Julie Washington Fall 2021 Keynote Address – Teaching African American Children to Read: The Impact of Language Variation

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By John R. Kruidenier, Ed.D.

When Dr. Julie Washington presented her keynote address at PBIDA’s 43rd Annual Fall Conference, she compared the difficulties that most African-American children face in learning to read with the more familiar difficulties experienced by English Language Learners. When children are transitioning from the language they use at home, Spanish for example, to English at school, educational psychologists and reading professionals know that tests of their reading ability must be interpreted cautiously, especially if the purpose for testing is to determine whether the child has a learning disability in reading. Tests of phonological awareness (our knowledge of sounds and letter-sound correspondences) and reading accuracy, for example, are designed for native speakers of English and may not be valid for English Language Learners. More research is needed on effective ways to assess and teach students whose language varies to some degree from English because they are still transitioning to English in their classrooms.

Much of this is also true for the language variation that results from the dialect of African American (AA) children, according to Dr. Washington, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, where she directs the Learning Disabilities Research Innovation Hub as well as the Dialect, Poverty and Academic Success lab. In her keynote address, she presented research that she and her colleagues are conducting to help educators understand dialect differences and their negative effects on the development of reading accuracy and comprehension. She began her address by explaining the relationship between literacy and language ability and the problems faced by AA children because of their dialect differences. She then explained the role that dialect plays in learning to read, and ended with recommendations for teaching and future research.

Dr. Washington noted, first of all, that adequate language skills are essential for the development of sound reading skills. Those with poor language skills are more likely to have problems with reading, especially ethnic and language minority students from low income households. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card,” has found that less than one-quarter of AA students score at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels in their reading by the end of fourth grade. Given this, one might expect a large number of low-income AA students with below-level reading skills to be identified as having a learning disability in reading in order to receive extra help. AA students, however, are proportionally less likely to be identified because, as defined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a learning disability cannot be the result of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. “So currently in the U.S.,” Dr. Washington said in her presentation, “It is not possible to be both poor and have LD. If you’re poor and you can’t read, it is assumed that you can’t read because you are poor, not because of poor language skills.”

The African American dialect, called AA English by linguists, varies systematically from General English, the dialect of English spoken by a majority of Americans. Some examples of the many ruled-based variations are phonological differences (wif for with, for example, or dis for this); addition and deletion of morphemes (He fix the food; She wear a cap); and verb transformations (They was looking; He be gettin).

African American children must learn General English in school as well as Academic English, the language of classroom textbooks that all children learn. AA children must become bidialectal in a way that is similar to second language learners becoming bilingual as they transition from their first language to English in school. The degree to which a child’s AA English and General English differ, or the degree of mismatch between the two, has been quantified as dialect density. Dialect density is measured as the rate (how frequently) a child uses features of a dialect. The more dense a child’s dialect, the farther away from General English it is. Research by Washington and others shows that dialect density can affect spelling, reading, and writing. Greater dialect density is associated with weaker literacy skills.

This research also points to an underlying cause for the negative effects of dialect. The mismatch between AA English and General English creates more task complexity, increasing cognitive load (or the mental resources needed) when AA students are learning to read. While learning to decode in reading class, for example, AA children will need to switch between AA English and the less familiar General English used by their teachers and classmates. A student with a dense AA English dialect will have more trouble switching. This code switching requires cognitive processing resources that AA students should be using to complete classroom tasks that develop their reading and writing abilities. Research shows that students who are poorer at code switching end up behind by an average of one grade level in measures of reading comprehension by the end of 5th grade.

Dr. Washington concluded her keynote presentation by discussing what needs to be done to address the needs of those who speak AA English and who may, depending on their dialect density, fall farther and farther behind in their reading as they move from the first through fifth grades. According to Washington, these bidialectal students need to be recognized as dual language learners and, like traditional dual language learners, need reading assessment and instruction that is modified to fit their needs. Teachers should know the characteristic features of AA English in order to make effective modifications. To illustrate this point, Washington provided the following example: A student who consistently misses the final consonant in words may be doing so not because they cannot decode the words, but because dropping the final consonant is a feature of their dialect.

Like other English Language Learners, children entering school speaking AA English will need extra time and specialized support when learning to read. One possible route to obtaining additional support is to modify the definitions of a disability in IDEA so that AA students qualify for special education support. In addition, Washington emphasized that while AA children’s home language must be respected, more time teaching the language of the classroom, both General and Academic English, is needed for these students. The goal is not to have them abandon their dialect, the language of their home and community, but to instead learn General English and efficient code switching. Finally, as is true with the whole field of dual language learning, more research is needed to provide the basic tools teachers require to accurately assess AA students’ literacy abilities and provide adequate reading and writing instruction.


Dr. John R. Kruidenier is a literacy consultant based in Horsham, PA.

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