Language Lessons

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 17, 2002 19 min read
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Erick Matthews takes center stage at Fruitvale Elementary School here for a final rehearsal for the districtwide oratorical contest.

“Attitude, Erick!” a teacher, directing him from the back of the auditorium, shouts. “Remember, this is about attitude.”

Since the Oakland school district's controversial 1996 'ebonics' resolution, school officials have undertaken a campaign to help students master standard English.

Shifting into character, he conjures up the posture and perspective of a man proud of his accomplishments, assured of his talent, and impenitent of his scholarly achievements. Standing tall beneath an oversized plaid shirt and cuffed bluejeans, he straightens his shoulders and draws a full breath to deepen his childlike voice. “I am a confident black man ... articulate, intelligent, and yes, COOL,” the 1st grader bellows, crossing his arms firmly across his tiny chest.

The 4-foot preacher continues his sermon on the value of education and importance of community service, pausing to perfect his diction, to enunciate words more clearly. As he finishes, his cheeks widen to reveal a gap-toothed grin. He is praised for a job well done.

Erick was only a toddler when a national controversy over language and the education of black children erupted here more than five years ago. But he clearly understands this exercise is about more than just attitude. It is about the power of speech, the politics of language, and the perceptions of a society that identifies intellect and even virtue with “proper” English.

The Oakland school board provided grist for editorial writers and commentators from coast to coast with its December 1996 “ebonics” resolution, which recognized the language used by a majority of the black students in the district as essentially different from that of most English-speakers and ordered that children be instructed in that language. Since then, school officials here have undertaken a visible campaign to help students master the standard form of the language as a critical step in eliminating the barriers to their academic success.

The cornerstone of that campaign is an intense focus on reading instruction, and, specifically, the systematic and explicit teaching of the sounds and structure of standard English. By beginning that approach in kindergarten, district leaders say, students are gaining the basic skills that many experts have identified as critical to achieving literacy.

But Oakland officials have not backed down from the original intent of the ill-fated resolution: to foster understanding and respect for students’ home language and to help teachers use it as a bridge for children to learn the language spoken by America’s majority.

“We had to move beyond that controversy and get to the [heart] of the matter,” says Folásadé Oládélé, a longtime teacher and administrator in the district who oversees the Academic English Development Program. “We need to address the language, culture, and history of these students in order to support effective reading instruction.”

Oládélé and others acknowledge that the strategy they have slowly crafted over the past few years is more socially and politically acceptable than what was outlined in the 1996 decree. But it is not fundamentally different.

“We need to address the language, culture, and history of these students in order to support effective reading instruction.”
Folásadé Oládélé,
English/Language Arts Coordinator

The program introduces teachers to the history of African-American Vernacular English, which some scholars have identified as having its roots in West African and Niger-Congo languages. The professional-development component of the program—three hours of in-service training—points out what many see as the racism inherent in the view that the language tradition of blacks is inferior to that of the white majority. Teachers are urged to abandon a corrective approach in the classroom, to consider language variations as simply different, not deficient.

In workshops, teachers are introduced to “contrastive analysis,” a translation of the vernacular to the standard. They are taught to recognize, for example, how black students often drop the final sound from double-consonant endings, saying “col” instead of “cold” or “fin” instead of “find.” Another variation is in replacing the “th” sound, such as in the word “birthday,” with that of “d,” “t,” or “f.” Plurals and possessives may also be ignored, and the words “have,” “has,” and “had” are generally omitted when conveying the past.

“A lot of our students live with grandparents and great-grandparents, most of whom missed out on formal education,” says Margaret M. Peyton, the principal of Santa Fe Elementary School, where 90 percent of the nearly 400 students are black, and a majority are considered poor. “Language-wise, they come to school with a lot of omissions and substitutions [of standard rules]. We try to gradually move them to more formal language.”

The deviations inherent in the dialect, many experts say, tend to complicate acquisition of reading skills. Differences in the rules and structure of the language forms tend to confuse children who have grown up with the lexicon of standard English but the grammar, syntax, and phonology—or sounds—of the vernacular.

To minimize those problems, the district adopted Open Court Reading, a scripted series published by the McGraw-Hill Cos., based in New York City, that takes a phonics-based approach to reading instruction.

The program is a favorite among researchers and policymakers who subscribe to evidence that students are most likely to develop phonemic awareness and other basic skills through systematic and explicit phonics instruction. Some studies suggest that approach is the best way for many minority students, and those who have not had adequate exposure to children’s books and language-rich experiences, to catch up with their better- prepared peers.

Students in Kim Moses’ kindergarten class at Santa Fe Elementary here run through “prereading” drills each morning. They recite the alphabet in systematic fashion, accentuating the exercise with hand and body movements that reinforce the lesson for visual learners.

“What’s the letter?” Moses asks.

“O,” the students answer.





They then race through a list of short words that share a beginning consonant, but change when word endings are substituted.

“H-i-t, hit,” the students sound out each letter.

“H-a-t, hat.”

“H-o-t, hot.”

The cadence is designed to develop phonemic awareness, or knowledge of the sounds that make up words, and to help children recognize letters and letter blends. Through repetition and the use of visual cues, the thinking goes, students learn to internalize those connections and recognize them in print.

The Open Court brand, Oládélé says, is culturally appropriate, hitting on five strategies believed to work well with African- American students, among others: repetition, recitation, relationships, ritual, and rhythm.

“It’s ‘scoped’ and sequenced in a logical manner,” she says. “Some teachers don’t like it because they feel like they’re being controlled, but there are certain things kids have to learn in [a specific order] to develop reading skills.”

The program is supplemented with culturally relevant reading materials, and Oládélé is working with curriculum specialists to align lessons from the district’s English-development program with the Open Court script.

One such integrated lesson used in some elementary schools here is particularly powerful for many students, educators say. Students examine the uses of standard, or as some call it, “cash” English, and the vernacular they are more accustomed to using in two Langston Hughes poems and discuss the intended effects of the different language forms.

We should not be using the concept of wrongness. You can tell a kindergartner, 'Repeat that for me in standard English.' The 'deficit' thought implies that our children are not capable intellectually."

Many Oakland educators have applied a culturally sensitive approach to their teaching for years without drawing much attention. Beginning in 1981, more than 100 educators throughout the 54,000-student district began participating in the Standard English Proficiency Program, a voluntary state program that assisted teachers of children who spoke what is often called black English. The program, which was in effect until 1998, was designed to help teachers understand the rules and structure of the vernacular, show students the way it differs from standard English, and teach children to code-switch, or to use one language form over another as circumstances warrant.

Freda Robinson embraced that program as a teacher throughout the 1990s, after struggling to help many of the children in her class become skilled readers. Ill-prepared at first to address the language differences, the African-American teacher attended regular evening, weekend, and summer workshops in which she worked with linguistic experts, education professors, and her colleagues to craft lessons designed specifically for black students.

Robinson became an advocate for the Standard English Proficiency Program, and then an activist for children she felt were being neglected by black and white teachers alike because of the students’ race and family background. “I would see teachers put one or two brown-skinned boys in the back of the classroom and say, ‘I can’t do anything with them,’ ” she recalls.

If those teachers were more aware of the language issues causing those students to struggle, she says, they would not have written them off so easily. In the teachers’ lounge, teachers made fun of children who spoke nonstandard English, Robinson says, and implied that students at the predominantly black school were stupid or incapable of learning. Once, when she gave her students a required standardized test, she entered “ebonics” on their test booklets in the box that asked for the students’ primary language. That move angered a colleague, but Robinson was insistent.

The veteran educator started using affirmations and songs to motivate children and to instill pride in African-American history and their family traditions. Instead of correcting children when they used vernacular English in the classroom, she would remind them that academic English was expected in school.

“We should not be using the concept of wrongness,” Robinson says. “You can tell a kindergartner, ‘Repeat that for me in standard English.’ The ‘deficit’ thought implies that our children are not capable intellectually.”

Now, as an instructional facilitator for the district, Robinson divides her time among five elementary schools, where she works with teachers on implementing the reading program and adapting instruction for dialect speakers.

More than 30 years ago, linguists studying the language variations between African-American communities identified ebonics, a word created by blending “ebony” and “phonics,” as a variation of standard English with its own phonetic and grammatical structures.

Ever since the late 1960s, when Walt A. Wolfram, a respected linguist and the director of the Linguistics Program at North Carolina State University, determined black English to be a rule-governed system, many researchers and teacher-educators have tried to expand teachers’ knowledge of language forms and how they might affect instruction. Such information, supporters argue, makes teachers aware of the ways dialect can interfere with students’ skills development in reading and other areas, and helps reverse negative attitudes toward dialect speakers.

“It is important for reading teachers to know how dialect differences might be manifested in oral reading so that they can distinguish between a real reading problem and appropriate dialect reading,” Wolfram writes in his book Dialects inSchools and Communities, co-written by Carolyn Temple Adger and Donna Christian of the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit organization in Washington.

A decade after Wolfram’s landmark 1969 study, the Ann Arbor, Mich., school district, defending itself in a lawsuit brought by parents who argued their children were not receiving an equitable education, was ordered by the state supreme court to make the language variations of black students a key consideration in designing instruction. The Los Angeles Unified School District, realizing the prevalence of the use of vernacular speech in its schools, instituted its own comprehensive approach in 1990, after an internal report called for a language-development program for African-American students. The program, still in existence, though hindered somewhat since the Oakland flare-up, includes workshops and ongoing support services for both teachers and parents.

Under the guidance of prominent researchers, districts in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and other urban centers have also devised intervention strategies related to black children’s language variations.

With such language programs becoming increasingly common, particularly in urban districts, no one anticipated the furor that Oakland’s plan for raising student achievement would touch off in 1996. The school board’s resolution, based on the recommendations of the district’s African-American Task Force, quickly became a target of political leaders who decried the low expectations and ill-conceived initiatives that they argued had been shortchanging black children for generations. The district is nearly 50 percent black, 27 percent Hispanic, 16 percent Asian, and 6 percent white.

People who weren't involved in the schools then or who are new to Oakland don't understand what our intentions were. But how can you have an intelligent conversation about a complex issue in a campaign flier?"

The wording of the resolution—which stated that ebonics, or the “African Language Systems,” was genetically based and ordered district officials to design a program that instructed students in their primary language to maintain the “legitimacy and richness” of such language—opened it up to misinterpretation, observers say.

Some newspaper articles reported that the plan prescribed teaching children to speak black English and would require that teachers master the dialect themselves and use instructional materials written in the language in order to teach it effectively.

The district became the subject of international ridicule, a favorite topic among political cartoonists and late- night talk-show hosts, who presented black people in caricature, speaking in an inarticulate, unintelligible manner.

One such cartoon by Jeff Danziger, featured in the Christian Science Monitor in January 1997, portrayed a black Hamlet delivering his famous “To be or not to be” line in black English: “I be, or I don’t be. Dat’s whuzzup. Nome sane?”

Black leaders and scholars—even the author Maya Angelou, who has won critical claim for books written primarily in black English—were outraged by the measure, though it was clear later that many detractors based their opinions on the inaccurate portrayals.

State legislators as far away as Pennsylvania moved swiftly to propose laws prohibiting the teaching of black English in schools.

The Oakland school board quickly revised its position, removing the suggestion that ebonics was “genetically based,” as well as the directive that students be taught in their “primary” language.

The squall eventually blew over, leaving officials to smooth racial tensions and find practical ways to address the students’ academic needs. It took several years for administrators to weigh in officially with a substantive plan for tackling the language issue. “We’re now at the point of building on some of those explicit strategies,” says Louis Bay Waters, Oakland’s associate superintendent of accountability for teaching and learning. “It took a while because of the fallout from the ebonics controversy. We needed to get some distance from that.”

That distance has allowed the district to get on with business, and to implement its language-proficiency program with little scrutiny from outsiders. But the sting of the ebonics debate has not completely subsided. The cartoon images and cutting monologues were seared into the collective consciousness of many Americans who still associate Oakland with the distorted ebonics persona.

Jean Quan, a school board member for 11 years, is still deflecting criticism. Quan says her opponent in her race for the Oakland City Council this year mentions the ebonics dispute in campaign literature attacking her record.

“People who weren’t involved in the schools then or who are new to Oakland don’t understand what our intentions were,” says Quan. “But how can you have an intelligent conversation about a complex issue in a campaign flier?

“This, for me, was about making sure that every child in our district learns to speak standard English.”

For some of the district’s harshest critics, the issue is complicated by racial politics.

John H. McWhorter, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, laments that resources are being wasted on what he sees as feel-good curricula. He still views the language focus as a smoke screen for other factors affecting the achievement of black children.

When they go to school, they don't need for someone to teach them the difference between 'There isn't anybody there' and 'Ain't nobody there.'"

“There is virtually no such thing as these mythical black students who hear nothing but black English all of their lives. They hear white people speaking standard English on TV, and mainstream English is spoken by black people all around them,” says McWhorter, an African-American who has been denounced by many black educators and praised by some political conservatives for his views. “When they go to school, they don’t need for someone to teach them the difference between ‘There isn’t anybody there’ and ‘Ain’t nobody there.’ ”

The Oakland resident says the more significant barriers to achievement are poverty, insufficient resources for education, and a stigma in the black community that associates academic success with “trying to be white.”

McWhorter and others also point out that dialects are common throughout the United States among a host of racial, ethnic, and regional groups. To suggest that teachers in Brooklyn, where many children speak in the thick New Yorkese that has also attracted its own share of teasing, need to address dialect differences in instruction would be absurd, McWhorter says.

While educators should show compassion toward children regardless of their backgrounds, McWhorter resents the implication that black children can be expected to thrive only in a culturally sensitive environment.

“The notion that if a teacher says, ‘ “Ain’t” isn’t proper English,’ with a certain disapproving look on her face, it will deter a student from scholarly endeavor is false,” he says.

The popularity of such views among non-educators worries advocates of Oakland-style programs. The potential threat of criticism could have future ramifications, such as those felt in Los Angeles. That district’s program, which provides ongoing teacher-training sessions in 26 elementary schools, had won acclaim in the research community for its approach to instruction for children who use dialects. Amid the Oakland fallout, however, Los Angeles officials scrapped plans to expand the program to more elementary schools, as well as middle and high schools, according to Noma LeMoine, who directs the initiative.

LeMoine disputes McWhorter’s view, based on personal experience. In middle school, she moved from a segregated black district in Texas, where most students spoke in dialect, to a more integrated community in California. After teachers humiliated her for her nonstandard speech, she says, she stopped participating in class.

LeMoine says she intends to ensure that black students in the 737,000-student district will have more positive experiences learning standard English.

Still, such programs face numerous obstacles. In Los Angeles, it is difficult to maintain consistency, even in those schools where training is ongoing, because teacher turnover is high.

Oakland officials, too, are noticing systemic problems in implementing the Academic English Development Program framework. Robinson, the instructional facilitator, says many teachers here are skeptical about whether black students’ speech varies enough from the norm to warrant attention. Robinson recounted how one young African-American teacher dismissed the concept during a recent visit, saying her students were simply “lazy” speakers, something she was guilty of herself from time to time.

Indeed, the verbal tendencies of many teachers pose another impediment to the effectiveness of the Oakland program, experts say. A number of teachers in Oakland, as in other districts, speak nonstandard English themselves at times.

“We have many teachers in the district who have their own language differences,” says program director Oládélé, pointing out that the issue involves not just black teachers, but also educators who have immigrated from Asian and Latin American countries.

Of the district’s 2,900 teachers, approximately 30 percent are black, 50 percent are white, and Asian-Americans and Hispanics account for 10 percent each.

“We have teachers who speak the language of African-Americans,” Oládélé says. “They’re deleting [word] endings. They have problems with verb- subject agreement.”

When children have a teacher who does not have "a consciousness about language," Ms. Oládélé says, it makes learning standard English even harder.

When children have a teacher who does not have “a consciousness about language,” she says, it makes learning standard English even harder.

Such issues are particularly sensitive, she says, when dealing with certified teachers—some veteranswho consider themselves professionals. Oládélé and other administrators are trying to head off such problems through discussions with local universities about teacher education. They are lobbying for greater attention to language issues in preservice programs.

Despite those problems, the district is gaining support for its efforts from teachers and parents. And preliminary data show that student achievement may be inching upward, a result Oládélé attributes to the language-development program.

At Fruitvale Elementary School, teachers and parents are also seeing results.

Asia Patterson, a regular volunteer at the 730-pupil school, has seen the improvement in his grandson, a 5th grader there, and in other students he tutors in a community-based after-school program.

When his grandson, Reginald Branch Jr., moved to Oakland from Buffalo, N.Y., several years ago, he was having trouble cracking the code of standard English. That troubled Patterson, who recalls his own difficulties in school because of the dialect he spoke.

As a native of the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, Patterson spoke “gullah,” a dialect so different from standard English that he could not understand his teachers or classmates when he first entered school. When he was in 4th grade, he says, a teacher recognized the problem and adjusted her instruction accordingly.

As a result of Oakland’s instructional approach, Patterson says, Reginald is a good student, and “he is a polished speaker.”

As a result of Oakland's instructional approach, Reginald is a good student and a polished speaker.

Reginald regularly speaks before the congregation at his church, and he performed with his classmates in the oratorical contest here, winning first place in the regional round of the competition. “The teachers, they talk about learning [standard] English a lot,” he says. “If you want to be respected and be heard, you have to talk correct English.”

At the recent rehearsal for the contest, named in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Reginald’s class files on stage in black turtlenecks and neat slacks to perform “Faces,” an original script by their teacher, Thomas Hardy. After their initial attempt breaks down into a confusion of mumbled lines and missed cues, teachers and administrators remind the students to “speak up,” “speak clearly,” “remember why you’re here.” After composing themselves and summoning up their best diction, they continue.


When you see them

Do you only see color and races?

Are you Aloof, distant and evasive

Do you approach with caution and keep your spaces ...

For if you do,

you must understand that all faces

represent all of humanity

and all of God’s graces

For you must respect

And accept all faces”

Later that day, the class’s performance is more polished, impressing the contest judges enough to award first place in the group category for 5th graders.

Erick Matthews, the 1st grader, has learned his lesson, too. Recalling his teacher’s instructions, he musters up enough of that engaging attitude to win over the judges and earn top marks for his age group.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Language Lessons


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