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Dialect Readers Revisited

John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford, Linguistics and Education 7:2, 107-128 (1995)
Multilingual Matters, Ltd., Publishers

SUMMARY Research on AAVE conducted during the 1960's was primarily concerned with developing improved methods of teaching reading and the language arts to African American children in the inner cities. The seminal work on dialect readers was summarized in a collection, Teaching Black Children to Read (1969), which set the stage for producing reading materials in the AAVE dialect. The 1970's saw some materials development, the most ambitious of which was the Bridge reading program developed by Simpkins et al. (1977). Although experimental efforts have been limited, there seemed to be good and positive evidence to bolster the tenet that these readers are effective in helping students bridge the gap from dialect to standard English use. None of the efforts lasted long, mainly because there was a negative reaction to using the readers, mainly by parents and educators, causing linguists to also reject dialect readers as a "solution to the reading problems of vernacular-speaking African American youth...." (p.114)

The authors argue for continued experimental research on the effectiveness of dialect readers, along with research on the attitudes in the community. They report on some newer work in the form of three "ministudies" conducted with students and teachers in the San Francisco Bay area. Elementary and middle school students and teachers were presented with two stories from the Bridge series and asked to respond to them. The students in general, but not necessarily across the board, preferred the AAVE stories and did considerably better in answering questions about the texts written in the dialect. Teachers' responses were mixed, in general tending to prefer the Standard English versions. Quotes from students and educators in the article point to the fact that there is a great deal of merit in pursuing research in classrooms where there are significant numbers in schools with substantial African American populations.

The authors make some recommendations about dialect readers in light of the fact that readings problems by AAVE speakers persist, indeed have been " exacerbat[ed]" (p. 121). Prior research has provided some clear lessons learned that need to be taken into account if dialect readers are to enter the educational picture again (pp. 121-122).

* New, updated dialect readers are needed, along with "corresponding Standard English (SE) texts which are carefully matched to the dialect texts in terms of readability and grade level,... difficulty of comprehension and ... exercises...."

* ..."[P]articipants who receive the AAVE and SE versions of the same narrative [need to be] comparable in terms of reading ability and ... evenly divided along gender lines..."

* There is a need to do a combination of short-term and long-term studies with elementary and junior high school classes.

* ..."[L]inguists ... need to be more involved in the community itself, ... working to influence...and be influenced by the attitudes of parents, students and teachers."

* There is a need to "start small." The authors recommend that work begin perhaps in one of the new Afrocentric private schools.

* "[R]esearch and experimentation on other means of teaching reading to working class speakers of AAVE, to others who need help with this essential skills" should be simultaneously investigated along with the use of dialect readers."

The idea," the authors contend, "is not to resurrect the issue of dialect readers as a cult or religion, but consider them as one of several possibilities to which linguists may be willing to contribute research time and effort as we become involved once more with educational issues."

Quoted with permission

Visit John Rickford's Ebonics Page at Stanford University