The effects of dialect awareness instruction on nonmainstream American English speakers

Abstract

The achievement gaps between poor and more affluent students are persistent and chronic, as many students living in poverty are also members of more isolated communities where dialects such as African American English and Southern Vernacular English are often spoken. Non-mainstream dialect use is associated with weaker literacy achievement. The principal aims of the two experiments described in this paper were to examine whether second through fourth graders, who use home English in contexts where more formal school English is expected, can be taught to dialect shift between home and school English depending on context; and whether this leads to stronger writing and literacy outcomes. The results of two randomized controlled trials with students within classrooms randomly assigned to DAWS (Dialect Awareness, a program to explicitly teach dialect shifting), editing instruction, or a business as usual group revealed (1) that DAWS was more effective in promoting dialect shifting than instruction that did not explicitly contrast home and school English; and (2) that students in both studies who participated in DAWS were significantly more likely to use school English in contexts where it was expected on proximal and distal outcomes including narrative writing, morphosyntactic awareness, and reading comprehension. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the entire Reading for Understanding project team, Jennifer Dombek (project coordinator), as well as the children, parents, teachers, and school administrators without whom this research would not have been possible. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, Florid a State University Research and Development Center for Pre-K to 5th Grade Student Comprehension: Examining Effective Intervention Targets, Longitudinal Intensity, and Scaling Factors, Grant #R305F100027. The opinions expressed are ours and do not represent views of the funding agencies.

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Correspondence to Lakeisha Johnson.

Appendices

Appendix A

Example of the DAWS framework

figurea

Example of the editing only framework

figureb

Appendix B

Editing task used in Study 1

Example: The girl is ride her bike.

  1. 1.

    They watching TV in the back room.

    _____________________

  2. 2.

    All of the teacher were in a meeting.

    _____________________

  3. 3.

    *Were you on time for school this morning.

    _____________________

  4. 4.

    I wash the dishes after dinner last night.

    _____________________

  5. 5.

    The three girl are best friends.

    _____________________

  6. 6.

    She happy that it was finally spring break.

    _____________________

  7. 7.

    *President Obama gave a speech on television today.

    _____________________

  8. 8.

    Last summer we plant flowers in my grandmother’s garden.

    _____________________

* Notes a foil item

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Johnson, L., Terry, N.P., Connor, C.M. et al. The effects of dialect awareness instruction on nonmainstream American English speakers. Read Writ 30, 2009–2038 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-017-9764-y

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Keywords

  • African American English
  • Southern Vernacular English
  • Instruction
  • Literacy
  • Writing
  • Reading