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African American Vernacular English and Reading

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter deals with the application of current knowledge of the structure of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to the problem of raising the levels of reading achievement of African American children in elementary schools. The focus is on four morphosyntactic features: past tense –ed, copula –s, verbal –s, andpossessive –s. Given the near-categorical absence of the last two in AAVE, the question arises as to how –s inflections in the printed text affect reading comprehension for speakers of AAVE. It is concluded that instruction in the use of verbal and possessive –s will have a significant effect in increasing reading comprehension.

Keywords: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), reading, literacy, morphosyntactic features, past tense –ed, copula –s, possessive –s, verbal –s

33.1 Introduction

It is well known that the inequitable outcomes in reading achievement between African American and White students have been a persistent problem in the United States.1Figure 33.1 summarizes the problem, showing the results of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessments, disaggregated by race. Although there is a significant improvement in the scores of African American students over time, the difference remains substantial and reflects the underlying condition: that large numbers of African American children do not adequately demonstrate their use of reading as a tool for educational success.

Although reading is only one of three linguistic skills important for educational success, we consider it more fundamental than writing or speaking in Standard Classroom English (hereinafter SCE), defined negatively as a dialect without any marked regional, local, social class, or ethnic features that may be stigmatized by classroom teachers. We define reading as the decoding and comprehension of information encoded on the printed page, the prerequisite for most other forms of learning in the school system.

Research findings on the impact of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) language patterns on reading acquisition rates fall into the following three main categories:

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.1 Fourth-grade NAEP reading scores, by race, 1992‒2011.

* = significantly different from 2011.

Source: NAEP 2011.

(1) Correlations between the overall use of AAVE features and standardized test scores. Craig et al. (2009) found an inverse relationship between AAVE speech patterns and performance on standardized reading achievement tests. They also found that AAVE speech production rates predicted outcomes on oral reading fluency, but not comprehension, on the GORT-32 (Thompson, Craig, and Washington 2004). Champion et al. (2010) found a statistically significant correlation between second- and fourth-grade (p. 618) African American students’ Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation-Screening Test (DELV-ST) scores and their performance on the GORT-4 comprehension subtest. AAVE speakers who possessed the least SCE speech patterns scored lower on the GORT-4 comprehension subtest. Thompson et al. (2004) found that while African American children’s production of both phonological and morphosyntactic features of AAVE were reduced between oral and reading tasks, students still produced phonological features of AAVE while reading out loud. Finally, Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin (2004) found a correlation between familiarity with SCE and increased standardized reading test scores. As important as these research results are, they do not bear directly on the problem of raising reading levels.

(2) The effect of attitudes toward dialect differences on the part of teachers and students learning to read. Considerable research has shown that children’s nonstandard dialect has more influence on teachers’ expectation of their performance than their writing skills, drawing skills, or appearance (Charity Hudley 2009; Rosenthal and Jacobson 1968; Seligman, Tucker, and Lambert 1972). Additional research found that teachers have limited knowledge of AAVE and are unsure of teaching SE to AAVE speakers (Gupta 2010). There is no doubt that negative attitudes toward nonstandard English can alienate AAVE speakers from the schooling process. But the report of the National Reading Conference Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties among Young Children concluded that improving attitudes toward reading did not in itself raise reading levels (Snow et al. 1998). Improved methods of instruction are required.

(3) Findings on the need for greater metalinguistic awareness in AAVE speakers and its impact on literacy acquisition rates. Snow et al. (1998) and several other researchers (p. 619) concluded that phonemic awareness was a major—perhaps the biggest—factor in the acquisition of literacy (Liberman et al. 1974; Liberman, Shankweiler, and Liberman 1989; Blachman 1997). Since that time research has found that phonological awareness patterns of AAVE speakers differ from those of SE speakers (Craig et al. 2009; Terry and Scarborough 2011). Poe, Burchinal, and Roberts (2004) found that both language and phonological skills are significant predictors of African American children’s success in reading. A study of the effects of AAVE features on phonological awareness tests revealed significant differences between AAVE- and SE-speaking first graders, and concluded that children’s success in reading could be predicted with 96.7 percent accuracy (Harris 2008). While Connor and Craig (2006) found a nonlinear relationship between AAVE use and phonological awareness and early literacy skills, their research gave leeway to the view that metalinguistic awareness is utilized by more successful readers who speak AAVE. J. Terry et al. (2010) have interpreted their studies of math word problems, to be summarized below, supporting the theory that promoting metalinguistic competencies in AAVE speakers will increase their proficiency in reading SE texts.

The focus of this chapter is on the ways in which the reading skills of African American children for whom AAVE is their native and primary language are affected by specific structural features of AAVE, as opposed to correlations of reading skills with race or with combined indices of the use of AAVE features. This chapter examines the evidence on how differences in the American English varieties spoken by African American and White students contribute to the difference in reading achievement shown in figure 33.1.

Through our engagement with efforts to raise reading levels throughout the United States, we have become alerted to the fact that linguistic issues are only one of the major causes of reading failure, and it is important to see how linguistic contributions to the problem interact with other causes. In our practical efforts to apply linguistic thinking to raising reading levels, we recognize the effects of malnutrition, lead poisoning, and lack of routine health care in low-income areas, which too often lead to cognitive problems. We recognize the effects of inadequate school resources as shown by the absence of current textbooks, inadequate or nonexistent libraries, and insufficient technology resources. The negative attitudes toward AAVE and those who speak it as their native and primary language that are the focus of (2) above have a profound effect upon learning and must be countered in any successful program. It is in this larger setting that linguistic research on methods of improving reading must be found useful and effective in spite of all other obstacles.

33.2 African American Vernacular English

The dialect we will focus on will be referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is the everyday variety of African American Language (AAL) that is (p. 620) consistently used in low-income urban areas.3 Although many differences in pronunciation reflect the influence of the surrounding mainstream communities, no regional differences have been reported in the overall grammatical structure of the variety we will be dealing with. We will base our description of AAVE on a “Summary Statement on African American English” representing the unanimous views of nine researchers who have contributed to our current knowledge of this variety (Labov et al. 2012). Our discussion of the effects of AAVE on reading will be drawn from the results of a large-scale testing of the Reading Road4 tutorial program in Philadelphia elementary schools. Although there are no qualitative difference in the use of AAVE features from our results in Atlanta and Southern California, there are quantitative differences;5 hence, focusing on the Philadelphia sample will better control the study of the effects on reading.

In this chapter, we will be comparing AAVE with SCE. The domains of agreement between AAVE and SCE are very large; here we will be dealing with differences. Table 33.1 is a schema of the major types of grammatical differences.

Column D in table 33.1 provides a sampling of the many unique semantic developments in the tense, mood, and aspect system of AAVE that are not present in SCE (see DeBose, this volume). It has not been shown that the presence of these variations in the home language of AAVE speakers has consequences for the reading of SCE texts, and they will not be discussed further in this chapter.6 Column A in table 33.1 lists variable phonological features that are deleted more frequently in SCE than in other varieties. Columns B and C in table 33.1 are the morphosyntactic features of AAVE whose implications for reading are the main focus of this chapter. In column B of table 33.1, we list two areas in which variable processes in the phonology lead to substantial percentages of absence of morphological elements: the clitic /z/ representing the auxiliary and copula is, and absence of the suffix /t/ or /d/ representing past tense ‒ed as a result of the reduction of complex codas listed in column A in table 33.1.

Table 33.1 Major Features Differentiating AAVE from Other Varieties

Phonological reduction leading to

Variable phonology A

Variable morphology B

Morphological absence C

Presence of unique semantic features D

Complex codas

Copula {is/are}

Possessive {s}

Habitual BE

Tautosyllabic liquids

Past {ed}

Verbal {s}

Preterit HAD

Resultative BE DONE

Remote perfect BIN

Perseverative STEADY

Indignative COME.

(p. 621) Column C in table 33.1 lists two items of the morphosyntax of other American English varieties that are absent from AAVE, qualitatively different from the items in column B on the basis of three properties:

  1. (1) much higher rate of absence, close to 100 percent for many speakers

  2. (2) no phonological conditioning of the segmental environment

  3. (3) hypercorrection: insertion in environments not found in other varieties.

Figure 33.2 shows property (1) in the speech of struggling African American and White readers in Philadelphia. The gulf between the two groups of speakers is far greater for the items of column C than column B in table 33.1.

Figure 33.3 shows the results of a logistic regression analysis of the absence of verbal ‒s in the speech of fifty-eight African American children in elementary schools in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and California. The black symbols indicate the proportion of absence registered, and the white symbols indicate the factor groups found to be significant. The proportional differences are shown to be significant for only two groups: (1) Noun phrase subjects showed greater degree of absence than pronoun subjects, and (2) the three geographic regions are ordered as Atlanta, Philadelphia, and California. But no significant effects were produced by the preceding and following segments, as well as the type of verb, grade, or gender. This is in sharp contrast to many studies of AAVE that show final consonant clusters and copula variation with strong and consistent conditioning of the preceding and following segments (see Labov 1972; Wolfram 1969; Rickford et al. 1991).

Property (3) is illustrated by frequent occurrence of verbal ‒s in persons other than third singular.

He can goes out.—T-Birds, 13

(Labov et al. 1968, 166)

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.2 Absence of four morphological elements in the speech of African American and White struggling readers in low-income Philadelphia schools (N = 25 for each).

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.3 Conditioning factors for absence of verbal {s} in the spontaneous speech of fifty-eight African American struggling readers, Philadelphia.

In contrast, no one has recorded hypercorrect examples of past tense ‒ed; that is, its use in present tense environments. Verbal ‒s and possessive ‒s differ markedly in (p. 622) the generality of the grammatical environments involved. The absence of verbal ‒s is accompanied by a general absence of subject-verb agreement, including irregular verbs have, was, and do.7 But the grammatical function of possessive ‒s is maintained rigorously in absolute position (e.g., This is hers, yours, John’s, mines).

33.3 AAVE Speakers’ Knowledge of SCE Inflections

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.4 Percentage of realization in speech and correct identifications of meanings of inflections by African American second graders in New York City, before and after training.

Source: Torrey 1983.

In 1967, Torrey conducted an experiment in a South Harlem second-grade classroom in connection with studies of AAVE in South Harlem (Labov et al. 1968). Second graders were interviewed, tested for their knowledge of the information conveyed by the SCE inflections, given grammatical instruction on the same inflections, and then re-tested. In the test for the meaning of possessive ‒s, children heard either The duck nurse or The duck’s nurse, and then had to draw a line pointing to either a picture of a duck dressed as a nurse or a duck in bed with a nurse standing by. The test for the meaning of verbal ‒s took two forms: its use to distinguish singular from plural used the utterances The cat splashes or The cats splash. Since the marker of the plural was phonetically neutralized, only the presence or absence of verbal ‒s was available to identify plurality. A second test examined the subjects’ ability to use verbal ‒s to distinguish present versus past tense. The two utterances (p. 623) were The man hits the dog and The man hit the dog, and the pictures showed a man in the act of hitting a dog with a stick or the man waving the stick and the dog running away.

Figure 33.4 shows Torrey’s (1983) results for the percent of the presence of English inflections in spontaneous speech (dashed line) and the percent of correct responses by AAVE speakers before and after training in SCE. The plural showed very little deletion and a corresponding high rate of success in identifying its meaning. The possessive ‒s showed more presence than in the studies of Harlem adolescents and moderate recognition rates. The biggest effect was shown for the ability to recognize the singular with verbal ‒s. The 5 percent correct rate before training indicates that the second graders consistently associated verbal ‒s with the plural, with very little effect of training.

Torrey’s (1983) results show that verbal ‒s was being used with a frequency similar to that of possessive ‒s but that it carried far less information and might in fact be a source of confusion in texts that depended on singular/plural distinctions for full comprehension.

Ball (1995) replicated Torrey’s (1983) experiments in a Detroit area school and found a much higher correct rate of verbal ‒s in the picture meaning test (71 percent versus Torrey 13 percent) but also found that verbal ‒s showed no improvement on training as opposed to 84 percent -> 91 percent for possessive ‒s.8

33.4 The Effect of SCE Inflections on Other Cognitive Tasks

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.5 Correlations of influence of grammatical form on African American second graders with inhibition of scores on WJ-R Applied Math problems.

Light grey: n.s.; dark grey: p < .001; black: p < .00001.

Source: Based on J. Terry et al. 2010.

Efforts to determine the cognitive status of inflections in AAVE were stimulated by the remarkable results of J. Terry et al. (2010) in their analysis of the effect of grammatical (p. 624) forms on the ability to solve word problems. The subjects were seventy-five African American second graders, part of the longitudinal study at the Frank Porter Graham Center of UNC.9 The authors constructed a complex measure of the influence of a given linguistic feature on a student, which took into account the student’s ability, the difficulty of the problem, and the student’s score on the overall Dialect Density Measure (Craig 2004). Figure 33.5 shows the correlation of this measure with the students’ W scores on the Woodcock-Johnson-R (WJ-R) Applied Math Test10 for eight of the linguistic features in the text of the word problems. In other words, the more often that third singular –s occurred in the wording of the problem, the worse students did—taking into account the other factors built into the measure. Only two of these were significant: verbal –s and possessive –s, the items whose morphological status in AAVE has been questioned in figures 33.2, 33.3, and 33.4. Furthermore, the effect for verbal –s is considerably greater than for possessive –s. It may also be noteworthy that these second graders show a bimodal distribution in their response to verbal –s: it is only half the population that shows this negative effect, and for them it is quite strong (Terry et al. 2009).

Terry et al. (2009) considered a number of explanations for this effect, all mediated by the strain on working memory produced by linguistic differences. They consider the possibility that the problem lies in the strength or weaknesses of the representations—that it is the consistency with which children hear the SCE inflections at home. But the lack of such effects with the variable features of AAVE leads Terry et al. (2009) to conclude that the major problem lies in the categorical character of the differences associated with verbal ‒s and possessive ‒s:

it is not the mismatches between [AAVE] and [SCE] generally that pose a cognitive burden for the children in our study. Instead the penalty results from the type of mismatch involved, specifically whether the two dialects have mismatched representations.

(Terry et al. 2009, 15)

(p. 625) For further results and interpretation, see Terry et al. (this volume).

33.5 The Identification of Errors in Oral Reading

We now turn to some of the results derived from a national test of a tutorial program, The Reading Road Program (RRP), designed to raise reading levels in low-income schools (Labov and Baker 2000). The RRP is an intrinsically motivated approach that takes into account a child’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds in the presentation of its materials. The target population includes White, Latino/a, and African American struggling readers in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and California, but here we will be focusing only on African American and White children in Philadelphia.

We also turn to the main interaction in which children’s reading abilities are assessed and developed: the correction of oral reading by the classroom teacher or tutor. It is here where knowledge of children’s home language becomes crucial. The central question for the teacher is to decide whether or not the reader has succeeded in the task of decoding and comprehending the information in the text. If so, it is annoying and confusing for the teacher to repeat his or her own version of the text. If not, correction is in order so that wrong patterns will not be reinforced and learning will take place. We proceed on the maxim that efficient instruction will correct only those productions of the learner that need correction, and use our linguistic analysis to make instruction more efficient in this respect. The practical guide can be formulated as the golden rule of oral reading (Goodman 1965; Labov 1965):

Correct the production of the wrong word, but ignore

differences in pronunciation of the right word.

But as we will see, a good proportion of children’s productions are ambiguous in this respect and linguistic analysis has little to say. Consider the following text from Ray and His Bad Cat, the initial diagnostic reading used in RRP.

Text:  The cat spit out the chips and jumped in Ray’s coat

The following are errors noted by tutors for the oral reading of African American second graders:

  1. (a) The cat spot out the chips and jumped in Ray’s coal.

  2. (b) The cat spit out the chips and jump in Ray’s coat.

  3. (c) The cat spit out the chips and jumped in Ray coat.

  4. (d) The cat spit out the chips and junk in Ray’s coat.

In (a), there is no doubt that spot and coal are true errors, since they select the wrong words. But in (b), jump is only a potential error, as it is impossible to determine whether (p. 626) the reader failed to recognize the past tense in the original “jumped” or whether s/he did but simplified the final cluster /pt/ in the pronunciation. In (c), Ray is also a potential error, since one does not know whether the reader failed to recognize that Ray was the possessor of the object that followed. But in (d), the absence of the past tense is accompanied by the selection of the wrong consonant and the wrong word, so that there is no doubt that this is a true reading error. Though it is not possible to know how much the final cluster contributed to the error, one can compare the frequency of true errors in words containing past tense clusters with the total frequency of this feature in the text. One strategy then for estimating the effect of a given linguistic feature on decoding is to ignore the potential errors that might be the effect of AAVE phonology or morphology on production, and perform such a calculation feature by feature. Figure 33.6 compares this error rate with its frequency of absence in the speech of struggling African American and White readers for the items in columns B and C of figure 33.2.

It can be seen that there is only a small quantitative difference in the treatment of past tense ‒ed by AAVE speakers in speech and reading, with African Americans some 10 percent higher. This conforms to the view that both AAVE and SCE grammars share the same intact ‒ed morphology and the same variable rule of –t,d deletion (Labov et al. 1968; Guy 1980). The effect on reading of ‒ed is also similar: for both groups, it is the orthographic accumulation of symbols at the ends of words that is responsible for the frequency of true errors. The situation is quite different for possessive ‒s and verbal ‒s. As already seen in figure 33.3, there are radical differences in the frequencies of absence in speech for African American and White struggling readers.

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.6 Absence of element in speech compared to clear error rates in reading for four linguistic variables for White and Black struggling readers in Philadelphia (N = 25 for each group).

But figure 33.6 shows no differences by race in the rates of true reading errors. We have to bear in mind that these true reading errors combine the absence of the linguistic variable with other deviations from a correct reading. It appears that the presence or absence of the inflection is a relatively minor part of the decoding problem that depends (p. 627) on phonemic/graphemic relations of a more general sort. To estimate the actual influence of the reader’s grammar on reading, we need to isolate the grammatical effect from these more general orthographic effects. This requires returning to the analysis of potential errors that represent just such an isolation. Unlike the data for clear errors, there are significant differences by race in the proportion of such potential errors. Figure 33.7 shows that number for the four morphosyntactic features we have been examining. There is no difference in the frequency for past ‒ed, but the values of possessive ‒s and verbal ‒s for African American struggling readers are twice that for White struggling readers. As in other data presented, this difference is less for copula ‒s.

The number of such potential errors is not great, but they are valuable indicators of the reading process if we can differentiate them by whether or not the semantic content of the inflection is retained. A comparison of error type (c) with type (e) below shows how this can be done.

  1. (c) The cat spit out the chips and jumped in Ray coat.

  2. (e) The cat spit out the chips and jumped in Ray coal.

In type (c), we have no way of knowing whether the reader has absorbed the semantic information intended in the text Ray’s coat: that the cat jumped into some object belonging to Ray. But in (e) the reading coal is not consistent with this information, and the whole sentence fails to make sense. It is a product of a default reading procedure that selects any common word that starts with the printed first consonant and vowel. This makes it more probable that the reader correctly interpreted the ’s in Ray’s in (c) than in (e). The analysis presumes that even non-fluent SCE readers, reading well below a basic level, use syntactic and semantic context in decoding simple text, although their prosody gives the impression that they are reading one word at a time.

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.7 Number of potential errors, by race, for four morphosyntactic features for struggling readers in Philadelphia in pre-test diagnostic reading, Ray and His Bad Cat (N[Black] = 112, N[White] = 62).

(p. 628) We therefore argue that any given reading error casts a semantic shadow over the following text and that potential errors can be disambiguated by the presence or absence of errors following in the same sentence. We are of course only dealing with the probability that a given potential error is a true error or a correct reading, but applied over a given data base, we can determine those probabilities relative to the AAVE features of interest. The basic data for this study is the initial reading of the diagnostic text Ray and His Bad Cat. For each grammatical category, we identify and sum the clear errors, potential errors, and correct readings for all subjects in the group. We then sum for each category the number of words following in the same sentence for each type of reading error, sum the errors (of whatever type) occurring in the reading of those following words, and calculate the proportion of errors in following words for that type of error in that category.

Table 33.2 below shows the data for the four morphosyntactic categories of figure 33.2 in the readings of 112 African American children in Philadelphia. The diagnostic text contains fifteen tokens of past ‒ed, five possessive ‒s, three verbal –s, and eight copula ‒s. The numbers of potential errors are small compared to correct readings and clear errors, ranging from 1 percent for past ‒ed to 15 percent for possessive ‒s. For White children, the numbers of potential errors is only one-twentieth that of the African American children, but there is still sufficient data to show the proportion of following errors for each category.

Figure 33.8 displays that proportion of following errors for 112 African American struggling readers in Philadelphia as compared with the 62 Philadelphia White students with the same range of reading difficulties. In all categories, the proportion for clear errors is roughly twice that for correct readings, a result that gives weight to the semantic shadow hypothesis. For the crucial type of potential error, we find that values vary from one end to the other of this range. For the past tense ‒ed, potential errors group with correct readings, which means that the absence of the inflection does not indicate a loss of meaningful information. In this respect, White struggling readers behave in just the same way as Black struggling readers, as the preceding data in figures 33.2, 33.3, 33.5, and 33.6 predict that they would.

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.8 Frequency of following error for clear errors, potential errors, and correct readings for four AAVE features in the pre-training reading text, Ray and His Bad Cat.

The other three morphosyntactic forms display a radically different picture, and show identical patterns. For White struggling readers, there is no significant difference between potential errors and clear errors. This means that the absence of the inflection is a failure in decoding equivalent to any other failure in decoding. For African American struggling readers, potential errors are intermediate—significantly different (p. 629) from both clear errors and correct readings. This indicates that in a good number of cases the reader identified the stem form accurately and read the rest of the sentence in a form consistent with AAVE grammar with zero realization of the inflection. Again, these results are consistent with the findings of Torrey (1983) and N. Terry et al. (2010) in figures 33.4 and 33.5. They strengthen the argument for differentiating the status of past tense ‒ed as categorically present in AAVE grammar as opposed to a less certain status for verbal ‒s and possessive ‒s. These data do not, however, differentiate the copula ‒s from the others in the way that the results of figures 33.6 and 33.7 do.

Table 33.2 Woodcock-Johnson III WA Percentile Scores, by Race, After Forty Hours of RRP Instruction, 2001‒2003















N = 227.

(***) = statistically significant at the p < .001 level.

33.6 Implications for Reading

These results confirm arguments from linguistic analyses on the status of morphosyntactic inflections in AAVE. They apply less directly to efforts to raise reading levels. In this section, we will compare the general reading performance of African American and White students and see how this relates to the four morphosyntactic variables that have been under review. All students in this study were selected by the same criteria: the low-income school had to have 65 percent eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program, and the student had to be in the 35th percentile or below on the WJ III Word Attack or Word ID scores.11 Using these criteria we selected 124 African American students and 103 White students for the test of the RRP in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Southern California. The initial mean Word Attack scores showed an advantage for African Americans (32nd percentile as against 27th for Whites). After completing the RRP in six weeks, the scores for both groups were almost ten percentile points higher (significance of the gain: p < .0001 for both).

(p. 630) The WJ III Word Attack test does not test decoding skills for the full range of phonemic/graphemic variables covered in a linguistic approach to reading instruction. Figure 33.9 shows error rates for twenty such variables in the reading of the diagnostic passage Ray and His Bad Cat, before and after the RRP. The most difficult are shown at the left, beginning with coda –gh (i.e., the “ghost letters”) in right, tough, cough, etc. and the maximally complex onsets CCC-, as in scratch and string. The easiest items for decoding appear at extreme right—single initial consonants and single vowels. Both groups follow the same progression of reading difficulty, but African American students show a consistent advantage.

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.9 Error rates for twenty phonemic/graphemic variables in reading the diagnostic, Ray and His Bad Cat, before and after the Reading Road program for 124 African American and 103 White students in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Southern California, 2001‒2003.

Figure 33.10 shows the corresponding reading error rates for the variables that have been the main focus of this chapter: the morphemes that have been identified as variably present in the grammar of AAVE along with the past tense –ed, which is considered more firmly established. Here one might have expected higher error rates for verbal ‒s and possessive ‒s, but the overall picture is that African American and White readers (p. 631) show the same rates of clear errors and the same rates of improvement with instruction. The interference of these grammatical differences with SCE is not shown in a higher error rate as compared to Whites who do not share the grammatical features of AAVE. It is realized in the elimination of the consistent advantage in decoding skills that African American readers exhibited in figure 33.9.

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.10 Pre- and post-test clear error rates in words including five features of AAVE in the Reading Road program in Philadelphia, 2001‒2003 (N[Black] = 124, N[White] = 103).

African American Vernacular English and ReadingClick to view larger

Figure 33.11 Pre- and post-test percentile scores on Woodcock-Johnson III Word ID, Word Attack, and Passage Comprehension in Philadelphia, 2001‒2003 (N[Black] = 124, N[White] = 103).

We can obtain further insight into this situation by comparing different types of standardized test scores. Figure 33.11 adds the percentile scores for WJ III Word ID and Passage Comprehension to the scores from WJ III Word Attack already provided in table 33.2, by race before and after the RRP. For all three measures, gains are significant. Since WJ III Word Attack and Word ID both have to do with decoding individual words, (p. 632) the simple view of reading (Hoover and Gough 1990) leads us to expect greater gains in this domain. For both measures, African American students are again superior to White students (all differences by race are significant at the .02 level). But this advantage disappears when it comes to passage comprehension, where African American and White students’ scores are equivalent and gains are more limited.

33.7 Conclusion

All of our efforts to understand the linguistic status of the ‒s inflections in AAVE are aimed at the question that heads this concluding section. Our first efforts in this direction were concentrated on the effects of phonological reduction with consequent increase in homonymy (Labov 1995). The results summarized here indicate that this is not as great a problem as the effects of unrecognized grammatical elements exemplified by possessive and verbal ‒s.

The repeated pattern is that, when African American students are identified as struggling readers, they do relatively well on the phonemic/graphic relations involved in decoding individual words and relatively worse (1) when passage comprehension is being tested, and (2) when possessive –s and verbal ‒s are involved in a given word. This is consistent with the linguistic analysis that these elements are morphemes variably inserted in the course of speech production without a regular basis in the underlying grammar. It is also consistent with findings that the recognition of these ‒s inflections involve processing problems above the word level, as shown by the work of Torrey (1983), Ball (1995), and J. Terry and colleagues (2009, 2010). Throughout these studies, there is a repeated contrast between the reading of ‒ed in final clusters, sensitive to phonological reduction, and the reading of the morphosyntactic features, which are not.

J. Terry et al. (2009, 2010) account for the interference of the ‒s inflections with math problems through an extra load on working memory. But Torrey’s (1983) findings indicate a more substantial mismatch: that her second graders are more likely to interpret a verbal ‒s as a sign of the plural than as a sign of the singular. To the extent that is true, verbal ‒s is like throwing a monkey-wrench into the reading machinery and we can expect the interference with the reading of the following text that we found. Yet it is important to realize that these potential errors—absence of the inflection with no other change—are relatively rare. Most of the errors involving the ‒s inflections are “clear” errors, where the presence of the alien element interferes with the decoding of the rest of the word, and the interference with comprehension is triggered by that initial error.

The reading lesson we take from this is that careful instruction on the function of verbal ‒s and possessive ‒s will raise reading levels. Not by a large amount, but enough to achieve a significant increase in accuracy and comprehension. This is not an easy matter, since verbal ‒s is an instrument of subject-verb agreement, which has three properties most difficult for struggling readers to deal with: (1) it is abstract, (2) discontinuous, and (3) without any semantic interpretation in all but a few cases. It is not accidental that in (p. 633) most of these results, verbal ‒s has a more negative impact on reading than possessive ‒s. Nevertheless, the time spent on subject-verb agreement will have more benefit for the reader than time spent on plural ‒s, which is hardly necessary, or time spent on past tense ‒ed, which reflects knowledge that is already in the reader’s mind.

We are satisfied that a partial reversal of reading failure can contribute to that larger reversal that is still known as “Adequate Yearly Progress.” The RRP has been effective in achieving that level with efforts in Chester, Pennsylvania, where the program was implemented with hundreds of low-income, African American students. The present focus of the RRP is on grammatical inflections. Portals to Reading (Labov et al. 2010) is a Language Arts intervention program for grades four to eight, which incorporates the basic approach of the RRP. We have not yet had the opportunity of looking over teachers’ shoulders to see how they respond, but this is clearly only a first step. We have every reason to think that more time and ingenuity devoted to this instructional area informed by the knowledge of the features of AAVE will have a significant result in our efforts to reduce inequity in reading achievement.


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                                                                              (1.) Middle-class, as well as low-income, African American students continue to fall below their White peers on standardized reading achievement tests (Singham 1998; Bub et al. 2005), providing a case for the exploration and identification of variables beyond poverty that are responsible for this unacceptable discrepancy in American students’ literacy rates.

                                                                              (2.) The Gray Oral Reading Test, or GORT, is one of the most widely used measures of oral reading fluency and comprehension. GORT is a norm-referenced, reliable, and valid test of oral reading rate, accuracy, fluency, and comprehension.

                                                                              (3.) Baugh (1983) defines AAVE as the language system used by African Americans who talk with, live with, and work with other African Americans, primarily.

                                                                              (4.) See the web site

                                                                              (5.) Struggling readers in Atlanta show a higher concentration of AAVE features than in Philadelphia, and those in Southern California lower, an effect that appears to be caused by a lower degree of racial segregation in the schools studied.

                                                                              (6.) One possible effect stems from the fact that the auxiliary-like markers of AAVE shown in caps do not participate in the obligatory inversion, tag formation, or adverb placement rules of SCE, and thus make it more difficult to identify the location of the INFL node in the verb phrase.

                                                                              (7.) But maintaining agreement in the finite forms of to be: am, is, are.

                                                                              (8.) Ball concludes from her data that Detroit AAVE does have verbal {s} in its underlying forms.

                                                                              (10.) The Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities is a set of intelligence tests first developed in 1977 by Richard Woodcock and Mary Johnson and subsequently revised in 1989 and 2001. The last version is often referred to as the WJ-III.

                                                                              (11.) The Word Attack test involves the reading of nonsense words of increasing length and complexity of phonemic/graphemic relations. The Word ID test involves the reading of extant English words of increasing orthographic complexity.