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Can the Achievement Gap Be Linked to Differences in the Development of Naming Strategies? A Comparison of African American and European American Children’s Responses on a Picture-Labeling Task

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In this study, working- and middle-class African American and European American adults and children aged two through six were shown a series of pictures including “normal” referents and unfamiliar combinations which they were asked to identify. There were both age- and class-dependent differences in terms of naming behaviors but there were none according to ethnicity. When these results are interpreted in consideration of the still-widening achievement gap, it is clear that linguists and educators continue to face the same issue: there remains a societal insistence on furthering the primacy of middle class linguistic structures and language behaviors which serves to maintain a cycle of educational failure for African American working-class children.

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  1. 1.

    The Education Trust is a non-profit organization that “promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels—pre-kindergarten through college. [Their] goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people—especially those from low-income families or who are black, Latino, or American Indian—to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.”

  2. 2.

    Between 2007 and 2011, more than a quarter of African Americans but only 9% of Whites lived in poverty. (US Census Bureau 2007—2011 American community Survey). Black children are even more likely to be poor. For example, the Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that “children make up 27% of the black population, but 38% of blacks in poverty. And children account for 33% of all Hispanics, but 42% of impoverished Hispanics. By contrast, children make up roughly equal shares of the white and Asian populations and of whites and Asians living in poverty” ( Patten and Krogstad 2015)

  3. 3.

    An equal number of European American and African American children (as identified by their parents) were selected for this study and were matched according to age and socioeconomic status. In some cases, there were significant differences in the data according to SES within age groupings (Bloomquist 2009).

  4. 4.

    The ethnicity of the interviewer is worth mentioning here due to the extensive work done by Labov (1970) and others who have long established the difficulties involved in data collection from African American children by European American researchers. While the argument can certainly be made that all children may be reluctant to complete language tasks in the presence of new adults, it remains the case that African American children are especially hesitant to perform linguistically in the presence of unfamiliar European American adults. In the case of this study, ethnic differences between the children and interviewer were minimized as much as possible, and the researcher also spent a great deal of casual time in the classroom before engaging the children in the language task in an effort to reduce the children’s level of discomfort.


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Correspondence to Jennifer Bloomquist.

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Bloomquist, J. Can the Achievement Gap Be Linked to Differences in the Development of Naming Strategies? A Comparison of African American and European American Children’s Responses on a Picture-Labeling Task. J Afr Am St 21, 585–604 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-017-9385-1

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  • Achievement gap
  • Language
  • Linguistics
  • Education
  • Socio-economic status
  • Category theory
  • Naming strategies
  • Educational policy
  • No Child Left Behind