Across the nation, educators continue to struggle with a new normal in deficiencies in reading and comprehension skills. While scientific evidence explains why our standard approach to reading instruction fails – particularly for African American children – few concrete policy changes exist to shift declining reading scores. Instead debates rage on over the use of sight words or phonics, combinations of the two, the use of cultural sensitivities for Black and Hispanic children, and the role socioeconomics may play in comprehension outcomes. All the while, fewer young people learn to read. 

Education Week notes that one theory suggests that reading is a natural process, like learning to speak. Consequently, if teachers and parents provide environments of quality reading materials, children naturally gravitate towards sound reading skills and become proficient.  Another idea suggests that reading is a series of strategic guesses based on context, and that kids should be taught these guessing strategies.  In the final analysis, researchers have concluded that reading is a code, with combinations of letters representing certain sounds – and phonics — is still believed the most reliable way to teach reading.

Reading scores for American students have dipped consistently for many years and educators like Reston-based teacher Sarah Flagstaff believe that changing the downward slide requires more action and less research.

“The amazing Marva Collins was my role model, and I followed her example of digging my feet into the soil, planting my will for student success deep, and bending to meet the individual challenges each student faced in learning how to read,” Flagstaff told The Informer.  “Her students came from marginalized communities where books were not inside homes, parent literacy was low, and income was scarce — but the kids thrived because she would not allow them to use those markers as barriers to success.”

At Collins’ Westside Preparatory in Chicago, the teachers’ credo, “I will never let you fail,” established a covenant between teacher and student, but also parents (and community volunteers) with educators to ensure that they worked in tandem to reach academic goals. 

Yolanda Brown, a retired Chicago teacher who studied under Collins said she has grown dismayed by the decline in reading scores across the nation.  

“Marva would always say, ‘Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior.’ With a myriad of resources at the ready and accessible, there appears to be a disconnect that we must address,” Brown said.  “Let’s start with us.”

Brown notes that the classroom works to support the language skills already being taught at home – namely, speaking, but in a new form: print.  She said the American Federation of Teachers, among others, notes that the language spoken in Black homes (African American English or AAE), for instance, varies slightly from the English standard (General American English or GAE) taught in classrooms.  This is known as being bidialectal.  

At school entry, AAE speakers have less exposure to GAE and subsequently may lag behind GAE speakers because their language experiences prior to school entry do not always include GAE. Similar lag shows in bilingual children, who need extra time and support to become fully proficient in both their home language and English.  Some suggestions from American Educator contributors Julie A. Washington and Mark S. Seidenberg: 

Expand teachers’ knowledge of language variation. As part of their professional training, prospective teachers usually are made aware of a number of cultural differences that may affect education. However, language variation and its impact on reading and instruction are rarely emphasized.

Expand children’s knowledge of language and the world prior to school entry.  Many AAE-speaking children are less ready than their peers to benefit from reading instruction on the first day of kindergarten because they are not familiar with the school dialect. AAE speakers could gain greater facility with GAE in a language-intensive pre-K environment that provided rich and abundant access to both oral and written language.

Use classroom materials and practices that are effective with AAE speakers.   The curricula and support materials produced by major educational publishers assume that GAE is the language of the child and the classroom.  Classroom teachers (and school systems) should work to develop materials and practices on their own.

Provide enough time on task.  Sensitivity to the time a child who is becoming bidialectal may need to master a new language skill is critically important. A child who has more to learn to reach a goal needs more time to get there.

Respond constructively to AAE use in the classroom.  Teachers face difficult choices when students use AAE in the classroom. If AAE is viewed as “bad English,” the response may be to provide a GAE correction, which conveys to children that their home language is bad. It should be possible to help children learn the classroom language variety without negative messages about AAE.

Recognize the impact of bidialectal experience on comprehending and producing language. Becoming fluent in using two languages or dialects is a positive achievement, but slower responses and other “errors” may occur because the child’s knowledge of the two codes and how to use them is still developing, not because the child lacks the ability to learn.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.