Can Reading Failure be Reversed?

In V. Gadsden amd D. Wagner (eds.)

Literacy Among African-American Youth

Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.



William Labov, University of Pennsylvania


For thirty years, linguists have carried out extensive studies of the dialect that we now refer to as Afro-American Vernacular English [AAVE]. As a result, we now know more about this dialect than any other form of spoken English. Yet there has been little progress towards solving the problem that was the original motivation for this study: to see if more knowledge about the dialects spoken by Afro-Americans could be used to improve the teaching of reading in the inner cities of the United States. This paper will review the history of research on AAVE as it might bear on the problem of raising literacy levels. The particular solution that appeared to be the most promising in the 1970's will be examined in detail, and the strengths and weaknesses of this approach with an eye to future developments. The paper will then turn to the results of recent linguistic research on AAVE in the past decade, and ask if this new knowledge can be applied to the problem of raising reading levels.

1. The nature of the problem

To begin with, it is necessary to accept certain facts about the failure to teach reading in inner city schools. The problems that we face to day are as great or greater as those that we confronted thirty years ago. The nature of that problem, however, has never been clearly presented by the average reading scores presented in the newspapers or scholarly articles. In New York City, our research South Harlem showed that there was a great gulf between the school records of the majority members of the street culture, and the minority of isolated individuals who were removed from it (Labov and Robins 1969). In 1965, the black children of South Harlem were on the average 2 years behind grade in reading. But that average disguised the fact that the school population was sharply divided into two populations. One, the minority of roughly 40%, consisted of isolated individuals who did not participate fully in the street culture of organized groups. The learning path followed by this section of the South Harlem students was about two years behind the "on grade" level, but it did show an upward movement. A very different pattern was shown by the majority of the youth, members of established clubs or groups like the "Jets" and the "Cobras". Here the pattern is quite different. In place of a steady upward trend, there was a clear ceiling at a reading level of 4.9, which persists through the llth grade. Furthermore, there was no correlation between the individuals marked for their verbal skills and success in reading.

This division in the population is of crucial importance in understanding the persistence of reading failure, and the possible relevance of language differences. The division of the school population into two groups was made on the basis of research in the community, well outside of the school environment, in a milieu where the vernacular culture and value system could be freely expressed. In this environment, it quickly became apparent that the majority of Harlem youth were engaged in a cultural system that opposed the values of the school system, which was seen as the particular possession and expression of the dominant white society (Labov, Cohen, Robins and Lewis 1968, Labov 1972). Studies carried on within the schools inevitably reflect the normative pressure of the classroom context.. On the whole, the situation in Harlem in the l960's was therefore much more ominous in reality than the one that the teacher would have perceived, and forecast the situation where the majority of the inner city youth would remain at a flat level of functional illiteracy, in spite of various efforts to reinforce or reform the curriculum.

Ten years later, the situation in District 7 of North Philadelphia in 1976, was considerably worse, as shown in Table 1. In Philadelphia as a whole, 38% of the residents were black, but 62% of the students in the schools were black, the great majority in racially unbalanced schools. The critical figure is the number of students in the lowest 16th percentile on the national average in both reading and math--these are the students who are most clearly marked as suffering educational failure. In the elementary schools, only 22% of the students were in this group. The mean values for junior high schools showed a decided shift downwards at 33%, and at the high school level, almost 40%. This downward trend was much more marked when we consider schools in the all-black working class areas. The situation for one elementary school that I am most familiar with, the Birney school, showed figures considerably worse: almost one third in the lowest sixth, and 73% below the mean.When we pass to Cooke, the nearest junior high school in the district, one can see an even more rapid decline, where 50% are in the lowest sixth, and 91% are below the mean. Finally, we pass to the nearest high school, Franklin, and find that 70% are in the lowest percentile. Since other figures show that verbal scores and mathematics scores follow the same pattern, this picture is roughly comparable to that which we saw in a closer view of the South Harlem schools in the 1960's

Below 16th16th-49th50th-84th Above 84th
Elementary schools22362913
Junior high schools3337228
Senior high schools3934198

[Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, July 25, 1976]

Comparable figures can be produced for the 1980's, ten years later. The general pattern is the same: the relative position of African-American students declines steadily throughout the school process. This actually understates the problem considerably, since the drop-out rate is also heavily concentrated in this population. Even though the students who are experiencing the worst problems are removed from the scene, the relative performance of the remaining group continues to deteriorate throughout junior and senior high school.

Positive effect of Headstart and other intervention programs

The persistence of this pattern of educational and reading failure is alleviated by at least one positive finding in the efforts to improve education in the inner city. Long-term evaluations of early intervention programs like Headstart have shown persistent positive effects, and continued funding of these programs will undoubtedly have effects upon reading performance. But the original research in South Harlem indicates that the major impact of these intervention programs will be upon the minority of inner city youth who are already detached from the main vernacular culture, and that the majority will continue to follow the downward educational path illustrated here.

The social dimension of educational failure

The most important point that these figures indicate is that young children from the inner city do not start out with the grave handicap that they end up with. In the 1960's, efforts to explain reading failure concentrated upon the concept of a cultural and verbal disadvantage which was the result of an impoverished home environment and lack of motivation from the family. While there may be important factors to be considered here, the overall picture is that young black children arrive at kindergarten full of enthusiasm for the educational adventure, with a strong motivation to succeed from their parent or parents. The pattern of reading and educational failure that follows is progressive and cumulative. Though it may be conditioned by early handicaps, it is largely the result of events and interactions that take place during the school years.

2. Early research on AAVE: evidence for convergence

The original motivation for the research on AAVE was an effort to answer the question as to whether differences between this dialect and classroom English might be partly responsible for the reading problems of the inner city. At the time, there were two opposing views as to the nature of this dialect. Traditional dialectology held that the speech of blacks in the United States was no different from that of whites: that the blacks in the northern cities had simply carried with them the features of the Southern dialect in the areas that they had come from (Kurath 1949:6). This opinion was based on the finding of dialect geography that the sounds and the words used by black speakers were typical of the geographic regions of each area of the South, except for the coastal Gullah area of South Carolina and Georgia. On the other hand, linguists familiar with the Creole languages of the Caribbean came to the conclusion that AAVE was itself a Creole language, similar to the English-based Creoles of Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad (Bailey 1965; Stewart 1967, 1968; Dillard 1972). Their position was based primarily on the absence of inflections and the copula, and the presence of several pre-verbal aspect markers that were characteristic of Creole grammars, particular the invariant particle be, signaling habitual aspect.

A number of sociolinguistic investigations were designed to give a more systematic view of the grammar of AAVE in a wide range of American cities, using quantitative measures of spontaneous speech, along with a number of experimental techniques (Labov, Cohen, Robins and Lewis 1968, Labov, 1972, Wolfram 1969; Fasold 1972; Legum et al. 1972, Mitchell-Kerman 1969, Baugh 1979). These studies showed a remarkably consistent grammar used by black inner city youth in cities as diverse as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The relation of the AAVE grammar to other dialects was found to be intermediate between the extreme positions of the dialectologists and creolists. In at least five important respects, linguistic analysis showed repeatedly that AAVE was or had become closely aligned to other dialects of English:

*The plural -s inflection and concept of plurality was intact, and even generalized to forms like deers that did not show a plural -s in other dialects.

*The possessive -s inflection was basically absent in attributive position, as in my father house, but was always present and even generalized in absolute position, as in hers, John's and mines.

*The past tense was basically the same as in all other dialects, with a uniform use of the irregular past as in went and told, and a somewhat greater rate of consonant cluster simplification of regular pasts than in other dialects.

*The copula and auxiliary to be was variably present, but showed a systematic relationship to the pattern of contraction in other dialects. Since AAVE showed deletion or contraction only where other dialects showed contraction, it could be inferred that AAVE had the same underlying copula form as other dialects and that deletion of the copula was an extension of contraction.

*Almost all of the AAVE syntactic features, like double modals (He might could do that), multiple negation (it ain't no cat can't get in no coop), negative inversion (Don't nobody know) inverted word order in embedded questions (I asked Alvin could he play basketball) were the same or extended versions of similar rules in colloquial Southern English.

In these respects, the AAVE grammar appeared to be a variant of other grammars, primarily differing in the rates of phonetic condensation and deletion, but with the same set of underlying concepts and categories. On the other hand, AAVE proved to be qualitatively different from other dialects in several respects:

*Subject-verb agreement was basically absent, except for the verb to be, and there was no systematic place in the grammar for the third-singular -s inflection.

*AAVE shows a number of preverbal aspect markers with both syntax and semantics that are qualitatively different from other dialects: not only habitual be, but stressed been ' remote present perfect' (I been know your name), be done 'resultative' (Get out the way or I be done go upside your head), been done 'past perfect' (They been done did it). These particles are not tied to any particular time reference, do not show the syntactic behavior of auxiliaries that are subordinated to an inflectional node and follow the standard patterns of inversion, tag formation, adverb or negative placement.

One of the subjects pursued most intently was the pattern of grammatical conditioning of the contraction and deletion of the copula. Holm (1984) and Baugh (1980) found that contraction and deletion were generally parallel, except for the effect of a following locative and adjective. The locative favored the contracted form, while the adjective favored the deleted form, which could only be explained by the reflection of an underlying Creole grammar where locatives always showed the copula, but adjectives did not.

A consensus that appeared to emerge among linguists in the late 1970's was summarized in the testimony of black and white linguists at the Black English trial in Ann Arbor (Smitherman 1980, Labov 1981). This case was initiated by the mothers of black children in a low-income housing project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, located in a middle class white area. They sued the city and the state because their children were suffering educational failure, though they were of normal intelligence and ability, because the school had failed to take into account their special cultural and linguistic background. Judge Joiner of the Federal Court found that the suit had merit under Title 20, Sec. 1703(f), which stated that no child should be deprived of equal educational opportunity because of the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome linguistic barriers. The linguistic case for the plaintiffs was assembled by Geneva Smitherman; testimony of linguists and psychologists established a position that eventually adapted by Judge Joiner in his decision for the plaintiffs. In this testimony, AAVE was characterized by four propositions.

1. It is a subsystem of English with a distinct set of phonological and syntactic rules that are now aligned in many ways with the rules of other dialects.

2. It incorporates many rules of Southern phonology, morphology and syntax; blacks in turn have exerted influence on the dialects of the South where they have lived.

3. It shows evidence of derivation from an earlier Creole that was closer to the present-day Creoles of the Caribbean.

4. It has a highly developed aspect system, quite different from other dialects of English, which shows a continuing development of its semantic structure.

The over-all view of the relations between AAVE and other dialects was therefore one of convergence: that AAVE had been much more different from other dialects in the past, and that it was gradually becoming aligned with them, without losing traces of its Creole origins.

Some linguistic sources of reading problems.

The study of structural differences between AAVE and classroom English showed a number of problems that might interfere with success in reading (Labov 1965). The most obvious factors involved sound/spelling relationships. The differences between the written language and the spoken language were much greater for AAVE than for other dialects, primarily because the reduction of final consonants was much more extensive. Among young children, this tendency of AAVE can lead to an extreme growth of homonymy and a great difficulty in recognizing distinctions that are obvious in classroom English.

(a) Final consonant clusters were more widely reduced than with other dialects, so that AAVE children would more often pronounce told the same as toll, mist the same as miss, and passed the same as pass.

(b) Final liquids /l/ and /r/ were vocalized to glides, and then often disappear entirely, so that told and toll might be pronounced the same as toe, four the same as foe, and help the same as hep.

(c) Single final consonants also tended to disappear, though at a lower rate, so that Boot can sound like boo; seat, seed and see may all be pronounced as see.

(d) A number of mergers of vowels produce another set of homonyms. /e/ and /i/ are merged before nasals, so that pin and pen are always the same. /iy/ and /i/, /ey/ and /e/ often merge before /l/, so that feel and fill, fail and fell can be the same.

(e) The Southern monophthongization of diphthongs is common in AAVE, so that find, found and fond may be homonyms, time is not distinguished from Tom, and boil may equal ball.

(f) The interdental consonants become labiodentals after a vowel, so that the th in breath, breathe, mouth and bath is pronounced as /f/.

It is therefore apparent that the relation between sound and spelling is far more abstract than with other dialects, and the difficult sound-spelling correspondences of English are even more difficult for AAVE speakers learning to read. Furthermore, these processes can interfere directly with the recognition of grammatical particles.

(a) The contracted forms of the future are difficult to recognize, since you'll may sound the same as you, and I'll is difficult to distinguish from I.

(b) The copula or auxiliary forms of the verb to be may also be difficult to recognize on the printed page, because of the high rate of deletion in many contexts.

(c) The signals of the past tense may be difficult to recognize. Even though from a linguistic point of view, AAVE has an underling past tense -ed, the high frequency of deletion apparently creates great difficulty for AAVE speakers in recognizing the -ed on the printed age as signifying past tense. Thus in one experimental approach, AAVE speakers were able to transfer past tense information to derive the correct pronunciation of read in Last month I read the sign, but not in When I passed by, I read the sign (Labov 1972:31).

Loss of confidence in the alphabet. The end result of these conflicts may be seen in the sharp reduction of those decoding skills that utilize the alphabet. All of the AAVE speakers studied in South Harlem had mastered the alphabet, no matter how poor their reading level, as far as the beginnings of words was concerned. Patterns of reading errors rarely showed mistakes in the identification of the first letter. Information theory would predict that errors would decline from the first to the last letter, since each letter narrows down the range of possible words that might be chosen. But in fact, the number of errors rose steadily from the first to the next to last letter. It is common to find words like cold misread as coop. The over-all pattern is that AAVE speakers use alphabetic skills in attacking the first consonant, and the first letter of the vowel, but abandon such efforts beyond this point. This loss of confidence in the alphabet is a direct result of the very abstract relationship between the alphabet and the surface realizations of words in AAVE.

The underlying cultural conflict.

Although there were many points of structural conflict between AAVE and classroom English, the question remains as to whether these differences are large enough to account for the massive pattern of reading failure that we observe in the inner cities. The conclusion of most sociolinguists was that the semantic and structural differences between AAVE and other dialects were not great enough to be the primary causes of reading failure. Dialect differences affected education primarily as symbols of social conflict. Experimental approaches to the effect of speech on teacher attitudes show that it is the most powerful single factor in determining the teacher's prediction of student performance (Seligman, Tucker and Lambert 1972). The main effect of a child speaking AAVE was to affect the teachers' attitudes towards the child, with a resultant negative expectation that affected the teachers' behavior toward the child in many ways (Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968). This was consistent with the pattern of Figures 1 and 2, showing that reading failure was associated with membership in groups that opposed the school culture, rather than with verbal skills. There was strong evidence that such negative attitudes were created by the use of AAVE, and little evidence of any mechanism that would lead to direct cognitive interference with reading. The outcome of the Ann Arbor trial was that teachers were given in-service training on the nature and history of AAVE, in order to correct these negative attitudes. No changes in the actual reading curriculum were suggested to improve the teaching of reading. Later surveys showed that the teachers who had undergone such training did register more positive attitudes towards African-American language and culture, though there was no evidence that reading scores of the black students had improved.

3. The application of linguistics to reading programs

The use of AAVE in early reading.

Not all linguists believed that the main source of interference of AAVE on reading success was attitudinal. Those among the creolists who believed that the structure of AAVE was radically different from other dialects argued that the standard English of the classroom had to be taught by "semi-foreign-language" methods, and reading of that dialect was impeded by the cognitive gap between AAVE and standard grammar. It followed that instructional materials written in AAVE would be easier to read for black children, and that these might form a transitional path between the first stages of reading and that the ultimate control of standard English. Stewart devised a series of dialect primers written in AAVE to test this hypothesis. However, the experiments that would confirm whether such primers were useful were never completed. Many teachers and parents reacted negatively to the idea that vernacular language was to be introduced into the classroom as part of a school program. Even though these materials were intended as the best means of transition to standard English, it was felt that their use in the curriculum amounted to an endorsement of the vernacular language. Many people thought that such programs would actually be teaching children to speak AAVE rather than standard English.

The BRIDGE program

By far the most important program for teaching reading in the inner city schools is BRIDGE, a curriculum written by two black psychologists, Gary and Charlesetta Simpkins, and a prominent educator from the Chicago black community, Grace Holt. As described in Simpkins and Simpkins 1980, this program is based on the method of "Associative Bridging," which was designed to overcome the cognitive problems faced by black youth in attempting to decipher the reading system in an unfamiliar linguistic code. Bridge was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1977 as a series of graded readings and cassette recordings that made use of the traditional folklore of African-American culture, moving in three stages from the vernacular to standard English. The program is introduced by a young black man on tape who serves as an intermediary between the culture of the classroom and the point of view of the black children of the inner city:

(1) What's happenin', brothers and sisters? I want to tell you about this here program called Bridge, a cross-cultural reading program. Now I know what you thinkin'. This is just another one of them jive reading programs, and that I won't be need no readin' program. But dig it. This here reading program is really kinda different. It was done by a brother and two sisters, soul folk, you know. And they put sump'm extra in it, they put a little taste o' soul. Matter of fact, a lot of soul. No jive, that's what they put in it, a little bit of soul, something you can relate to. And check this out, quiet as it's kept, you do need this here readin' program. If you be sittin' in this class, you don't be readin' any too cool. Now don't be lookin' around! I'm talkin' about you, here, right over right over there in the corner now, unless you the teacher, I'm talkin' 'bout you. Now I know what you gon' say. I don' need to be readin' no better, I get by! I don't dig no readin'. And they ain't nothin' I want to be readin' nohow. But dig! I know where you been, and I know where you comin' from too. When you was jus' startin' in school, readin' got on yo' case, now didn't it, got down on you. hurt your feelings. In the second grade, readin' jus' smacked you all upside yo' head, dared you do sump'm about it. In the third grade, hum, readin' got into your ches', knocked you down, dragged you through the mud, sent you home cryin' to yo' mama. Now, by the time you got to the fo'th grade, you jus' about had enough of messin' around with this here readin' thing. And you said to yourself, I ain' gon' be messin' with this ol' bad boy no more! You jus' hung it up. But you had to keep your front So you say, I don' need no readin', it ain' nothin' I want to read nohow. And it wasn', you know, all front, cause that stuff was pretty borin'. So anyway, you stopped tryin', so you was just sick and tired of gittin' done in, bein' bored all the time by that readin' stuff. But dig! like I said now, this here program is kind of different. I want to hip you to that. It can help you git it together. You know, keep you from bein' pushed around by reading. And it ain't borin'. Cause it's about really interesting people. Matter of fact, it's about the most interesting people in the world, black people, and you know how interesting bloods can be.

It is clear that the speaker is addressing the well-integrated members of the street culture, rather than isolated individuals. Nor is it accidental that the person addressed is in the fourth grade (though the program, as we will see, was first tested with grades 7 to 12), since as noted above it is in the fourth grade that resistance to school instruction is first solidified by adolescent peer groups. Bridge directly attacks the problem of social conflict that was identified at the outset as the major obstacle to reading, and at the same time targets the problem of structural differences between the dialects concerned. Excerpt (1) shows many grammatical and lexical features of AAVE. To highlight the structural patterns that form the two ends of the continuum, items (2) through (8) are presented as alternating AAVE and standard classroom English [SCE] treatments of figurative language. In the AAVE version, italics indicate current black idiom and slang; the "[0]" symbols show the deletion of elements of verb to be and other elements of the auxiliary; bold type shows positive features of non-standard grammar, some common to other dialects, and other (like habitual be) specific to AAVE. In the SCE version, bold type indicates standard grammatical features that contrast directly with the AAVE norm, primarily the use of third singular -s.

(2) AAVE: What you [0] gonna learn.

SCE: What you will learn:

(3) AAVE: To dig on talk that [0] saying more than what the words really mean.

SCE: To understand language that means more than the words themselves.

(4) AAVE: Check this out:

SCE: Study the explanation:

(5) AAVE: You [0] got what they call figurative language when you come across words that [0] saying something but ain't really saying what it [0] saying.

SCE:. Figurative language refers to a word or a group of words that describes something as though it were something else.

(6) AAVE: To understand this here figurative language thing, to really put it together, you [0] got to use a little taste of imagination. You can't be using the exact meaning of the words.

SCE: To understand figurative language, you can't use the exact meaning of the words. Instead, you must visualize the idea that the words suggest.

(7) AAVE: What you got to do is trip on the pictures that the words be painting for you.

SCE: You must allow words to paint pictures in your mind.

(8) AAVE: Now dig this: Suppose you was to hear two Brothers talking. And suppose one of them was to say to the other:

Man, that Billy, he [0] fat as a rat in a cheese factory.

Now, what [0] you think the Brother be saying 'bout Billy? Now you know that he ain't saying that Billy [0] overweight. And he ain't trying to get down on Billy by saying he [0] ugly as a rat eating cheese. What he [0] saying is that Billy he [0] got a lot of bread, or Billy got over, or that Billy [0] got it made.

SCE: A poet once advised,

Gather ye (your) rosebuds while ye (you) may

Old time is still a-flying

And this same flower that smiles today

Tomorrow will be dying.

What does the above example suggest to you? What advice do you think the poet is giving? Is he talking about picking rosebuds, or is he talking about people and life? To understand what the poet is talking about, you can't use the exact meaning of the words. If you allow the words to paint a picture in your mind, you will discover that the poet is talking about people and life.

The Bridge program was tested in five areas of the United States, with 14 teachers and 27 classes from the 7th through the 12th grades, involving 540 students--all but 10 of them black. The 21 classes who used the Bridge program showed a significantly larger gain in reading than the 6 control classes: an average gain of 6.2 months for 4 months of instruction as compared to 1.6 months for the control group (Simpkins and Simpkins 1980). On the basis of this impressive finding, the program was marketed nationally by Houghton-Mifflin. However, the program encountered sociolinguistic obstacles. The publishers received enough objections from parents and teachers to the use of AAVE in the classroom that they ceased promoting it, and further development was shelved. The program is now being further developed by Gary Simpkins.

Strengths and weaknesses of the Bridge program.

The initial success of the Bridge program in its primary function of improving reading scores is sufficient to warrant careful attention, and a search for ways of developing its basic principles further.

Bridge appears to have four main strengths:

(a) General aims. The program adopts as its goal the general aim endorsed by American education: to build upon the resources that the child brings to school in order to achieve a mastery of the literacy skills needed in the general society. Simpkins and Simpkins point out that educational pedagogy shares an almost universal belief in the Dewey axiom, "Start where the child is" (Simpkins and Simpkins 1980:226). Bridge is a linguistic and cultural implementation of that axiom.

(b) Combined cultural and linguistic approach. The Bridge program is so designed that it simultaneously operates on both social and cognitive dimensions: it reduces the cultural distance between the student and first reading materials, and also reduces cognitive impediments to reading. All of the research reviewed above points to the fact that such an approach should be initially effective in reducing the problems caused by types of factors.

(c) Approach to the vernacular. The program was written by three authors who have a deep knowledge of vernacular culture and a keen sensitivity to the use of language across the entire range of Black English forms.

(d) Adaptation to the school environment. The authors are thoroughly familiar with curriculum needs, and have developed a program that fits into the classroom environment.

On the other hand, the program appears to have corresponding weaknesses that might well be remedied in a version that would have a greater impact on the reading problem of the inner city schools.

(a) Sociolinguistic acceptability. The presentation of the program to parents and teachers has not yet succeeded in connecting the use of AAVE in the classroom with the general educational axiom of beginning with the child's own experience and resources. Although many educators have come to realize that AAVE is a well-formed language with its own coherent logic, and extremely similar in all inner city areas, the general public still regards it as a form of slang or broken English. The program has not yet been presented in a way that counters the objection that it imposes and teaches a form of bad English that is not generally used by children.

(b) Mixed cultural and linguistic transition. Because the program simultaneously varies on both the cultural and linguistic dimensions, it is not easy to evaluate which component is most effective in improving reading, and so not easy to improve or build on the positive results achieved. Thus strength (b) is also a corresponding weakness. Moreover, the programs shows a shift of cultural content from vernacular culture to an elevated literary culture that is not necessarily--or fruitfully--associated with SCE. The example of SCE figurative language in item (7) above associates SCE with the romantic, poetizing stance of the end of the last century that may well be viewed as effeminate by male youth, black or white. Such a stereotype would not clearly motivate black youth to gain control of SCE.

(c) Temporal dating of vernacular forms. Although the grammar and phonology reflected in the AAVE passages is still current, the vocabulary and idiom rapidly become dated. When I played the Bridge passage (1) to a group of 20 black college students in 1986, they heard it as authentically black vernacular but comically old fashioned. Idioms like hip you to that, dig on, to be all front were no longer possible for them, although cool, check this out, trip, get over, and get down on were still current. Since one of the important features of vernacular culture is the knowledge of what is current and what is not, a spokesman for the program cannot afford to be heard as out-of-date. He (or she) will then be classified as someone who may once have been in touch with the street culture, but is no longer. For most youth, such a person is classified as a lame, whose advice is to be avoided.

The structural elements of AAVE do not change their status as rapidly, and all of the elements shown in the extracts are still characteristic of the vernacular. However, they are presented in a stereotyped form, without the variability that is characteristic of spontaneous speech. For example, there is no variation in the deletion of the copula in these extracts: only zero forms appear in unstressed position, though in real life there is always a balance between full, contracted and deleted forms. Thus the program adapts the view that AAVE is an assembly of all those forms that differ from SCE, rather than reflecting the style of every-day speech. It seems more reasonable for the spokesman for AAVE to show the use of variables like the copula in a realistic way. Any person in a cross-cultural environment would shift towards a more formal style within AAVE, which would show fewer deleted forms.

(d) The problem of temporal dating just raised also raises the problem of fitting the Bridge program into the academic environment. Bridge is well designed to fit the pattern of a nationally distributed, printed curriculum, which is reasonably independent of local resources. Nationally distributed publications can undergo revisions, but cannot be revised as rapidly as popular idiom changes. It follows that the program must rely more upon local resources, where the main message of the program can be re-written, or re-stated, in a more flexible form. The other option is to weaken the AAVE style by using a more general vocabulary, since it is not possible to predict which idioms and slang terms will remain fixed and which will become outmoded in five years' time.

The balance of local and national resources raises the further problem of the relation between the teacher and the program, which is reflected in several of the problematic areas listed. Many black schoolroom teachers are capable of a wide range of style shifting, but many others are not. They are free to rely upon the vernacular narrator as an intermediary between them and the students, in order to approach more closely the point where the students start from. However, this is equivalent to by-passing the teacher, and it is possible that such a step will reduce the teacher's authority. It might seem that the approach of Bridge should be modified to avoid any possibility of conflict between the two sources of information: the program and the teacher. The route towards resolving this problem may lie through a re-consideration of two concepts: the notion of authorship, and the notion of a group decision.

Authorship of the program. The principle objection to the program stems from the notion that it appears to put the school system, as an institution, in a position of endorsing, promulgating or even teaching AAVE. This is because the text, or the program, is incorporated into the curriculum without an explicit framing that separates the speakers, authors or constructors of the program from the school. No such objection is raised when dialect is presented within a work of fiction, especially when authors frame the representation of dialect by prose that demonstrates their command of standard English. To find the most effective frame in which the spokesman for Bridge and the vernacular culture will appear is not a simple matter. While he must appear as more than a casual visitor or guest in the educational process, the school as an institution cannot afford to fully incorporate him into fully into its structure. The solution to this problem requires more than cultural insight--it demands social engineering.

Addressing the group rather than the individual. Traditionally, the old head who advises youth to pursue education is a person who could not or did not pursue that route when he was young, but came to appreciate its value too late to take full advantage of it. His late realization of the value of education occurs after he has emerged from the influence of the compelling forces of the lower class youth culture . As shown above, the adolescent peer group of the black community rejects the school (but not education) because of its perceived identification with oppression and injustice. But the program as it is now constituted paints the rejection of education as the result of an individual failure, rather than as a group decision. It might therefore seem essential that the spokesman appear to be conscious of some of his own limitations, rather than appear as a full-fledged role model. His communication must be with the group, not the individual, since in the inner cities, the normal, socially-adjusted individual will not decide to follow the educational route unless it is part of a group decision.

Language arts in the integrated classroom

The approach taken by Bridge appears to be the most powerful way of attacking simultaneously the cultural and linguistic conflicts between AAVE and SCE. Given the high rate of residential segregation in the inner cities, programs must be designed for schools with close to 100% black enrollment, where students share a joint participation in the same language and culture. However, it is equally important to develop methods that will apply our knowledge to schools with mixed populations, and if efforts to desegregate inner city schools were to succeed, it will become even more important in the future. In such a situation, it is not reasonable to assume a common starting point for all students.

One approach to a mixed situation is to bring to the forefront the actual differences between dialects, endeavor to achieve a tolerance of dialect differences, and use this knowledge to enroll all students in the acquisition of standard English. On the other hand, many educators consider this contrastive strategy counter-productive in two senses: it emphasizes differences among students, and it devotes time to talking about language that is subtracted from the process of learning to read and write. It might seem more helpful to use our knowledge of dialect differences to assist the teaching of reading without introducing this topic directly into the classroom. To date, I do not know of any program that has conveyed detailed and accurate linguistic knowledge about AAVE to the designers of reading programs in such a form that it can actually be used. The following suggestions for Language Arts in the Integrated Classroom are therefore put forward as a possible basis for such a program which has not yet been realized.

Almost all reading and phonics programs that I have seen are based on the assumption that all students have the same underlying forms for words and the same grammar. They are therefore optimally designed for those students whose mental dictionaries, grammars and phonologies are closest to SCE: in other words, for those students who need the least help. It is not accidental that in the 1970's, the Philadelphia Board of Education engaged in a massive study to find which reading programs produced real improvement from the 3rd to 4th grade. Only one program was found to produce a significant advantage, and that was only for students who were on grade or above. A program that would reverse this situation must be based on the axiom that Reading programs must be designed to give the most help to those who show the greatest need. That is not to say that they will not also be helpful for those who are not suffering reading failure. The following suggestions are for ways to apply linguistic knowledge within the program that will give the maximum assistance to speakers of AAVE, Hispanic-influenced English, and other non-standard dialects, without penalizing children whose home language is close to SCE.

Principle 1. Teachers should distinguish between mistakes in reading and differences in pronunciation. This principle can only be effected if teachers become explicitly aware of the patterns of AAVE pronunciation outlined above, so that they can focus their corrections on the important problem of deciphering meaning from the printed page. Though this principle has been widely discussed in the literature in the past two decades, no educational program has yet been developed to give teachers the information that they need to implement it.

Principle 2. Give more attention to the ends of words. The great majority of the phonics programs that I have seen give far more time and attention to initial consonants than final consonants. Some teachers avoid focusing on final consonants almost entirely, fearing that this might lead to such reversals as was for saw. This is however a trivial problem compared to the great difficulty that AAVE speakers have with final consonants and final clusters. It is therefore important to alter this normal procedure drastically to give even more attention to the ends of words.

Principle 3. Words must be presented to students in those phonological contexts that preserve underlying forms. For speakers of many dialects, this means presenting words in citation form--in isolation, or in the frame "This is a ____." But it is in just this final position that AAVE words show the greatest reduction of their underlying forms. To help AAVE speakers grasp the correct relationship between words and their spellings, they should be presented in the most favorable environment when they are first introduced into the reading process..

*Words with final clusters like test should be presented as test of or testing rather than This is a test. Words like old should not be presented in the context He is old but rather in phrases like old eggs. The same principle can also be applied to words like bad with single final consonants: it is heard more clearly in bad idea than He is bad.

*The past tense -ed is best introduced in reading after words ending in /t/ or /d/. It is far easier for speakers of AAVE to recognize the past tense in started, ended, expected than in passed or rolled.

*The third singular -s, one of the most difficult concepts for AAVE speakers to grasp, is best introduced after verbs that end in a vowel, where it is realized most clearly as /z/. Thus John goes home is to be preferred to John walks home.

The application of this principle will radically reduce the number of cases where the AAVE speaking student perceives "silent letters" while the teacher does not.

Principle 4. Use the full forms of words and avoid contractions. As noted above, young AAVE speakers have great difficulty in recognizing the relationship between contracted and full forms, though both may be present in their speech. Full forms like I will have gone and He is my brother are quite natural, and indeed the most common form used by AAVE speakers, but contracted forms of will and is in I'll be there and He's here are often not perceived in speech or recognized in writing.

Principle 5. Grammar should be taught explicitly. Though AAVE and SCE share most rules of grammar, there are a number of areas where young speakers of AAVE find no support in their underlying grammar that will help them interpret elements that appear in printed texts. Subject-verb agreement through third singular -s is the most striking example: it not only affects the regular verb, but affects the irregular verbs have, do and be. The possessive -s in John's idea must be introduced with equal explicitness. Even the plural, which is securely in place for most AAVE noun phrases, must be taught explicitly with nouns of measure like ten cents and five miles. Direct instruction on such elements of grammar cannot harm speakers of other dialects, and may serve many useful purposes in their later education. It is however essential if we are to reduce the mismatch between the printed page and the underlying knowledge of the AAVE speaker.

I would not mean to suggest that in themselves, the application of these principles can reverse reading failure. I have summarized them here in order to outline the full range of possible applications of linguistic knowledge to the problem. Though they have not yet been implemented in any full-fledged reading curriculum, they should form an important element in such a program.

4. Recent research on AAVE: evidence for divergence

Let us now return to the field of linguistic research, and inquire whether linguistic research on AAVE since 1980 has added anything to earlier views. At the end of this period, at the time of the consensus of the Black English trial, it was generally agreed that in the 19th century, this dialect had been much more different from other dialects of English, and was now gradually converging with them. In the years that followed, the evidence for this assumption was thrown into doubt, and new findings showed that the major currents of change were in the opposite direction. This is an area of research that now shows many disagreements, and all that I can do here is to provide my own interpretation of the many new findings that have accumulated. Many of these interpretations are controversial: they represent only my best assessment of the available evidence.

Further arguments on Creole origins

One of the crucial arguments on the origins of AAVE is that the repeated pattern of copula contraction deletion was best explained by a Creole origin. The Creole grammatical pattern referred to here is that noun phrases and the locatives show copulas, adjectives and verbs do not: this is always a basilectal structure, typical of those speakers who are most remote from the superordinate colonial language. Unfortunately, the pattern found by Baugh (1980) and Holm (1984) has not been replicated in many other studies. Furthermore, Singler's study of Liberian Creole English showed that the route from the basilect to the acrolect lay through a mesolect, or middle form, where all copula and auxiliary forms of to be were absent (1991). Indeed, Bickerton's work in Guyana that drew parallels with mainland AAVE did show that the zero form was most typical of the mesolect (1975). Thus it would seem unlikely that a basilectal copula structure could be transmitted to modern day AAVE by a process of decreolization.

(2) In the study of Creoles themselves, the concept of decreolization came into question. Attention to the social conditions that prevailed during the earliest period of creolization showed that the conditions for the continuum already existed at the beginning: that is, the plantation speech communities of the 17th and 18th centuries already had the full range of basilectal, mesolectal and acrolectal forms (Alleyne 1971).

(3) The arguments for decreolization had always had to cope with the fact that there is only indirect evidence for an earlier black Creole in the mainland United States, except for the surviving Gullah of the Sea Islands (Stewart 1967, 1968). But studies of the available direct evidence, the slave narratives of ex-slaves recorded in the 1930's, failed to show grammars with Creole features similar to the Caribbean (Poplack and Tagliamonte 1989).

(4) Sociolinguistic studies of two outlying black communities were carried out, yielding a view of the grammars of the descendants of blacks who had migrated from the United States in the early 19th century: in Samaná in the Dominican Republic, and in Nova Scotia. Though one would expect many changes in the intervening period, it is always the case that such isolated speech communities preserve some of the features of the original settlers, since isolated linguistic groups rarely follow the same pattern of development as the parent community. Dillard (1971, 1973) referred to evidence for a Creole grammar in the Nova Scotian black community, which arrived in Canada early in the 19th century. However, both of these communities showed grammatical patterns very similar to that of early AAVE in the United States (Poplack 1987, Poplack and Tagliamonte 1991).

(5) An increasing number of grammatical patterns of AAVE were found to be continuations of earlier patterns of English dialects. For example, the strongest conditioning factor in the deletion of the copula was that subject pronouns favored zero forms, and full noun phrases favored full or contracted forms. This pattern of noun phrase marking was found to be a traditional characteristic of non-standard English dialects (Bailey, Maynor and Cukor-Avila 1989).

The end result of all this work is that the evidence for decreolization of AAVE was becoming increasingly narrower. In some respects, AAVE had converged with other dialects. The ex-slave narratives showed less subject-verb agreement in the copula (high frequencies of I is, we is, they is. . .etc.) and radically different patterns of pronoun use rarely found today (e.g., object he) and a steadily decreasing use of truncated forms like bout and posed (Vaughn-Cooke 1986). But such converging trends did not characterize the major grammatical patterns.

Evidence for divergence

While the evidence for decreolization began to shrink, evidence of changes in the other direction began to appear. These new findings appear in new and vigorous studies of AAVE aspect, especially the development of invariant be, and new sociolinguistic investigations of AAVE speech communities in the Dominican Republic, in Nova Scotia, in Philadelphia, and in East Palo Alto.

The semantics of AAVE aspect. Linguists had begun to find out more about the AAVE aspect particles like be, been and be done. the more they were studied, the clearer it became that these particles had little connection with the finite auxiliaries of other dialects. Much of the evidence is drawn from the participant studies of Dayton in Philadelphia, who over four years accumulated many times more examples than had been reported by all other linguists combined (1992). These particles can be used in any time perspective, past, present or future, and shared none of the syntactic properties of other English auxiliaries. An increasing number of sentences of AAVE appeared to have no finite tense assignment. Though this development was typologically similar to Creole patterns, the actual semantics of these particles proved to be quite different from anything reported in the Caribbean or West Africa. Instead of showing characteristic aspectual features such as 'perfect', 'perfective', or 'durative', they showed highly complex combinations of semantic features, with strong social affect more characteristic of modals than aspect. For example, AAVE stressed been in I been own this normally conveys the information that the statement has been true for a long time (psychologically speaking), that it is still true, and furthermore that the addressee should have known this if he or she had been an accurate observer. In his study of the modal of moral indignation come (as in He come comin' over here), Spears (1982) shows that many new developments of AAVE are camouflaged: that is, they appear in forms that are so superficially similar to other dialects that they are accepted as slight variants of familiar grammatical forms.

The recent development of habitual BE. The most frequent of these grammatical particles is the invariant be with a 'habitual' meaning. It is the only specifically AAVE particle that is normally heard in the mass media, and it appears several times in the excerpts from Bridge In a series of articles based on research in rural and urban areas of Texas, Bailey and Maynor reported that this aspect marker was not characteristic of rural older blacks, who like the speakers of the ex-slave narratives, used invariant be as a simple alternant of finite am, is, are (Bailey and Maynor 1985, 1987, 1989). They argued that the aspect marker is actually a product of recent divergence of AAVE and other dialects, and is found primarily among younger speakers in the inner cities where rural blacks had migrated from the rural South. In the black community of East Palo Alto, Rickford and his colleagues found a similar rapid development of invariant be (Rickford and McNair-Knox in press). These findings agreed with the evidence cited in the previous section to indicate that the present-day AAVE structure is primarily a creation of the 20th century, rather than an inheritance of the 19th century.

Phonological divergence. A second aspect of divergence emerges from the study of sound changes in progress in throughout the United States. In a long series of studies of American cities--New York, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many others--it appears that local sound changes are developing rapidly, so that the dialects of these cities are now far more different from each other than they were 50 years ago (Labov, Yaeger & Steiner 1972, Labov 1980, Laferrière 1987, Eckert 1988, Bailey and Ross 1992). In every one of these cities, this divergence is limited to the white community: black and Hispanic groups do not participate at all in these sound changes. Instead, AAVE shows a gradual generalization of certain Southern features into a general northern black phonology.

In addition to the chain shifting of vowels, a number of mergers are rapidly expanding throughout the U.S., and here again, a very different pattern is found among black speakers. For example, the expansion of the merger of long and short open o in cot and caught, Don and dawn, etc., has almost completed its expansion in the western United States, but the black community still shows a clear distinction (Veatch 1992). These phonetic and phonological patterns have both a symbolic and a structural significance (Graff, Labov and Harris 1986). Studies of cross-cultural comprehension show that in general, black speakers do not comprehend the new features of white speech as well as white speakers from the same community do (Labov and Ash to appear).

The relation of divergence to social networks. Earlier arguments for decreolization had been accompanied by the general understanding that blacks were making steady progress towards full membership in the rights and privileges of American society. This assumption is supported by progress in civil rights legislation, and the upward movement of increasing numbers of black citizens out of the inner city ghettos. A more sober look at the position of the majority black community suggests that conditions for separation and divergence are more characteristic of the inner city. In the early 1980's, I participated in a study of the linguistic boundaries between black, Puerto Rican and white speakers in Philadelphia. The results showed that the inner city black speech community showed two radically different patterns. The central core of peer group members--young adults from 16 to 40 years old--had almost no contact with speakers of other dialects, and the AAVE features that they showed were far more extreme than any that had been reported before in the mainland U.S. The use of verbal -s and possessive -s was close to zero. The deletion of subject relative pronouns, rare in other dialects, was close to 100%, especially in presentative sentences (There's a man owns this store. . . ).

Within these close-knit networks, we find the development of new grammatical analyses. The North Philadelphia core speakers showed very little verbal -s, but made a sharp contrast between narrative, where verbal -s was used with considerable frequency, and non-narrative, where it was all but absent. Thus grammatical re-analysis has not yet been found in other areas, but it marks a clear reversal of earlier patterns, even among blacks who use of the historical present, which normally represents the importation of non-narrative tense into narrative (Myhill and Harris 1986).

On the other hand, a variety of black speakers in the same community, with the same superficial features of AAVE, showed the deep penetration of the grammatical features of other dialects. These were not speakers who "sounded white": they were fully integrated members of the community. But as musicians, political activists, con artists, through their occupations, legal or illegal, political or social, they had frequent face-to-face dealings with whites. Thus the community was subtly divided into the majority who were diverging further from the pattern of the dominant society, and those who were converging with it. (Labov and Harris 1986, Ash and Myhill 1986).

It is important to observe that all of these speakers were exposed to standard broadcast or schoolroom English for many hours during the day. The crucial factor that distinguished them was whether or not they had frequent personal interactions with speakers of other dialects (white or middle-class blacks) on an equal basis. As other studies of the mass media show, they have little influence on the speech of those who listen to them, unless that influence is reinforced by face-to-face interaction.

Causes of divergence. The Philadelphia situation shows more clearly than any other that the primary causes of divergence are the increasing residential segregation in American cities. The popular impression is that segregation is greatest at the time of in-migration, and steady declines as members of the new ethnic group spread out to other areas. But the Philadelphia Social History Project directed by Hershberg (1981) found in Philadelphia segregation of blacks has steadily increased over the past three decades (Table 2). While his segregation figures are based on ethnicity alone, the linguistic segregation of the inner city is actually more intense than the residential segregation figures show. It is the increasing absence of middle class black speakers from the inner city that determines the high rate of isolation of AAVE, and creates the conditions for further divergence.

Index of dominance
Irish 34853

[Source: Hershberg 1981, Table 8 ]

5. The educational consequences of divergence

These new findings on the structure and directions of change in AAVE have not yet been applied to educational problems. Yet it is not too soon to evaluate the suggestions developed in section 3 in the light of what has been learned.

Let us accept the proposition that AAVE shows continued divergence from other dialects (though not without continuing tendencies to convergence in some areas of phonology and grammar). What are the consequences for the basic problem and for the various strategies outlined above? It is too soon to outline the possibilities in detail. But some clear conclusions can be drawn, which can be summed up briefly under three headings.

(1) It is clear that the problem of continuing reading failure presented in section 1 is one that would be predicted by the continued isolation and drift of AAVE in a context of increasing residential segregation. It is not simply that efforts to improve reading have been inadequate, but rather that the material conditions that created the problem have worsened.

(2) The need for a cross-cultural, cross-linguistic program like Bridge is even clearer. The problems that were addressed by Bridge have become steadily aggravated; the gap between the cultures has increased; and the cognitive problems created by linguistic divergence can only make the acquisition of reading skills more difficult.

(3) The need to develop language arts in the integrated classroom is even more evident. The fundamental finding of the Philadelphia and Texas studies of AAVE is that residential segregation is the primary cause of linguistic divergence. Any pattern of face-to-face interaction between speakers of different dialects--hostile or friendly--leads to a rapid reversal of that trend. A reduction in the basic causes of linguistic divergence can only be brought about by a re-organization of the residential patterns of the large cities, or a re-organization of the school system that brings speakers of AAVE into contact with speakers of other dialects. This means an integration of black lower class youth with black middle class youth as well as integration of black and white youth.

If such integration can be achieved, to any degree, it is not a solution in itself. Speakers of the AAVE dialect will be at a great disadvantage in a classroom where the underlying assumptions, practices and curricula are all designed for speakers of other dialects. An integrated classroom will then mean only another form of failure for children from the inner city. A reversal of reading failure is only possible if the curriculum is revised to provide help primarily for those who need it. The principles suggested in section 3 deal only the linguistic side of the matter. There are many oppositions of cultural patterns that concern the use of language in the classroom, patterns for dealing with authority, cultural definitions of dignity and respect, which create hidden obstacles for the normal majority of African-American children in their dealings with the school system. The linguistic principles must be embedded in a larger perspective that recognizes these children as intelligent and well-adjusted products of their own culture. It is only in such a perspective that the standard language can be presented as an avenue towards educational advancement and the improvement of economic opportunity. Otherwise, it will continue to serve as an additional barrier to social mobility that will ensure further downward movement for the black citizens of the United States.


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