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Acknowledgement, affirmation, and accommodation: the non-standard language approach. (Language Teaching & Learning).

Despite voluminous efforts -- educationally, politically, and socially -- African American students continue to underachieve in the American school system, particularly in literacy. The American school system continues to fail this student population. Part of this failure is the historic institutional discounting of the mismatch that exists between the culture and language of the school and the culture and language of the African American child. 40 years of linguistic and educational research provide curricula alternatives to systemically address African American students and theft learning needs. Literacy instruction needs to acknowledge, affirm, and accommodate the culture and language of African American students by directly addressing them as Standard English Language Learners. The aim of this approach is to increase theft proficiency in Standard American English, their access to the core curriculum, and ultimately academic success.

Historical Systemic Failure

Chronic underachievement of African American students has been the most indefatigable problem facing this nation's educational system. The lack of overall academic achievement for African American students is the bane of the American schools and the core of an entire body of research (Darling-Hammond, 1995). Read almost any research over the past 40 years that focuses on African American students and it will begin with the historical underachievement and institutionalized inequities experienced by these students in the American school system (College Board, 1999; Comer, 1988; Irving, 1990; Ogbu, 1999). Research cites many reasons for this systemic failure (Garcia, 1995; Viadero, 2000). Historical and sociopolitical perspectives, like cultural deprivation in the home environment, institutionalized racism, oppositional counter-culture attitudes among students, and the home/school cultural mismatch have been posited. Socioeconomic factors related to poverty, peer pressure, and family issues have weighed in as well. Educational reasons, such as ineffective classroom instruction-particularly in reading and language, lack of instructional resources, low teacher expectations, and standardized test biases, also have been called causes.

From a historical perspective, Smith (1998) noted that nowhere is the failure more noticeable than in literacy and language instruction. Literacy and language proficiency in Standard American English (SAE) are held as the keys to academic success and social mobility in America. For African Americans, as well as other disenfranchised groups, literacy and language underachievement can be connected to the historical denial of equal educational opportunities coupled with stagnant, ineffective traditional literacy and language instruction. Sato (1989) pointed out that African Americans, when looked at as non-standard language speakers, as well as other groups with similar linguistic backgrounds, consistently underachieve in the school system. Current literacy and language trends reveal that history continues to repeat itself. For example, in Los Angeles for the first time African American students scored lower than the bilingual population in reading, language, and writing on the CTBS-U (eighth-grade) in 1997-1998. More recently, as reported by the Nation's Report Card on Reading (2000), African American students had the lowest percentage of students, 12%, at or above proficiency compared to 32% for the nation. Something is not working.

Non-Standard Language Awareness Approach -- An Instructional Alternative

The failure of the American school system to look at African Americans students as non-standard English speakers has been well chronicled, documented, and researched (Labov, 1972; Rickford, 1997; and Smitherman, 1977). Garcia (1995) posited that students from culturally diverse populations do not succeed at school because the difference between school culture and home culture leads to an educationally harmful dissonance. The instructional practices of many educators (Brooks, 1985; LeMoine, 1999; Secret, 1997) and the research of noted linguists (Williams, 1972; Wolfram, 1990; Taylor, 1989) have demonstrated how African American students cultural and linguistic needs could be addressed utilizing second language methodology. There are mounds of research and scholarship (Adger, Christian, and Taylor, 1999) on African-American Language, known in the populace as Ebonics, and its place instructionally in the classroom, yet it remains largely untouched, misunderstood, and ignored. Except for the Oakland Ebonics controversy, many people, including the majority of educators, would still be unaware of this research as a viable and doable instructional alternative. Rickford (1999) put forth that methods of teaching reading and writing that take the language diversity of African Americans into account have shown greater promise than those that do not.

Speakers of African American Language (AAL) or Standard English Language Learners SELLs (LeMoine, 1999) can acquire mainstream literacy through methods similar to second language acquisition. Promoting an "additive non-standard languageism" fosters the academic and linguistic development of minority students without repression of the students home language (Sato, 1991). The overarching problem is instructional policies and programs that attempt this approach are essentially invisible in the larger education picture. Au (1993) held that proficiency in Standard English should be perceived as a goal for school literacy and not as a prerequisite to becoming literate. Labov (1995) said that recognizing and accepting dialect differences can affect the quality of education received by some students both academically and socially. In addition to that, studies have shown that teachers' beliefs and attitudes about students who speak non-standard English varieties can become self-fulfilling prophecies of low student achievement (Christian, 1997). Rickford (1997) noted that when language varieties are recognized and acknowledged students do tend to achieve better. Despite the failure of the American educational system to educate African American students and the existence of this validated knowledge of an alternative approach, a pervasive curriculum still does not exist.

Evidence of Success

Rickford cited ample support that non-standard language awareness teaching can impact student's language and literacy learning. He said that there is experimental evidence that both from the United States and Europe that mastering the standard language might be easier if the differences in the student vernacular and Standard English were made explicit rather than entirely ignored. Hanni Taylor (1991) compared two groups of students -- one being taught traditionally and the other using the non-standard language awareness approach. She found that the latter students showed a 59% reduction in their use of African American language in writing. The students in the traditional classroom actually increased their use of African American language by 8.5%. Simpkins and Simpkins (1977) reported that students who used Bridge readers, transitional readers and Standard English readers gained 6.2 months on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. In addition to the experimental research cited by Rickford and others, there is classroom anecdotal evidence (Brooks, 1985; LeMoine, 1999; Secret, 1997) that supports this alternative to traditional literacy instruction. The approach of practicing non-standard language awareness teaching has been successfully practiced and documented in Los Angeles, Tennessee, Chicago, Georgia, North Carolina, and, of course, Oakland.

Academic English Mastery Program

The Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP) is a comprehensive non-standard language awareness program in Los Angeles designed to serve the language needs of African American, Mexican American, Hawaiian American, and Native American students who are not proficient in Standard American English (SAE). AEMP infuses into the district's curriculum research-based instructional strategies that facilitate the acquisition of Standard American English in its oral and written forms without devaluing the home language and culture of the students. The primary goal of the program is for students to use Standard American and Academic English proficiently, and in the process experience increased, enriching literacy classroom opportunities and greater academic achievement. The Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP) revolves around six researched-based critical instructional approaches. The contention is that the combined-use of these six approaches in the classroom acts as the instructional difference for Standard English Language Learners (SELLs). The six key instructional approaches are:

1. Build teachers' knowledge, understanding, and positive attitude toward non-standard languages and the students who use them.

2. Integrate linguistic knowledge about non-standard language into instruction.

3. Utilize second language acquisition methodologies to support the acquisition of school language and literacy.

4. Employ a balanced approach to literacy acquisition that incorporates phonics and language experience.

5. Design instruction around the learning styles and strengths of Standard English Language Learners.

6. Infuse the history and culture of SELLs into the instructional curriculum.

AEMP's rationale is that too many SELLs are failing in American schools, interned in classrooms where their language is devalued, and teachers' low expectations and limited understandings about their language and culture negatively impacts achievement. Many minority students arrive at school in America speaking a language that differs from the language of instruction. The lack of acknowledgement of this "language difference" can impact academic success. How teachers view this language difference significantly influences the students' ability to acquire literacy and other academic skills.

In summary of AEMP, renowned linguists Geneva Smitherman (1999) said, "By far the most concentrated and comprehensive classroom practices embracing a philosophy of multilingualism are those in ... [The Academic English Mastery Program].Since 1991, [The Academic English Mastery Program], designed for grades K-8, has used a historical, linguistic, cultural approach, and a philosophy of additive bilingualism to teach language and literacy skills to students whose primary language is Ebonics" p. 12.

Students in AEMP showed success in their writing in an experimental study conducted by the school district (Manddahian and Sandamela, 1999). In that study, the Academic English Mastery Program students outperformed a control group of students on the Language Assessment Measure, a test designed specifically for African American Language speakers. Both groups participated in pre/post tests, and while both groups made gains between the two tests, there was a significant difference between the experimental and control group on the posttests with the Academic English Mastery Program students achieving higher scores.

Key strategies used by the Academic English Mastery Program teachers made the difference for these students. These key strategies are based around the six instructional focus areas previously mentioned. Each focus area comprises several strategies that are critical to Standard American English acquisition and proficiency for Standard English Language Learners. Through an implementation study, Hollie (2000) discerned particular strategies that the Academic English Mastery Program teachers were using in their classrooms.

In the first focus area, Second Language Methodology, the AEMP teachers provided students with oral communication models of Standard American English and negotiated and clarified meaning throughout the lessons consistently. Additionally, most of the teachers used collaborative grouping on a regular basis. One important strategy employed was structuring naturalistic language experiences which permitted students to use their home language as an acknowledgement of their culture and linguistic history. Many of the teachers know of Second Language Methodology as Sheltered English instruction or Specially Designed Academic Instruction in English.

Building on Learning Styles and Strengths is the second focus area. In this area, a large majority of the teachers were presenting the same material to all the students for equal access to the curriculum. Lessons were not watered down. In many of the classrooms, the room environment was arranged in a way that created a spatial context for movement and collaborative learning activities. Some classrooms used the strategy of incorporating high movement content materials and high movement contexts, meaning that, the teachers used literature that contained plots and characters involved in physical movement, such as performing arts. The students had ample opportunities to easily move around for role-playing, reader's theater, and performance-related activities during reading.

The third focus area deals with Cultural Awareness. Strategies that signify this area are supporting the student's cultural identity, recognizing the student's history and culture, infusing the student's history and culture into the curriculum on a daily basis, and creating a classroom environment that is encouraging and stimulating for the students. A key strategy for this area is the use of culturally relevant literature, that is, literature that reflects the student's home and cultural life. This meant that the teachers used African American literature that included African American language, such as works by Virginia Hamilton, Langston Hughes, Julius Lester, Camille Yarborough, and others. These literature titles gave the students the opportunity to see African American language in the text in addition to simply hearing it all the time. Then, they are able to make comparisons and contrasts with the language they read and the language they speak as well as Standard American English.

The thirteen strategies associated with the focus area Balanced Literacy cover a myriad of methodologies that encompass what is now commonly termed "balanced literacy." The strategies that the teachers strongly incorporated were allowing the students to read aloud, providing students opportunities for free voluntary reading, and reading to students on a daily basis. A focus on writing was incorporated as well, particularly the strategy of using the writing process. Most interestingly, the one strategy that the teachers struggled with was using the similarities and differences of the non-standard language and Standard American English to support phonetic analysis. This strategy requires that the teachers know the particular African American language phonological sounds that might cause concerns for the students in acquiring Standard American English sounds. The teachers are then asked to accommodate these sound differentiations during their phonics instruction.

It is important to note that Linguistic Awareness is the most crucial focus area as it embodies one of the main tenets of the Academic English Mastery Program. The strategy of demonstrating knowledge of non-standard languages, their system of rules, sounds and meanings was used by some of the teachers. These teachers also conveyed their knowledge of the non-standard language-speaking students' history and culture. The two well implemented strategies in Linguistic Awareness were introducing the students to Standard American English vocabulary and providing regular opportunities to use SAE vocabulary in authentic situations. However, very few teachers used the necessary types of culturally relevant literature as a springboard to other strategies, such as analyzing linguistic differences between SAE and the home language and providing opportunities for students to differentiate the linguistic features of non-standard language forms from those of standard language.

Classroom learning environment represents the last focus area. All of the Academic English Mastery Program teachers in the study used classroom libraries that included culturally conscious literature, magazines, and newspapers that reflected the students' home life and personal interest. Many of the classrooms provided the students with a print rich environment. The use of listening centers with cultural folklore, storytelling, and books on tapes provided the models of the language of school and the use of cultural centers that featured African and African American cultural artifacts and games.

In sum, the combined-use of all six of these focus areas in the classroom created a situation that can impact academic achievement for African American students as Standard English Language Learners. Use of one or two strategies in isolation or practiced infrequently made little difference for these students. The Academic English Mastery Program teachers demonstrated that use of all six-focus areas in a consistent, quality matter could bring about improvements in writing.


Cummins (1989) summed up the non-standard language awareness approach most succinctly. He said that educators who see their role as adding a second language and cultural affiliation to students' repertoire are likely to empower students more than those who see their role as replacing or subtracting primary language and culture in the process of assimilating them to the dominant culture. And he continued, "... language minority students' educational progress is strongly influenced by the extent to which individual educators become advocates for the promotion of linguistic talents, actively encourage community participation in developing students' academic and cultural resources, and implement pedagogical approaches that succeed in liberating students from instructional dependence" (p. 85).


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Sharroky Hollie, California State University, Dominguez Hills, CA

Sharroky, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor focusing on African American Education, Non-Standard Language Awareness, Literacy.
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Author:Hollie, Sharroky
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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