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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Bilingual ed for black English?

Remember Ebonics? Worried about black students’ reading skills, Oakland’s school board declared black English to be a separate, “genetically based” language, not merely a dialect, in December, 1996. A resolution implied teachers would use Ebonics in class.

The National Head Start Association ran an ad slamming the use of Ebonics in school.

Among those who hated the idea were Maya Angelou, who was “incensed,” and   Jesse Jackson, who called it “madness” to make “slang talk a second language.”

I was working for San Jose Mercury News editorial pages: I was proud of myself for getting two black linguists, John McWhorter, then at Berkeley, and John Rickford, at Stanford, to write op-eds. Rickford’s is here.

In January, the board said students would not be taught in Ebonics. A few months later, overwhelmed by ridicule, the board dropped the whole thing.

The board’s motive, I thought, was to get bilingual education funding for black students. After all, schools got extra money to teach kids who came to school speaking Spanglish rather than Standard English. Many black students also arrived without fluency in Standard English. If it made sense to teach in Spanish as a step toward English fluency, why not use black English as a stepping stone to Standard English?

Teaching children how and when to switch between their home dialect and Standard English could shrink the achievement gap, argues Julie Washington, a Georgia State profession of communications sciences.

Other programs to use African-American Vernacular English (“Ebonics” is very, very dead) to teach Standard English “have provoked furious backlash and quickly met their end,”  writes William Brennan, who writes about Washington’s work in The Atlantic. But he thinks “maybe Oakland was onto something.”

Like speakers of any nonstandard dialect, from Swiss German to Cypriot Greek, most speakers of African-American English do learn to code-switch naturally, Washington explained. “Some start during kindergarten, then we see a big wave at the end of first grade and another at the end of second. Then you get to third grade and it’s over.” At that point, about a third of them still can’t speak the standard dialect, and “code-switching isn’t going to happen unless you teach it. We know those kids will have trouble.” By the end of fourth grade, “switching” students—that is, students who are proficient in both their home dialect and standard English—score at least a full academic year ahead of their nonswitching classmates in reading.After a four-year study, Washington “discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect,” writes Brennan.If the teacher speaks academic English, students who speak a different dialect must constantly translate what’s said in class, says Washington. That creates a heavy “cognitive load.”A code-switching curriculum called ToggleTalk, developed at the University of Michigan, is being tested in Baltimore schools.

Students learn “how and when to switch from their home dialect to academic English,” wrote Ed Week‘s Sara D. Sparks in 2014. The technique, called “contrastive analysis,” has been used to help English Learners.

Los Angeles Unified also is trying ToggleTalk, writes Brennan. “Teachers in the district have also requested lessons meant for speakers of Chicano English, a Spanish-influenced dialect used by a large minority of students there.”

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