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Teacher Knowledge: Leveraging African American English to Build Skilled Readers

Children who speak African American English (AAE) enter school with a rich oral language system representing their family and community. These strong language skills should serve as support in reading acquisition. Yet, there are alarming numbers of African American children not reaching their potential in reading development.  What can teachers do to change these outcomes, and leverage the strong cultural-linguistic skills with which children who speak AAE enter school, to positively impact their reading development?

Black students working in the classroom

What Is African American English?

African American English  is a systematic, rule-governed oral language system.  American English has many varieties (e.g., Southern English and Appalachian English). AAE is a variety of American English that is spoken by many African American children, but not all of them. Children learn AAE in their homes and communities. AAE represents a strong cultural connection for children to their families, their churches, and other meaningful spaces outside of school. Although you may see evidence of AAE in your student’s writing, like most spoken language varieties, it is not technically a written system.

AAE has distinct features and rules that are represented in all 5 language domains:

  1. Syntax — rules for creating sentences
  2. Morphology — word endings and prefixes
  3. Phonology — rules for sounds in words
  4. Semantics — rules for word meanings
  5. Pragmatics — rules for conversation

Children develop an understanding of the use of  AAE through listening to and engaging in conversations with other AAE speakers. Washington and Seidenberg’s 2021 article, Teaching Reading to African American Children, provides more examples of  AAE, including a table with features and examples from children who speak AAE.

The Oral Language and Reading Connection

AAE is like any other language system: language supports early reading development, and reading development supports later language growth. The way we speak influences how we read, and reading influences how we speak. Oral language skills are directly linked to proficient reading. Many children who speak AAE enter school with a complex, rule-governed oral language system that does not match well to print. For these children, extra work is required to map the oral language system onto print. This extra work is the child’s work, and most AAE-speaking children are definitely up to the task! But it is work, and represents a cognitive load that can be lightened for children if the teacher understands AAE and provides opportunities to support children as they learn to bridge AAE and the school's oral language and written system.

Well-planned Instruction and Opportunity Matter in Leveraging AAE for Skilled Reading

Teacher asking first grade students a question and kids raising hands.

Photo by: Erica Johnson

First and foremost, having teachers value the oral language system's role in the speakers' lives will empower children who speak AAE. Well-planned, intentional opportunities to use their full language repertoire to bridge AAE to print are critical for supporting reading acquisition. 

The most crucial step in leveraging AAE to develop skilled readers is connecting oral language to the meaning of words and how those words are spelled and appear in written text. Knowing AAE's features and overall value while teaching concepts that bridge spelling and reading is essential. For example, as children learn the sound for 'th' through explicit phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, they can connect how they say a word like baf (bath) with the sounds that match the spelling of the word 'b', 'a', 'th'. The two pronunciations are slightly different, but it is important for children to understand that they have the same meaning. Whether pronounced baf or bath, both refer to the same thing. In order to spell and read the word bath, children need this direct link.

With teacher knowledge and guidance, children can connect their oral language system to sounds, words, and spellings represented in texts. Washington, Lee-James & Stanford’s 2023 article, Teaching Phonemic and Phonological Awareness to Children Who Speak African American English, provides sample lesson plans designed to integrate AAE features into early reading instruction. Equipped with knowledge of AAE and how children learn to read, teachers can develop the tools needed to build skilled readers. The approach presented in the 2023 article values AAE while teaching the written language of school.


References

Washington, J. A., & Seidenberg, M. S. (2021). Teaching Reading to African American Children When Home and School Language Differ. American Educator.

Washington, J., Lee-James, R., & Stanford, C.B., (2023). Teaching Phonemic and Phonological Awareness to Children Who Speak African American English. The Reading Teacher. 


Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the American Federation of Teachers, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

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