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California Measures Promote Teaching of 'Standard English'

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Responding to pressure from parents and community leaders concerned that minority students are not getting jobs because they cannot speak standard English, both houses of the California legislature last week approved bills that would require districts to develop in-class programs to assist those students in improving their language skills.

Programs to instruct speakers of nonstandard English have been in place at the district level in many states for several years. But California may be the first state to pass legislation mandating the instruction, according to Chris Pipho, a senior information specialist for the Education Commission of the States.

The California legislation highlights what appears to be a growing concern that more emphasis on teaching standard English may be necessary with students who are speakers of nonstandard English. Recent research indicates, for example, that the oral language spoken in many black communities is becoming more divergent from standard English.

Studies by William Labov, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues document the widening gap and suggest that it is implicated in the serious academic difficulties experienced by many inner-city schoolchildren.

Such findings have helped reverse longstanding opposition among minority educa-tors and parents to a school emphasis on standard-English skills. Now, although some educators still express reservations about classifying certain children as speakers of dialects and offering them special instruction, much of the impetus for the programs seems to be coming from minority communities themselves, especially black communities.

The California bill would make available to schools a program similar to the "Standard English Program," a state-supported instructional method that has been in place for five years in 14 urban districts, including Los Angeles, Oakland, and Sacramento.

The state education department describes the sep as "an effort to improve the oral language, reading and writing proficiency of speakers of black language in grades K-12." sep resulted from a 1981 California Board of Education policy "urging school districts to take into account the oral-language development of black students," according to Yvonne Strozier, coordinator of the program for the state education department.

But unlike the voluntary sep program, the legislation would require in-class programs in schools in which more than 10 percent of the students lack "linguistic proficiency in standard English" and "speak nonstandard English as their primary language." The bills would apply to districts that receive state and federal economic impact aid and other financial assistance "to meet special educational needs of disadvantaged children."

The legislators acted at the urging of parents whose children had successfully participated in the sep, according to Ms. Strozier.

A 'Great Need'

"Parents in the minority community see this as a great need," said Ms. Strozier. "The students and parents realize that their kids won't be able to get a job" without learning communication skills in standard English. "That's why we want this push" of the state legislation, she added.

Originally written for districts where more than 10 percent of the students are black, both bills were amended to include districts where more than 10 percent of the students "lack linguistic proficiency."

The state's schoolchildren represent "a lot of different dialects," Ms. Strozier explained, "because so many groups have migrated here,'' both from other countries and other areas of the United States.

The two bills--one sponsored by Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes and one sponsored by Senator Diane E. Watson, both Democrats from Los Angeles--contain almost identical wording. Senator Watson's bill, however, includes a $175,000 appropriation to the education department to develop and administer the program.

In both bills, the education department has until next April to develop criteria for identifying those children who lack linguistic proficiency in standard English.

James Turner, chief consultant to the Assembly's education committee, said the primary costs of the program would be in school staff development. "We don't really see a large cost," he said.

'Mixed Emotions'

Like Ms. Strozier, Mr. Turner said legislation mandating instruction in standard English for students who speak in a dialect is necessary to emphasize the critical need for such programs in all districts.

"We're saying that the districts are not doing it," Mr. Turner said.

Ms. Strozier said districts may be reluctant to implement standard-English programs for minority students because of the controversy8that has surrounded those programs in years past.

Teachers and school administrators often had "mixed emotions" about teaching such courses, she said. Teachers worried that if they corrected a child who spoke nonstandard English, the child might accuse them of being unable to "accept me the way I am," Ms. Strozier said.

"But that's not getting us any jobs," she said. "That's why our kids are on the streets."

The object of the current legislation, she added, is not to prevent children from speaking a dialect of English, but to teach them that there can be two types of English: the "home language" and the "school language"--the latter for use in a "formal setting."

"When they're at home or on the playground, they can speak slang," she said. "But they should know the difference."

The King Case

Providing standard English-language instruction to students who may normally speak nonstandard English became a legal issue for school districts following a 1980 Michigan federal-court case, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board.

In that case, parents won a suit against a school district for failing to address, in reading classes, the fact that many black students use black English when not in school. The court required that the district develop a plan to help teachers recognize students who spoke black English, and to then help those students learn to read standard English.

Some linguists and educators still express reservations about attempts to classify children as speakers of nonstandard English and to teach them a standard form of English.

"The thing that scares me a little bit is for us to say to a child, 'Your own language is not all right,"' said Paula V. Hodges, coordinator of language arts in the Jefferson County, Colo., schools and chairman of a National Council of Teachers of English committee on teaching English in rural schools. "It's frightening if we're saying it's not all right to have a dialect."

'West Texas Talk'

Ms. Hodges agreed with Ms. Strozier that children should learn that there can be different styles of the same language, with not all styles appropriate at all times.

"I come from Oklahoma, where we have 'West Texas talk,"' she said. In teaching there, she said, "I always said: 'There are several registers of language, and we use the register that is appropriate."'

Ms. Hodges conceded that such programs could be successful, "as long as it's done in a nonthreatening way."

"Give students an economic reason" for learning standard English, she advised. "Also tell them that it's okay to speak their own language."

Jerrie C. Scott, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Florida, Gainesville, believes that many programs accentuate the negative rather than the positive.

"I have an awful lot of respect for different varieties of English, including Afro-American English," she said. But too often, she added, those varieties "have been seen as something that needs to be corrected."

Her own research in this area, she said, concentrates on "figuring out what strengths children have that could possibly be used in the school." Any large-scale program, especially one mandated by state legislation, should have a "real clear-cut idea of the strengths of those students that could be incorporated into instructional programs."

A Growing Trend

But in spite of these objections, at least one educator sees an increased emphasis currently on teaching standard English to speakers of nonstandard English, especially in black communities.

"I really think that there is more emphasis now on teaching standard English," said Charlotte Brooks, former head of the English department in the District of Columbia public schools and the editor of Tapping Potential: English and Language Arts for the Black Learner, published this year by the ncte "You don't have that kind of backlash now that you had in the black community in the 1970's. In all communities, people are more receptive to teaching standard English."

Ms. Strozier, who is black, agrees with Ms. Brooks. "We've passed that," she said of earlier controversies that led some blacks and other speakers of nonstandard English to reject the teaching of standard English. The reason for the shift in attitudes, she contends, is primarily economic.

Like it or not, standard English is "the language of the majority" in American society, Ms. Strozier said, and learning it is the key to economic security for the linguistically deprived.

Not to learn standard English, for use in the "formal setting" of the workplace, "keeps blacks down to where they have been in the past," she contended.

"In Los Angeles," she noted, "they call [standard English] 'the cash language."'

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