African American Vernacular English: AAVE in Classroom Applications

Dr. Julie A. Washington, Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University, partners with CORE for a webinar exploring the African American English dialect, causes of reading difficulties for students who speak in dialect, the concept of educational equity, and more.

In this webinar, you will learn:

  • Features of the African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and the specific ways it changes language
  • Examples of potential causes for reading difficulties for students who speak African American English dialect
  • That while we all speak some version of dialect, certain subsets of students are having greater issues with comprehension than others
  • And much more!

Below is an overview of dialect density, educational equity, linguistic distance, and a few more of the concepts that Dr. Washington explores in detail in the full webinar.

AAVE in Classroom Applications: What is Dialect Density? 

Dialect occurs in the language of African American students on a continuum from low (where, for instance, 10% of a speaker’s utterances are impacted by dialect) to high usage (where more than 50% of utterances are impacted). According to Dr. Washington, the density of African American English dialect has a tremendous impact on educational equity within the classroom.

When plotted on a graph, Dr. Washington and her colleagues found that the higher the number of words that were impacted by dialect, the lower the syntactic and reading comprehension scores that student produced.

Dr. Washington’s educational equity studies involved students up through fifth grade, but similar data has been discovered through high school levels.

AAVE in Classroom Applications: How Dialect Density Impacts Language

According to Dr. Washington, the density of African American English dialect can affect students in these ways:

  • At higher levels of dialect, children consistently show lower levels of syntactic understanding;
  • The relationship between Letter-Word Identification and dialect is strong, negative, and consistent across grades;
  • At higher levels of dialect use, children tend to show higher levels of language risk;
  • Low dialect users to no show these patterns of risk, suggesting that the language used by high dialect users differs so much from the language of testing and reading that it negatively impacts their performance (whereas low dialect users do not likely experience the same dissonance)

AAVE in Classroom Applications: Linguistic Distance

Dr. Washington also explores the idea of “linguistic distance,” or the distance between a student’s oral language and the standard language of testing or reading.

Dr. Washington suggests that this data helps teachers understand who to focus their efforts on. Students who use a little African American English dialect (students who experience a low linguistic distance) are likely not going to have as much trouble as students with high levels of dialect usage/linguistic distance. When it comes to reading and comprehension, students with African American English dialect usage in the 70-80% range can function more like English learners than like low dialect users, which calls for a special approach to reach educational equity.

If you have students speaking high-dialect African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in classroom settings, you will want to hear Dr. Washington’s full webinar to understand the features of African American English dialect, the associated causes of reading difficulties, and how best to assist dialect-speaking students with their reading and comprehension.

Video Transcript

But, one of the things we’ve been really focused on learning is why and for whom dialect matters, because we all speak a dialect, but not everybody’s having trouble reading, so who is going to have trouble reading? What does their dialect look like? Well, one of the things we discovered when I was at Michigan in the ’90s was that dialect occurs along a continuum. Some kids use really low levels of dialect, where 10% of their utterances or less are impacted by dialect, and then there are kids who use really high dialect, where more than half of their utterances are impact. Then there’s the moderate users in the middle.

It turns out that this continuum is really important, and these are the ways you see on the screen that it’s been measured. Each one of these measurements, they’re correlated at .9, so they’re all basically the same. They’re just different ways of doing it. And the one that we used is number three, the number of dialect speakers produced by a speaker divided by the total number of words that the speaker produced.

This is what we found, that dialect density impacts language. This is syntactic comprehension, so this is sentence comprehension, and you’ll see that at this end of the graph, that there is little to no dialect use, and at this end of the graph, there is a lot, nearly 100%. The more dialect you use, the lower your syntactic comprehension, so by the time we get to this high-dialect area, there are fewer kids above the line, and the slope is downward, which of course is not what we want. So, density impacts language. The more density you use, the poorer your syntactic comprehension skills.

Well, the same is true for reading, it turns out. This is first through fifth grade, and you’ll see again, this slope that relates to dialect density. This is the passage comprehension sub-test of the Woodcock-Johnson. When students are listening to passages, the more dialect they use, the lower their scores are. This continues through elementary school, and I only study kids up to fifth grade, but those who study kids beyond show that this pattern continues through high school.

At higher levels of dialect, kids are consistently have lower levels of syntactic understanding. The relationship between letter-word ID, which is something we also looked at, is strong and it’s negative, so the more dialect you use, the poorer your letter-word ID. Low-dialect users do not show these patterns of risk, and it suggests that these high-dialect users are using language that’s so different from the language of testing and reading that it negatively impacts their performance, whereas low-dialect users don’t have the same dissonance, because they’re still close to the standard.

We call this linguistic distance. The further the distance is of your language, oral language, from the written standard, the more likely you are to be having difficulty with reading. This is an important finding for us, because now we know which kids to focus on. If you have kids who are using a little dialect, it’s really not going to matter that much, but for the kids who are using a lot of dialect, and in Georgia, we have kids who are using high dialect at a rate of about 80% to 90% of their utterances. For these kids, reading becomes a really difficult process, and as they get older and they code switch some from the use of 80 to 90% downward, by the time they get to fifth grade, it’s still 70%, so they’re still high-dialect users, and they are really struggling.

These are the kids we’re concerned about, the kids who are using so much dialect that their dialect puts them far away from the standard, and frankly, these children seem to function more like English learners than low-dialect users do, so our approach to them has really got to change, and they are now our focus.