This is worth reading. Different students have different needs in learning academic English. -Patricia
Students speaking vernacular dialects fare worse
By Naush Boghossian | LA Daily News
Hands shot up even before third-grade teacher Tammi Berman had finished reading a sentence in "Flossie and the Fox," a book written in the dialect of the rural South.
"Yo'self," she read, and eager students waved their hands. "You ain't," she continued, as even more hands shot up.
"You a real fox," she read as more students clamored for her attention.
"I think in academic English, it's `You are a real fox,"' one student chimed in.
For the 21 students in Berman's West Hills Nevada Elementary School class - four African-Americans and 17 Latinos - the lesson emphasizes the differences between "home language" and the classroom.
And it's at the heart of a growing urgency at Los Angeles Unified School District that after more than 15 years of quiet awareness, more now needs to be done to meet the challenges faced by students whose native language is English but who speak vernacular dialects at home.
"Until you tackle language, you will not have academic achievement," LAUSD Superintendent David BrewerIII said.
"I don't care about the politics behind this. I want to make sure children learn standard English."
Rough estimates indicate at least 100,000 of LAUSD's 695,000 students are "standard English learners," comprising the lowest-performing group in a district already struggling with achievement-test scores that lag far behind the state and nation.
While the district's estimated 224,000 English-language learners are usually blamed for the district's low scores, the hidden truth is that students whose native language is English but who speak vernacular dialects at home - such as African-American English, Chicano English, Hawaiian Pidgin English and American Indian language - are, in fact, at the bottom.
These students, also called "SELs," make up a large portion of the district's early dropouts, have the highest dropout rates, and perform far below even English-language learners, said Noma LeMoine, who oversees LAUSD's Academic English Mastery Program.
"We're becoming a little more cognizant of them as a language-learning population, and we're acknowledging them more," LeMoine said.
"We see more and more SEL students aren't doing as well as they should be doing."
Linguists say the question of why children born in the United States into families who haven't spoken a foreign language for generations still struggle with standard English is at the heart of the challenge.
Controversy about the issue flared in Oakland more than 10 years ago after the school board there proposed officially recognizing Ebonics as a language of African-Americans and incorporating it into classrooms to help students learn standard English.
Although unanimously approved by one board, the proposal was abandoned when a new board majority - with different political views - stepped in.
Aside from the political and cultural sensitivities, there also is no simple test or scientific way to determine who needs to learn standard English.
While SELs demonstrate perfectly correct Chicano-English or Hawaiian-Pidgen English, for example, they don't have a mastery of the grammar and syntax of standard English, LeMoine said.
"You see this cycle of failure at school primarily because they're not viewed as language-different," LeMoine said.
With few districts in the nation more developed than LAUSD, Los Angeles school officials now find themselves at the forefront of reopening a potential national debate on the politically and culturally sensitive issue.
LAUSD has implemented an Academic English Mastery Program in 81 schools for students. But so far, LAUSD is one of the few districts in the nation that even has a name for such category of students, indicating "the extent to which people don't want to talk about it," said Carolyn Adger, director of the Language in Society Division at the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C.
"LAUSD's program has been out in front for a long time..., and (it) is very well-known," Adger said. "It has the support of the district, and has had for a long time, and in other places you don't have that."
But without provisions in the federal government to provide special funds for SEL students, it's up to district leadership to aid the students.
LeMoine's department has a $3million budget, but professional training for teachers is not mandatory.
School board President Monica Garcia said she's glad the district is finally discussing what it will take to boost all students' proficiency.
"The politics of language in California are something fierce," Garcia said. "This district culturally needs to move away from one-size-fits-all ...
"And we are challenged in developing an instructional program that is coherent and consistent throughout the district and includes the awareness of different needs of students."
Education experts said Standard English simply has to be treated as another language for students to acquire - and that requires professional development for teachers, high expectations for students, reinforcing students' cultural values and building students' academic English vocabulary.
"When we hear students who grow up in families who speak `English,' we expect them to speak standard English, not fully understanding the historical impact," Brewer said.
And teaching cultural sensitivity is a key component since the four populations identified as SEL are "involuntary minorities" or "involuntary immigrants" - groups that were either conquered, colonized or subordinated in the United States, LeMoine said.
Their ancestors generally learned to speak English without the benefit of school - and that's the home language they passed on to their children, experts say.
Pedro Noguera, a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development at New York University, said the issue is one mired in political controversy and will take money and a sustained effort to address.
"When there isn't the law, then you need advocacy groups, and because parents of these kids also tend to be marginalized, there aren't many effective advocates for these students," Noguera said.
"Linguists have encouraged educators not to treat the language they speak as `bad English' because if the language students speak at home with their families is stigmatized, it makes it more difficult for them to learn Standard English."
Brewer held a summit of educators and linguists on the issue in December, with recommendations including creating course work and certification for SEL teachers.
But the issue also will require political will, LeMoine said.
"We have to come up with strategic ways to help these young people to access the core curriculum," LeMoine said. "If they don't have mastery of the language of school, Standard American English, they will have limited ability accessing the core instructional curriculum."
But Adger said there is little data on programs for teaching standard English throughout the country, making it difficult to assess which approaches are effective.
Teachers at Nevada Elementary said their goal is to validate and embrace the "home language," and that has produced big gains.
Students recognize the differences and frequently catch themselves if they switch to their home language in class.
"When they recognize it, they're not going to write it," Berman said.
"We want them to know that their home language is perfect. Often ... students might feel that their language is being put down."
Although Nevada Elementary does not have a large SEL population - such students make up about 8percent of the school's 600 students - teacher Roseann Harrison pushed to join the program four years ago.
In her 21 years at the school, she had noticed that African-American students scored below the English learners.
"It was something I questioned, but I didn't do anything about it until I heard Dr. LeMoine speak," she said.
Since opting into the program, Nevada Elementary has seen a steady improvement in the test scores of its approximately three dozen African-American students.
From 2004 to 2007, the percentage of African-American students who reached the goal of proficient and advanced in English Language Arts on state tests rose from 27percent to 36percent.
Thirteen teachers at Nevada Elementary now meet three times a month to discuss lesson plans and analyze teaching techniques to meet the needs of SEL students.
And being open and supportive is key, the teachers say, recalling a conversation with teachers from a larger school - with 1,300 students - where only three teachers were participating in the program.
LAUSD trains 4,000 to 5,000 teachers in methodologies to master the language of school, LeMoine said. A conference is scheduled in April to train 2,000 more, she said.
But the struggle of Standard English Learners needs to be a part of a broader national discussion, linguists said, with the understanding that dialects are a way to preserve a cultural identity.
"We always project in how we speak something about our social identity, and that's true of these speakers of these vernacular dialects," Adger said.
"Part of the reason why vernacular dialects persist is because they're very important attributes of social identity."
Brewer agrees about the cultural significance and says that while he speaks standard English - and grew up in a family that spoke standard English - he also can adapt to various situations.
"I can go into a different environment and speak another version of English," he said. "I didn't realize what I was doing."
And that ability is what all students should have, Adger said.
"Being able to shift is quite, quite valuable, and we want to strengthen students' ability to shift like that, so standard English is in their repertoire," Adger said.
"We want them to be just as proficient and comfortable in switching as the superintendent is."