In a recent article Patriann Smith, a professor of Language, Diversity and Literacy Studies at Texas Tech, makes a bold proposal: that “nonstandard Englishes” such as African American English (AAE) and Hawai’i Creole English be used as the primary language of instruction in educating children who speak them. ("A Distinctly American Opportunity: Exploring Non-Standardized English(es) in Literacy Policy and Practice", Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 9/12/2016) Smith reviews evidence that speaking “nonstandard English” (her term) as a first language interferes with children’s educational progress, given the way children are taught and progress is assessed. She also questions the privileged status accorded to the “standard” (aka mainstream, higher status) dialect of English (SAE) used in education, business, government, and other institutions, and the traditional view of literacy as the ability to read that dialect. Hence the proposal that children be taught in their native dialect whether “standard” or not.
In this post I'll look at some implications of this proposal for learning to read. The idea that children who speak AAE (or another nonstandard dialect) might benefit from being taught to read using materials written in their dialect isn't new. Some 40 years ago there was a brief, a mostly-forgotten educational experiment with "dialect readers". They weren't widely accepted then. Has their time finally come?
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