attitudes and the political power of those who speak the standard dialect. People believe that standard English equals "good grammar," and this belief is knitted into our institutions. Because standard English speakers control education, commerce, government, and other powerful institutions, the standard dialect is firmly associated with public life.

This perception of standard English as the language of public life is taken as a rationale for enhancing students'standard English proficiency: Everyone needs it for access to educational and job opportunities. Here again, however, beliefs outweigh empirical knowledge. We know surprisingly few details concerning the actual occurrence of standard and vernacular dialects in public life, including school, and the costs and benefits associated with dialect choice (Adger, in press). This may help to explain why standard English instruction has not been more successful in the past. Students may in fact see numbers of vernacular dialect users who are quite successful in life. Vernacular dialect may actually be considered appropriate in some academic situations (Foster, 1995). If what educators tell students about appropriate conditions for dialects does not match what students observe, dialect education becomes esoteric and irrelevant. Standard English is associated in a general way with education and the middle class. However, learning it as a second dialect carries no guarantee of social mobility, and certain social risks may be involved in using it (Fordham, 1996). Taking on the linguistic trappings of another group, particularly a group that has been perceived as oppressive, can present a real social identity dilemma.

Dialect Education

In the face of accumulating information about social and geographic variation in spoken American English, the correct English myth still dominates many textbooks and classrooms. A more scientific and socially useful approach to language education would include detailed dialect study in the curriculum. However, one of the aspects of Oakland's position on Ebonics that seems so hard for many people to accept is the notion that attention to vernacular dialect has any place in schools, let alone that students' proficiency in it offers a valuable language learning resource. (Certainly the school board's view of the role that Ebonics should play in schools has not been clear.) Seen repeatedly in the media is the belief that AAVE is without value, that it should be remediated, and that vernacular features should be corrected even at home. But this is the traditional approach that has had such limited success. One study found that when teachers corrected students' dialect, students actually increased their production of vernacular features (Piestrup, 1973).

What is needed is research into effective ways of teaching standard English. Because vernacular and standard dialects of English share almost all of their linguistic resources, standard dialect instruction should pinpoint exactly where vernacular and standard structures differ. For example, standard had gone ("Teachers had gone into classrooms") contrasts with vernacular had went ("Teachers had went into classrooms") according to a pattern that regularizes the past participle; and standard mine ("I've got mine today") is vernacular mines ("I've got mines today"). Rather than subjecting vernacular speakers to the traditional mind-numbing and inefficient translation drills, teachers might situate mini-lessons according to the dialect learning needs that students demonstrate. If class members agree that standard English is appropriate for classroom interaction and for writing, these lessons could help students progress toward their language development goals. Dialect contrasts that become relevant in students' talk and writing could be posted on a bulletin board (Delpit, 1990), noted in dialogue journals, and entered into a class log or student portfolios as part of a class standard English learning project. This approach seems useful not only for English language arts classes beginning in upper elementary school and extending into college, but in other classes where students and teacher agree that standard English learning is a goal. Here, students' implicit linguistic knowledge becomes the basis for increasing competence in the standard dialect. Even in the unlikely case that no class member could identify the contrasting standard equivalent for a vernacular structure, students would recognize that they are dealing with an alternative for what they already do linguistically. They would also learn a great deal about how language works. Students can be guided to see that dialects of English are arrayed along a continuum from the most standard to the most vernacular, and that all speakers continually shift within a range along that continuum as they align to shifting social situations.

Because dialect prejudice is rampant and widely accepted, efforts to teach another dialect need to be grounded in scientific consideration of sociolinguistic facts. Students need to look at some of the evidence that all dialects are regular so that they can begin to question the inaccurate characterizations of dialects that they have been exposed to. They also need to examine dialect appropriateness in social settings as demonstrated by language use, in order to be convinced that bidialectalism is valuable. Informal experiments with dialect awareness curricula developed by Walt Wolfram and his colleagues have shown that upper elementary and middle school students find the study of sociolinguistic phenomena fascinating (Wolfram, Schilling-Estes, & Hazen, 1996). Students are introduced to dialect attitudes through the video, American Tongues (Alvarez & Kolker, 1987). The students then analyze contrasting data sets of phonological features, such as "r-drop" ("car" vs. "cah") in some New England dialects, to discover how the pattern works-where the final "r" sound can be dropped and where it cannot. They work through data sets to discover the pattern for "a-prefixing" in some rural dialects ("He's a-going over to Mike's this afternoon") and the rule for "habitual be" in AAVE. Informal evaluation indicates that students come to recognize that dialect contrasts occur regularly, rather than haphazardly, and they become aware that dialect prejudice is not justifiable.


Dialect awareness is not just for vernacular dialect speakers learning standard English as an additional dialect. All students need language education that includes the facts about language variation if they are to engage sensibly in discussions about dialect differences such as that occasioned by events in Oakland, and to get along in a dialectally diverse world (Wolfram, 1990). The challenge is to develop curricula and materials for students and teachers and to shape educational policy that includes substantial dialect study in language education.


  • Adger, C. T. (in press). Register shifting with dialect resources in instructional discourse. In S. Hoyle & C. T. Adger (Eds.), Language practices of older children. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Alvarez, L., & Kolker, A. (1987). American tongues [Video]. New York: Center for New American Media.
  • Delpit, L. (1990). Language diversity and learning. In S. Hynds & D. Rubin (Eds.), Perspectives on talk and learning (pp. 247-266). Urbana, IL: NCTE.
  • Fordham, S. (1996). Blacked out: Dilemmas of race, identity, and success at Capital High. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Foster, M. (1995). Talking that talk: The language of control, curriculum, and critique. Linguistics and Education, 7 (2) 129-151.
  • Piestrup, A. M. (1973). Black dialect interference and accommodation of reading instruction in first grade (Monograph No. 4). Berkeley: University of California, Language and Behavior Research Lab.
  • Wolfram, W. (1990). Incorporating dialect study into the language arts class. ERIC digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.
  • Wolfram, W., Schilling-Estes, N., & Hazen, K. (1996). Dialects and the Ocracoke brogue. Eighth grade curriculum. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Language and Life Project.


  • Wolfram, W., Christian, D., & Adger, C. (In press). Dialects in schools and communities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

For more information on Ebonics or African-American Vernacular English, see the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) Ebonics information page at The page contains a list of print resources, as well as other resources on the World Wide Web. In addition, full-text versions of the following articles are provided: CAL Statement to the Media on Ebonics; Knowledge Policy and Public Policy, by Carolyn Temple Adger; A Linguist Looks at the Ebonics Debate, by Charles Fillmore; and Dialect Readers Revisited (summary of an article published in Multilingual Matters), by John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford.

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