Teaching Teachers About Black Communications

By Terry Meier

In order to help children become bidialectical or bilingual, teachers must know something about the systematic features of their students’ native language.

In order to help children become bidialectical or bilingual, teachers must know something about the systematic features of their students’ native language.

In a graduate course I teach at Wheelock College entitled “Language and Culture,” I typically ask students to analyze a hypothetical interaction between a young student who is presumably a speaker of Black Language/Ebonics and her presumably Standard English speaking teacher. In this interaction, the student attempts to tell her teacher a story about something she has done over the weekend. The student’s initial excitement about sharing her experience with the teacher soon fades into silence, however, when the teacher repeatedly interrupts her story to “correct” both the child’s grammar and her pronunciation of certain words.

Most of the students in my classes are either teachers or soon-to-be teachers, and so this exercise is usually the catalyst for a lively discussion about teachers’ attitudes towards different language varieties as well as about what the teacher’s role should be in helping students acquire skills in the standard code. Not surprisingly, my students are critical of this hypothetical teacher’s lack of sensitivity towards her student’s feelings as well as her preoccupation with form rather than substance (i.e., it’s not what this child says the teacher cares about, but only how she says it). Many students also question this teacher’s methodology.

Interestingly, however, none of the students ever argues that this teacher shouldn’t be trying to teach her students to master Standard English. Through their course readings, students have learned that as a linguistic system, Black Language/Ebonics possesses every bit as much consistency and legitimacy as Standard English. But this academic knowledge does not negate their real-world (and in some cases, very hard-earned) understanding that mastery of Standard English conventions is necessary (though not of course sufficient) for entry into the mainstream professional world.

By the end of our discussion, everyone usually pretty much agrees that the teacher’s aim in working with students who speak a language variety other than Standard English is neither to abdicate the responsibility for teaching all children standard conventions nor to replace the student’s first language. Rather, the goal is to help students add facility in the standard code to the repertoire of language abilities they already possess (what is referred to as the “additive approach” to bilingual/bidialectal education). What is not so apparent or so easily agreed upon by the end of this discussion, however, are the pedagogical strategies for achieving that goal. How do we help children to become bidialectal or bilingual, equally proficient and “at home” in Standard English and in their own native language variety?

I believe that in order to help children become bidialectal or bilingual, teachers must know something about the systematic features of their students’ native language. Perhaps the most important understanding I hope my students take from “Language and Culture” is that to help children develop exemplary abilities in reading and writing, teachers must be able to link instruction to what is already familiar to their students, whether this be Spanish word order, Haitian Creole verb structures, or Black Language/Ebonics pronunciation rules. One of the most fundamental principles of learning is that in order for learning to occur, new knowledge must be connected to old, that none of us can comprehend new information without making sense of it within the context of what we already know.

It is this principle that underlies the Oakland School Board’s contention that children who speak Black Language/Ebonics will benefit educationally if their teachers possess knowledge about the systematic features of their language. It is this same principle that undergirds the unit on Black Communications I teach as part of “Language and Culture.” My purpose here is to describe this unit on Black Communications and to talk about the ways in which I believe learning about Black Language/Ebonics helps prepare my students for teaching more effectively in an increasingly diverse world.


Consonant with Wheelock College’s mission to prepare teachers who can serve “all the nation’s children,” the broad purpose of “Language and Culture” is to deepen students’ understanding of the complex relationships among language, culture, and identity and to have students reflect on the implications of those connections for their current or future work with children in schools. The four or five weeks that we spend on Black Communications function as a kind of case study within the course. Its purpose is both to help students acquire some specific knowledge about Black Language/Ebonics and to serve as a model of the kinds of understandings teachers need to acquire about the linguistic backgrounds of their students.

The students who have taken the course have been mainly teachers and future teachers from Boston and its surrounding communities, an area of the country that represents significant linguistic diversity. The majority of the students in my classes have been white and female, from a variety of social class backgrounds.

Although a large percentage of these students were either currently teaching or planned to teach in multicultural, multilingual settings, most entered the course with little or no knowledge about Black Language/Ebonics. Many also brought with them negative stereotypes about the language, characterizing it in initial class discussions by terms such as “slang,” “street talk,” “bad English,” “wrong,” and “not really a language.” Significantly, however, when asked to write (anonymously) about what they considered to be the most valuable knowledge they had gained in the course, over 90% of the students who have filled out a course evaluation during the past three years mentioned knowledge about Black Language/Ebonics as either the most valuable thing, or one of the most valuable things, they had gained from the course.

Through course readings and discussion, many students in the course develop a new level of respect for the linguistic integrity and power of Black Language/ Ebonics and its importance as a foundation in which to help children build new language skills. Although the assignment of specific readings and the content of class discussions varies somewhat from semester to semester, we always focus, in some form or another, on the broad areas described below.


It is difficult to talk about Black Language/Ebonics in a meaningful way without simultaneously talking about racism. Drawing on a wide variety of sources from the fields of literary criticism, cultural studies, and sociology, we begin the unit on Black Communications with an examination of the way in which “Black language” has historically been characterized in this country as an inferior form of language, a kind of “broken English” reflecting the supposed simplicity and lack of education of its users. We talk about how distortions of Black speech (bearing little, if any, relationship to the speech patterns of actual human beings), have been used throughout U.S. history in literature, minstrel shows, vaudeville, radio, movies, and television to characterize African-Americans as either inarticulate and simple-minded or ultraurbane and highly sexualized.

As we talk about various historical examples of this phenomenon, students easily draw connections to contemporary caricatures of Black Language/Ebonics that surface on television, in the movies, in racist jokes, in casual conversation and — in the wake of the Oakland School Board’s resolution on Ebonics — on the Internet as well. Through this process of lecture and discussion, students begin to see that popular conceptions of “Black language” — conceptions that many of them initially share — are in fact more a figment of white racist imagination than a representation of any “Black reality.”

It is against this historical and ideological background that students come to understand that Black Language/Ebonics is not only a systematic, rule-governed language variety, every bit as complex and sophisticated as Standard English, but also that there exists a rich AfricanAmerican oral and written tradition that draws, in part, upon a distinctive set of stylistic and rhetorical features that are as evident in the writings of Frederick Douglass in the 1830s as in the speeches of Malcolm X in the 1960s and in the essays of Toni Morrison in the 1990s. This is not the “Black Language” that my students ever imagined. When they compare its richness and complexity to the simplistic stereotypes they have absorbed from the popular media, they begin to draw the connections between linguistic diversity and racism that sit at the root of society’s negative characterizations of Black Language/Ebonics and that have contributed in such significant measure to obscuring the true abilities of countless African-American children in the nation’s schools. From this historical and ideological base, we then examine specific features of Black Language/Ebonics.


As numerous studies of language socialization and uses in African-American communities attest,1 by the time they enter kindergarten, African-American children are likely to have formed a sense of identityand self efficacy strongly linked to their ability to use oral language in highly sophisticated and stylized ways. From rhyming games to rap songs, from talking their way out of trouble to instigating trouble, many African-American children use language to display their intelligence and their competence in negotiating the world. In their communities, they are applauded for their quick verbal responses, their creative plays on words and sounds, their imaginative improvisations of familiar stories and themes, and their ability to best an “opponent” through superior verbal reasoning.

These linguistic abilities are potentially powerful precursors to literacy, but only if the teacher is aware of their existence. When teachers know little about the native language varieties of their students, the danger is not only that “differences” will be mistaken for “errors” (as when a teacher rejects a child’s rhyme or when children’s dialectal pronunciations are “corrected” during oral reading), but that linguistic differences will be interpreted by the teacher as evidence of some cognitive difficulty. For example, a child who speaks Black Language/Ebonics as a first language and does not use –sto mark plural nouns (who says, for instance, “ten cent” rather than “ten cents”) is displaying “linguistic behavior” perfectly consistent with the grammatical rules of Black Language/Ebonics, which does not require –sto mark plurality. Not knowing the systematic rules of the child’s language, it would be easy for a teacher to arrive at the erroneous conclusion that a child who says “three book” or “two boy” does not possess the concept of plurality. Obviously there is a vast difference between the pedagogical and interactional strategies employed by a teacher who believes that she is working with a child who lacks a concept of plurality and one who realizes that the child is simply unfamiliar or unpracticed with how this concept is coded in Standard English. There is a difference as well in the way the teacher in these two situations is likely to assess the intellectual potential of the child.

Although I do not require that students in my classes memorize a list of phonological and grammatical differences between Black Language/Ebonics and Standard English, we do read about and discuss these differences in some detail as well as reflect upon their implications for effective teaching practice and for the accurate assessment of African American children’s cognitive and linguistic abilities.


Phonological and grammatical features are only part of what makes up a language. Membership in a particular speech community entails knowledge of a wide range of communicative skills and strategies for acting in the world — for demonstrating intelligence, apologizing, asking for a favor, telling someone what to do, claiming allegiance with others, displaying status, getting one’s point across, even telling a story. The way in which people use language to accomplish these and other social actions is referred to as pragmatics. People socialized in different cultural communities often utilize very different verbal strategies for performing these actions. As many language researchers have noted, differences in the way language is usedin various communities frequently cause more communicative misunderstandings in classrooms than do phonological and grammatical differences. For this reason, we spend a good deal of time talking about pragmatic features of language.

With respect to differences between Black Language/Ebonics and Standard English on the level ofpragmatics, much research suggests that one of the ways in which children raised in white, mainstream communities learn to display intelligence is by responding correctly to “known-answer” questions like, “What is that?”; “How many did you find?”; “Do you remember what tomorrow is?” In contrast, one of the most important ways in which young children in many working-class AfricanAmerican communities are socialized to display intelligence is by responding in spontaneous and creative ways to verbal challenges issued by an adult or an older child — e.g., “What you gonna do, I try to take dis?”; “What’s dat like?”; “What you think you are?” (examples from Heath, 1983). A particularly vivid example of a child’s creative response to an adult challenge comes from Heath’s 1983 study of language socialization in African-American community she calls Trackton. In this example, Lem, age 28 months, is responding to his mother, Lillie Mae:

On one occasion, Lillie Mae, exasperated with Lem for taking off his shoes, asked him what he had done with his shoes and suggested: ‘You want me ta tie you up, put you on de railroad track?’. Lem hesitated a moment and responded:

Railroad track
Train all big ‘n black
On dat track, on dat track, on dat track
Ain’t no way I can’t get back Back from dat track
Back from dat train Big ‘n black, I be back.

Heath reports that “everyone laughed uproariously” at Lem’s response, and nothing more was said about his missing shoes.2

These two very different ways of displaying intelligence — in the one case, by giving correct information in response to “known answer” questions, and in the other, by creatively manipulating the sounds and sense of language in response to more open-ended verbal challenges — prepare children in different ways for handling the instructional tasks they confront in the early years of school. Heath reports, for instance, that many Trackton children were unfamiliar with and puzzled by their teachers’ use of “known answer” questions, and the teachers of these children frequently complained that many seemed unable to answer “the simplest kind of questions.”3 Meanwhile, the linguistic abilities for which children had been praised and reinforced in Trackton — creative word play, extensive use of metaphor and simile, the ability to think on one’s feet and to adjust language to audience — were not evident in school because, for a variety of reasons, teachers did not provide instructional opportunities that elicted their use.

Ironically, in her study of language socialization at home and in school, Vernon-Feagans (1996) speculates that the working-class African-American kindergartners in the study may have performed less well on a paraphrasing task than their white mainstream counterparts precisely because of their more creative use of language and their superior story-telling abilities. Rather than simply re-telling the story when asked to paraphrase, the African-American children added and embellished the story and, in the process, “frequently ended up creating a different, but often more interesting, vignette.”4 But although their vignettes were often more interesting than the original, the process of embellishment led the African-American children to exclude elements of the original vignette, for which they were penalized when their performance on the paraphrasing task was evaluated. This is not surprising. Studies consistently show that teachers commonly underestimate or fail to recognize entirely many of the verbal abilities nurtured in African-American communities.

In addition to helping my students become aware of the kinds of linguistic abilities African American children bring with them to school, we also spend time in the course discussing specific ways in which teachers can draw upon and nurture those abilities during literacy instruction. We examine children’s literature that incorporates features of Black Language/Ebonics as well as excerpts from the work of prominent writers and speakers who employ characteristic rhetorical features associated with AfricanAmerican oral and written traditions. As we discuss in class, such literature provides a context both for celebrating linguistic diversity and for discussing issues like code switching, attitudes about language, and the relationship between language and power — all of which can be appropriate and fascinating topics even for children as young as kindergarten age. Just as importantly, literature that incorporates stylistic features of Black Language/Ebonics can be used as models for children to experiment with the stylistic features of their own writing.

Clearly, our four or five-week examination of Black Language/Ebonics only scratches the surface of an immensely complex, enormously exciting, and ever evolving field of study. As I think my students understand by the end of the course, Black Language/Ebonics is not a static, unchanging, monolithic entity. Like all languages, Black Language/Ebonics is multiple — a living, vibrant, constantly changing phenomenon, as multi-faceted and multi-voiced as the diversity of speakers and writers who sound and resound its stylistic continuum. Each semester that I teach “Language and Culture,” I end in the hope that my students’ explorations of the richness and complexity of African-American language and literature are only just beginning.

Terry Meier is an associate professor in the Wheelock College Graduate School in Boston.