Running head: ebonics and education

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Ebonics and Education:

Cooperative Learning with Standard English

Caitlin Clark

1002: 07 Educational Psychology

Melissa DeJonckheere

November 20, 2012


This paper focuses on the development of Ebonics and Standard English cooperatively in the classroom. First, it defines Ebonics as a general term in society. This paper discusses how Ebonics was created, and how it has evolved since the early days of slavery. It then looks at the Oakland School District as a forefront for Ebonics in the classroom in the late 1990’s. The struggle and controversy created within Oakland’s developments has inspired many teaching professionals. Some of these professionals’ ideas on how to approach accessing Ebonics in the classroom, and recognizing the importance of Standard English in the formal world are included. Their ideas on how teachers should treat Ebonics in the classroom are shared, along with ways to present Ebonics lessons without correction or offense. This paper also displays the significance that teaching Ebonics can have on students’ self-efficacy.

Keywords: Ebonics, Standard English, self-efficacy

Ebonics and Education: Cooperative Learning with Standard English

Ebonics has been a part of African American culture since the slave trade in Africa, where it was created so the British and African Americans could communicate with one another (Thomas, 2004). It has since been carried on as a collective identity and dialect between African Americans mainly, alongside other cultural groups (Hoy, 2007). In the late 1990’s, the Oakland School District noticed their African American students were struggling in English and adopted Ebonics into the collaborative Standard English program (Thomas, 2004). Despite blatant success and rising test scores (Whitney, 2005), controversy still looms about whether Ebonics should be taught in the classroom. While there’s no denying students of all ethnicities need to be fluent in Standard English (Nero, 2006), teachers can still present Ebonics in a way that embraces culture and increases self-efficacy. Ebonics and Standard English both have a place in the classroom, which can be illustrated through its development over time, progress in mainstream public schooling, and appropriateness in the classroom.

Origin of Ebonics and Development

Ebonics has developed over time and has become a distinct dialect recognized by numerous cultures. It started off as a rickety converse between the British men selling the captive Africans during the slave trade, known as pidgin (Thomas, 2004). When the Africans began their new life in America, Ebonics was born. It was shared from ancestors to the entire African American culture. Today, Ebonics, or African American Vernacular, is used by 90 percent of African Americans (Whitney, 2005). Just like any other language, Ebonics is complex, well governed and has its own set of grammar rules (Hoy, 2007). Grammar rules of Ebonics include frequent double negatives, the loss of plural emphasis regarding possession and third person singular verbs (Hoy, 2007), the drop of a letter at the end of a word (Thomas, 2004), and the slurring of some phrases. Words can also be modified or created to better fit a situation or story. While society regards Ebonics as slang, uneducated language, or incorrect in some instances, teachers must especially respect the history of the vernacular and that it is not incorrect or faulty. It is correct in the context of the home and culture, and has been molded into a concrete vernacular, integral to many African Americans self-identity (Whitney, 2005).

Ann Arbor and the Oakland School District

In 1979, before the Oakland School District controversy, a court case occurred in Ann Arbor, Michigan between Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children and Ann Arbor School District Board. It ruled that teachers would be taught the basics of Ebonics so they could relate to their students on a higher level (OhioLINK). The court case established a precedent for the Oakland School District by giving African American students who used Ebonics representation in the classroom.

After this court case, almost a decade later, Oakland educators observed that their African American students were struggling in English (Thomas, 2004). In December, 1996 Oakland ruled that Ebonics would be a second language so students could better grasp the concept of Standard English (Thomas, 2004). Teachers were instructed on how to properly instruct students when teaching Ebonics. The key idea of the program was to use methods that contrast the two languages so students can recognize the differences between Standard English and Ebonics, such as learning another language (Thomas, 2004). If students were taught how to translate Ebonics into Standard English and vise versa, they would learn Standard English more efficiently. They would be learning a second language, not abandoning their home language and learning a “correct” language. It is proven that incorporating a student’s first language while learning a new language is more effective than only focusing on the new language. Critics claimed that Oakland teachers were actually teaching Ebonics. Teachers refuted the claims saying they could not teach what students already spoke. Other skeptics believed the immersion of the vernacular would cause students to be even more loyal to their dialect and rebel against Standard English (Thomas, 2004).

Students who were immersed in the integration of Ebonics with Standard English scored higher in reading and writing and had a greater understanding of Standard English (Matthews, 2007; Thomas, 2004; Whitney, 2005). Matthews (2007) research paper compared the STAR scores from Prescott Elementary School and the Oakland Unified School District before it used Ebonics. Prescott Elementary School beat Oakland by 7 points. It proved that Ebonics truly was effective in its immersion in the classroom. Prescott Elementary had a 76 percent African American population, and no Caucasian students to skew results. Although Oakland stirred up a storm of racist, judgmental, and threatening criticisms, it proved that Ebonics in the classroom was not a lost cause.

Implications and Applications for Teachers

Teachers must focus on two main points: correcting students only deconstructs self-efficacy, and Standard English is still important (Nero, 2006). Students can view correction from teachers as condescending. Delpit found in a study she did with inner city middle school students that when teachers corrected the student’s speech, the students felt the correction was offensive rather than helpful. Instead of proposing what is correct, teachers must contrast Standard English and Ebonics in forms of literature, scenarios, or conversations. Having students “convert” or use code switching with sentences and conversations is highly effective (Whitney, 2005). Role playing, participating in plays, writing persuasive essays, and making Standard English translators, are some other ways to practice Standard English in the classroom (Whitney, 2005). Teachers should tell students that knowing Standard English is important to the formal and business world, because they will need to be able to fluently speak it to get certain jobs and interviews (Nero, 2006).

The more accepted students feel, and less inferior their home language seems, the higher their self-efficacy will be in the classroom. When students feel valued and important to the classroom as a whole, their minds open as well as their hearts. Teachers must remember that their language is attached to their family, a very emotional part of their life, and insulting their language, their culture, is like insulting their family (Nero, 2006). “To respect AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in the classroom, we must create a learning environment that values diversity in experience, culture, and language” (Whitney, 2005, p 65).

Conclusion and the Future of Ebonics in the Classroom

Ebonics and Standard English can cooperatively be taught in the classroom. With the right teacher, the correct training, and a willing school district, African

American students can use their vernacular while learning mainstream English. As for the future of Ebonics in the classroom, if its immersion proves as successful as

Oakland’s results, there is a positive pathway for its usage. More school districts with high African American populations should consider how Ebonics collaborative instruction could benefit their students, while still learning Standard English. In a world where test scores are imperative, schools that cater to AAVE will have a fighting chance in the ranks of reading and language arts.


Hoy, A. W. (2007). Educational psychology (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Matthews, A. (2005, February 10). The Ebonics debate in America: will classroom use of African American Vernacular English improve the education of black youth in America? TTT home page. Retrieved from

Nero, S. J. (2006). What should teachers do? Ebonics and culturally responsive instruction. In Dialects, Englishes, Creoles, and Education (pp. 93-101). Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.

OhioLINK Institution Selection. (n.d.). EBC - The OhioLINK Electronic Book Center. Retrieved from;query=ebonics;query-join=and;brand=default;hit.rank=1

Thomas, S. (2004). Ebonics and the African-American student: why Ebonics has a place in the classroom. York College / The City University of New York. Retrieved November 2012, from

Whitney, J. (2005). Five easy pieces: steps toward integrating AAVE into the classroom. English Journal94(5), 64-69. Retrieved from

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