(Submitted to the Los Angeles Times as an Op Ed piece, 3/28/97)
S.B. 205--Well-intentioned but uninformed
Senate Bill 205, set for hearing in the California State Senate on April 2, is a good example of how educational innovation and promise are threatened when policy makers fail to do their homework.
The laudable goal of this bill, introduced by Senator Raymond Haynes (R-Riverside), is to "ensure that all pupils become proficient in English, regardless of race, color ... or other characteristic." However, the means which it proposes--immediately terminating the "Standard English Proficiency" [SEP] program for speakers of Ebonics and other vernacular varieties, and preventing teachers from considering the structure of the vernacular in teaching the standard--is uninformed and misguided.
The fact of the matter is that several studies, both in the United States and from Europe, show that the goal of mastering the standard variety is more effectively achieved by approaches which take the vernacular into account than by those which ignore it or try to condemn it into nonexistence.
One effective means of taking the vernacular into account is the contrastive analysis approach which is at the heart of SEP. In this approach, students are explicitly taught to recognize the difference between vernacular and standard features and schooled in the standard variety through identification, translation and response drills.
Hanni Taylor, in her (1989) book, Standard English, Black English, and Bidialectalism, reported that a group of inner-city Aurora University students from Chicago, who were taught with contrastive analysis techniques showed a 59% REDUCTION in the use of Ebonics features in their Standard English writing, while students taught by traditional methods showed an 8.5% INCREASE in the use of such features.
Henry Parker and Marilyn Crist in their (1995) book, Teaching Minorities to Play the Corporate Language Game also extol the virtues of the bidialectal contrastive analysis approach, which they have used successfully with vernacular speakers in Tennessee and Chicago at the preschool, elementary, high school and college levels.
The ten-year old program in De Kalb county, Georgia, where 5th and 6th grade students in eight schools are taught to switch from their "home speech" to "school speech" is another one in which contrastive analysis methods have proven effective. According to Doug Cummings (Atlanta Constitution Jan. 9, 1997, p. B1), "The program has won a 'center of excellence' designation from the National Council for Teachers of English. Last year, students who had taken the course had improved verbal test scores at every school."
Not only would S.B. 205 rule out contrastive analysis, it would also rule out the dialect readers approach to teaching Standard English via the vernacular, which has a number of striking successes to its credit (see John and Angela Rickford 1994, in Linguistics and Education 7.2) .
One of the earliest dialect reader studies is Tore Osterberg, Bilingualism and the first school language (1961). One group of Swedish dialect speakers was first taught to read in their vernacular, and then transitioned to standard Swedish, while another group was taught entirely in standard Swedish. After 35 weeks, the dialect method showed itself superior both in reading speed and comprehension
Tove Bull reported on a similar study in Norway in a (1990) article (in Troms linguistics in the eighties). Ten classes of Norwegian first graders were taught to read and write either in their Norwegian vernaculars or standard Norwegian. Bull's results were similar to Osterberg's: "the vernacular children read significantly faster and better . . . particularly the less bright children"(p.78).
The most similar US experiment was the Bridge readers co-authored by Gary Simpkins, Grace Holt, and Charlesetta Simpkins in 1977 (Houghton Mifflin). These provided reading materials in Ebonics, a transitional variety, and Standard English. The 417 students across the United States taught with Bridge showed an average reading gain of 6.2 months over 4 months of instruction, while the 123 taught by regular methods gained only 1.6 months--showing the same below par progress which leads African American and other dialect speakers to fall further and further behind.
Despite their dramatic success, the Bridge readers were discontinued because of hostile, uninformed reactions to the recognition of the vernacular in the classroom. William Stewart and Joan Baratz's promising attempts to introduce dialect readers in a school in Washington DC in 1969 were similarly squelched.
Let us hope that the attempt of Oakland, Los Angeles and other California school districts to use contrastive analysis within the SEP as a strategy for teaching Standard English does not meet a similar fate via S.B. 205. Although contrastive analysis and dialect readers are not the only viable approaches to teaching the standard, these innovative methods do work. And school districts attempting to reverse their devastating failure rates with inner city African Americans and other dialect speakers should not be hamstrung by policy makers who may be well-intentioned but are decidely uninformed.
(John R. Rickford is Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University . He is currently co-authoring a book on African American Vernacular English for Cambridge University Press, and co-editing another on African American English for Routledge.)