Dialect awareness for school-age children

Children who enter school speaking a non-mainstream dialect must quickly learn to dialect shift (a.k.a “code-switch”). Similar to bilingual children, they have two sets of syntactic, semantic, morphologic, and phonological rules, to be applied in different settings and with different communicative partners.

Mainstream American English (MAE) is used in American schools, in the workplace, and in classroom literature. Most children who enter Kindergarten speaking a non-mainstream American English (NMAE) dialect, such as African American English (AAE), “…change their dialect use spontaneously and without explicit instruction,” with the 1st grade being critical as a time of the most rapid growth in dialect shifting. Importantly, children who don’t learn how to dialect shift (e.g. continue to use NMAE in their writing, when MAE is the expectation) struggle; they “…tend to demonstrate weaker literacy achievement and less growth in reading skills during the school year,” and “…research findings over the last 15 years suggest a strong, predictive relationship between young children’s spoken NMAE use and various language and literacy skills, including vocabulary, word reading, spelling, phonological awareness, reading comprehension, and composition” (see article for thorough literature review).

Who are these children who aren’t dialect shifting spontaneously? Data point toward language skill—“…oral language skills, such as vocabulary and morphosyntax, appear to be associated with… dialect shifting ability.”

In this study, the researchers aim to reduce the achievement gap observed in children who don’t spontaneously shift dialects by providing a Dialect Awareness program (DAWS). This program is built upon decades of evidence, thoroughly reviewed in the paper. This paper actually covers two studies—Part 1 with 116 children, and Part 2 with 374 children. For our purposes, we’ll focus only on Part 2, because it was built upon findings from Part 1. Participants were 2nd­–4th grade students (45% African American, 33% White, 4% Hispanic, 4% Asian, 7% multiracial) from four different schools in the southeastern U.S. Children were eligible to participate in DAWS if NMAE features were present in their writing.

The DAWS program was provided to half the students in 15 minute sessions, 4 days per week, for 8 weeks. The other half of the students served as controls. DAWS targeted the following forms: copula/auxiliaries, plurals, past tense, subject–verb agreement, possessives, and preterite had.

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First, it’s imperative to note that, “… the instructional program was designed to be respectful of both dialects…” Instruction not only highlighted differences between MAE and NMAE grammar and vocabulary, but taught that it was good and normal to use both dialects, and that there are contexts for using each dialect. Instructors used analogies to things like clothing—just like outfits differ per situation, so does dialect. Language activities within the program included listening tasks, sentence cloze tasks, editing tasks, sentence sorts, and plenty of games with vocabulary and grammar tasks built in. There was a lot of writing, as well, which was taught as a primary context for MAE use. Instructors provided both reminders and corrective feedback, such as: “Remember that we are using school language so we have to include –s/-es for plurals and –d/-ed for past tense.” To demonstrate to students how to use both dialects in their writing, “…students learned to put quotes around sentences where characters in their narratives were using home English…”

Overall, DAWS was found to be very effective, with post-program gains in language, reading, and writing skills. Also, though effective for the group as a whole, it was found to elicit the greatest gains for children who entered the program with the heaviest NMAE use, and in children who started with somewhat weaker language scores.

Johnson, L., Terry, N.P., Connor, C.M., Thomas-Tate, S. (2017). The effects of dialect awareness instruction on nonmainstream American English speakers. Reading and Writing. Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s11145-017-9764-y