Thursday, June 12, 2014

Linking dialect to literacy

Tags: craig, elementary education, literacy

Research by Holly K. Craig, professor emerita, research professor emerita, and program director of the Michigan Project on Oral Language, Writing, and Reading, has led to a unique curriculum for elementary school students, centered around linguistic diversity.

Craig’s studies of language, particularly linking language to academic achievement, led to a development grant funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The grant covered three years of research and development on helping children who speak a dialect to improve in classwork and assessments.

Increasingly, elementary grade teachers are required to teach their students to understand and speak conventional forms of English. However, we all speak variations from conventional English, known as dialects. Many African American students grow up speaking a dialect alternately referred to as African American English (AAE), Black English, Ebonics, and other terms. Some characteristics of this dialect include a distinctive set of verb tenses and grammatical features such as double negatives, specific pronunciations, and some unique vocabulary words. But teaching materials – especially textbooks – and almost all tests rely on Mainstream Classroom English (MCE). MCE is a formal variation of Standard American English, the dialect associated with educated and professional discourse.

Using a sociolinguistic method called Contrastive Analysis, Craig’s project sought to develop a “code-switching curriculum” that put AAE and MCE side by side, to help children translate between the two and get more comfortable using MCE in a classroom setting. According to Stephanie Hensel, research area manager, the first two years of the grant were devoted to working with teachers to assess the use of language by elementary school students and begin work on developing an intervention. The third year included a small pilot study where classroom teachers implemented a new “translation” curriculum, and assessments to verify that it led to gains in reading achievement.

A highlight of the project was the development of nine unique storybooks.
After research showed that existing books didn’t have the right features for the proposed curriculum, Craig decided to develop new books. She enlisted a children’s book author, Debbie Taylor, and two illustrators, Lori McElrath-Eslick and Jason Phillips, who collaborated on a series of storybooks that help children shift from dialect to classroom English.

For example, the book, Just the Dog for Me, focuses on one feature of AAE – the simple past-tense form of “ed,” as in “jumped.” In AAE, the “ed” can be included or not to express simple past tense, depending on the characteristics of the sentence in which the verb is produced, but in MCE, the “ed” must always be included. The book includes text that shows a box at the end of various words to indicate where the “ed” could go, to help students understand whether or not to use it depending on the formal or informal context of a sentence.

Meanwhile, educational publisher Ventris Learning found out about the new curriculum, which includes not only the storybooks, but also a teaching manual, assessments and many other supporting materials, and approached Craig to develop a wider application for it. Craig and Hensel turned to U-M’s Office of Technology Transfer to negotiate the licensing process. Ventris is now working to finalize the curriculum materials in preparation for marketing them to school districts around the country.

Craig and Hensel are enthusiastic about the potential of the new curriculum to help dissolve some of the barriers that African American students face in reaching their academic potential.

“Students who can switch away from their home dialect to the MCE of classrooms have a tremendous advantage over their peers who cannot make this educational adaptation,” said Craig. “Our new curriculum equips teachers with a systematic, effective, and tested set of methods to bridge this language gap in positive and constructive ways.”

Holly K. Craig is Professor Emerita, School of Education; Emerita Research Professor, University of Michigan

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