School & District Management

Students Learn to ‘Toggle’ Between Dialects

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 09, 2014 6 min read

As far back as George Bernard Shaw’s fictional professor Henry Higgins, language experts have argued that low-income students who learn to switch from speaking a dialect to using standard English have an easier time moving up academically and socially.

Now, researchers at the University of Michigan are scaling up a language program intended to help students embrace their home dialect, while also recognizing when and how to switch to standard American English in academic and professional settings.

In the United States alone, there are more than two dozen dialects of English, from the Y’at in New Orleans to urban African-American in Detroit, to Boston Brahmin, according to the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

They often cross race, class, and geographic regions, and every so often educators and policymakers voice concerns about the disintegration of “standard English” and issues associated with student dialects. In 1997, the Oakland, Calif., school board touched off a racially charged national debate when it ruled the dialect known as African-American Vernacular English (also called “ebonics”) was linguistically distinct and urged teachers to help students who used the dialect understand how it differed from “mainstream English.”

Classroom Code-Switching

An intervention being rolled out this fall in Michigan schools aims to teach kindergartners and 1st graders to recognize five common features of their home dialects and to switch between their own dialect and speech forms more suited to the classroom.

Making a Plural With “S”

Issue: The student often keeps the “s” in the plural that ends in a vowel sound, but drops it following a consonant sound.
Example: “Two shoes,” but “three ball.”

Past Tense "-ed”

Issue: In a simple past tense, the student uses the ending "-ed” only if doing so adds an additional syllable.
Example: “The boy decided,” but “The frog jump.”

Subject-Verb Agreement

Issue: The student drops the “s” from the verbs in sentences that would be singular.
Example: “The sign say ‘Danger.’”

Supporting Verbs

Issue: The student omits any copula, or “being” verbs.
Example: “I don’t know what she doing.”


Issue: The student omits articles or uses only “a.”
Examples: “dog found some frogs.”

SOURCE: Holly K. Craig, Michigan Project on Oral Language, Writing, and Reading

“People still don’t understand what teachers are trying to do in bringing the vernacular into schools in any sense. The knee-jerk negative reaction is really detrimental to any kind of progress,” said John R. Rickford, a professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford University, who participated in the Oakland ebonics debates. “There’s a thinking that anyone using nonstandard English is operating at a lower level of cognitive skill, but … that’s not true. All languages require very complex thinking—and can provide different angles for instruction.”

Now, nearly 15 years later, with growing research on the importance of teaching all students academic language in different subjects and rising proportions of both native- and non-native English-learners, interventions to help students navigate among different strains of language may have a new opportunity to gain traction.

Varieties of ‘English’

Longitudinal studies have found that about 60 percent of students who enter school speaking a nonstandard form of English eventually learn academic language, but it usually takes three to four years. Students who learn to “code-switch” early show better academic achievement by the end of elementary school than those who take longer to do so. In part, experts believe this is both because students have more trouble understanding their teachers’ academic language and teachers have more trouble deciphering students’ speech.”

For example, in a study in the June 2014 Journal of Hearing and Speech Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison linguist Jan Edwards found that children’s frequency of using nonstandard dialect independently predicted their grasp of mainstream academic English, even after controlling for a student’s vocabulary size. “The more you used dialect features, the more difficult it was for you to do well on this challenging mainstream English task,” she said.

Particularly in the early grades, when teachers are focusing on the fundamentals of English and phonics, a frequent approach “is to throw all of English grammar at them, or to correct them when they start to speak in the vernacular,” Mr. Rickford said. “There’s evidence that that doesn’t really work that well.”

Holly K. Craig, a professor emerita of education and research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and principal researcher for the Michigan intervention, ToggleTalk, said such an approach can feel negative to a student. “A child says something in a dialectic form and the teachers will say, ‘No, that’s not right, you have to say [the correct form]. ... It really doesn’t work. Students don’t understand what’s wrong with what they are doing. It’s what their family at home sounds like, what their community sounds like.”

In some ways, she said, it may be harder for students who speak English as a first language, but with a dialect, to understand why their speech is different than that of peers who speak two different languages, such as English and Spanish.

“It’s not like you are stepping away from your parent language and trying to do something very different,” said Ms. Craig. “I am concerned that interference may be there. Whenever you are asked to translate from one language to another it takes time, no matter how fluent you are.”

Much Like ELLs

Carole A. Cobb, the executive director of the Sankofa Education Alliance, a Los Angeles-based education consulting group, and a former K-12 district coordinator for Los Angeles public schools, said in a report on standard-English learners that they often need some of the same approaches as ELLs: academic vocabulary development, instruction that makes cultural connections, and approaches like contrastive analysis that help students recognize underlying similarities and differences among languages. Under a $1.5 million development grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, University of Michigan researchers Ms. Craig and Stephen Schilling created a curriculum and a series of early-reader books that portray dialect and academic English as useful in different situations.

In each, early-elementary-age children solve a problem by “code switching,” speaking to different members of the community in different ways.

Students in kindergarten and 1st grade receive 20-minute sessions three to four times a week in which they read the books and discuss and role-play how and when to switch from their home dialect to academic English.

ToggleTalk takes a page from research on teaching non-native English-language learners. Using contrastive analysis, in which teachers focus on similarities and differences between how a student would say something in his or her native language and the new language, has been shown to boost ELLs’ language acquisition. The books for standard-English learners, or SELs, focus on five common linguistic differences that have been seen in multiple American dialects, including that used in the predominantly black communities of urban Flint and Detroit, where the books were developed.

“It’s about reframing it for the students: Standard [English] is associated with education, academics. It’s formal language, and children can pretty quickly learn what’s formal and informal, like clothing for home and church.”

In 2013, the 7,000-student Flint Community Schools piloted the curriculum, finding that by the end of eight weeks, students had improved at recognizing dialects and academic English, and had started asking each other to “use your formal words” in math and other classes outside of the program. In addition, Ms. Craig said the students made gains in word decoding that were very close to statistically significant in a study with a small sample size. There was no comparison group for the pilot study.

Scaling Up

Based on that one small but promising case study (only 28 students participated in the program), Ventris Learning, based in Sun Prairie, Wisc., is scaling up the program to 10 districts in five states, with plans to expand nationally. Ms. Craig plans a study of the students in newly participating schools, both of how students learn to code-switch and how code-switching ability affects students’ progress in school.

“It’s another way to get at the black-white achievement gap,” she said, among students who speak different dialects, “by focusing on language skills in a positive, not a negative way.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Language Program Focuses on Dialects


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