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Teachers Said Poorly Trained To Handle Students' Dialect Problems

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Washington--In 1979, a federal judge ruled that the Ann Arbor School Board had denied black students attending the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School "equal educational opportunity" because it failed to take appropriate action to help the students overcome their language problems.

The suit was brought by several black parents who claimed their children's use of "black English" impeded their academic progress.

In agreeing with the parents, Judge Charles W. Joiner ruled that "a language barrier existed ... because of the failure of the teachers to take into account the home language or dialect of the children in trying to teach them to read standard English" and the failure of the school board to develop a program to assist the teachers.

Under the remedial plan approved by the court, the district was ordered to: help teachers appreciate and understand black English, train staff members to identify students with language problems, find ways to keep up with the latest professional information on language instruction, help the staff communicate with parents, assign a full-time language-arts specialist to the King School, and hire an outside expert.

But, despite the notoriety of both the Ann Arbor decision and the earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering districts to provide equal opportunities for non-English-speaking students, very few of the nation's teachers have received the kind of training that would help students who are unable to speak and write in standard English, according to several educators participating in a panel discussion here.

The discussion on approaches to teaching students with nonstandard dialects was part of the annual convention of the Speech Communications Association held here last month. As examples of such dialects, speakers cited those of black Americans, Southerners, and Appalachian and Boston residents.

"[T]he educational establishment and society in general expect all students to speak and write the mainstream dialect," asserted Sandra S. Hochel, professor of speech communication at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. Nonetheless, many students who speak alternate dialects "get through the school system without acquiring an ability to speak the mainstream dialect," she said.

And despite the academic, social, and economic barriers that such students face in consequence, little emphasis is placed on instruction that would enable all students to acquire English-language competencies, according to Ms. Hochel.

'Major Issue in Education'

Marquita L. Byrd, assistant professor of speech communication at Southeast Missouri State University, noted that the use of multiple dialects in the classroom did not become a "major issue in education" until after school desegregation, when black students were then being taught by white teachers.

With integration, Ms. Byrd asserted, "black students were told that in order to succeed they must shed all vestiges of their cultural identity--primarily "their black linguistic behavior"--on the grounds that it hindered their ability to learn to read and write.

Prior to that time, according to Ms. Byrd, black students' use of a home dialect "in no way interfered with their ability to read, write, speak, and calculate," because the schools were administered by black educators who did not penalize students for their use of nonstandard English.

Ms. Byrd said the Michigan court's decision in the widely-publicized case, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, signaled to school officials around the country that "they must take into account the linguistic history of the student."

Yet, many problems still exist in schools, the speakers agreed, because speech-communications textbooks give the topic of dialects only superficial treatment and teacher candidates, therefore, are not trained to handle the situations that arise in the classroom.

"Unfortunately, teachers are not familiar with the negative consequences of telling children that what comes naturally to them is wrong," according to Ms. Hochel. Students are "frequently corrected," she explained, "but little formal instruction in actually speaking the mainstream dialect is given."

"In essence," Ms. Hochel pointed out, "this approach is designed to destroy something that is important to a person's own being and then not give anything back. Clearly, this approach is harmful to the child's self-concept and continued language development ... and ineffective in teaching children to speak the mainstream dialect."

"The goal of instruction in oral-language development is to help all children gain facility and confidence in communicating in a variety of situations," Ms. Hochel said. Thus, she said, instruction in mainstream dialect "should complement the overall language development" of students in a way that gives them more confidence in their abilities to adapt to a variety of situations.

Dorothy Williamson-Ige, an assistant professor of speech communications at Bowling Green State University, said that in a review she conducted of seven textbooks used to prepare teacher candidates she found only superficial treatment of teaching methods for students with nonstandard dialects. Specific references to "black English" or other varieties of dialects "were very rare in all of the textbooks surveyed," and specific techniques were almost nonexistent, she noted.

Ms. Williamson-Ige concluded that "the chasm between insufficient theory and actual practice" will widen unless those who prepare teachers provide the necessary supplemental information or teachers themselves seek additional help on their own.

The linguistics experts who have addressed the topic have differed on the best methods for teaching students with language differences, according to Ms. Hochel.

Some have recommended an indirect approach that involves little explicit instruction except through reading materials that provide students with opportunities "to hear the differences in dialects," Ms. Hochel explained. This approach, she added, is an attempt to accept the child's home dialect and at the same time provide "a language-rich environment and models of the target dialect."

Only a few educators have suggested a direct approach involving formal language instruction in dialect differences and exercises designed to provide practice in using the mainstream dialect, according to Ms. Hochel. She said the direct approach offers a means of "giving alternate dialects the respect they deserve" while teaching proper language skills.

Although there are sound reasons for the indirect approach, according to Ms. Hochel, it does not provide enough guidance and instruction for a large number of students. "Many students," she said, "do not intuitively learn to code-switch."

Ms. Hochel said the schools have "a responsiblity to provide students with the skills they need to participate fully in society." But as long as dialect training is ignored, "then the schools are failing to assume this responsibility," she asserted.

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