Integrating African American Vernacular English and Code-Switching as Instructional Strategies to Improve Literacy Skills
Integrating African American Vernacular English and Code-Switching as an Instructional Strategy
The student population in the United States continues to grow more and more diversified. In order to become effective classroom teachers, educators must acknowledge the diversity in their classrooms and learn ways to teach to this increasingly diverse student body. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census report (2000), within the next five years, the minority population will be about half of the student population (as cited in Allison & Rehm, 2007, p.12). Therefore, teachers must develop culturally responsive instructional practices that will meet the needs of their students. Historically, African-American students have under-achieved when compared to their white peers, particularly with regards to literacy. Researchers have honed in on one of the causes that may be linked to this achievement gap. What they have found is that there is a disparity in the type of language that is spoken at home and the language that is expected and taught at school. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is estimated to be spoken by at least 80 percent of all African-Americans (Hollie, 2001, p. 55), while Standard American English (SAE) is the language of academia. It is not, therefore, that African-American students are lacking in intelligence, but that AAVE is not similar to academic English (Fisher & Lapp, 2013, p. 634). In order to help these students achieve success in the classroom, teachers can integrate AAVE into classroom instruction, scaffold literacy skills by using AAVE, and implement code-switching to help students successfully master Standard American English.
As Deborah Harmon (2012) explains, “Culturally responsive teaching is clearly situated within the discipline of literacy. Culturally responsive literacy teachers are able to use African American students’ languages in meaningful and purposeful ways” (p. 15). While there are several strategies for incorporating AAVE into the classroom, one of the most effective ways is to use code-switching strategies. Code-switching is the ability to change one’s language style depending on the situation and context. What many successful teachers have found is that if they clarify for students when informal language, including AAVE is appropriate, and when formal academic language SAE is appropriate, and allow students to scaffold code-switching into the practice of SAE literacy skills, these students were much more adept at writing and speaking in SAE. For example, many teachers allow students to write informal pieces of writing and poetry using AAVE in order to maintain their “voice” and give the piece authenticity. However, when working on a formal piece of writing, students were expected to use SAE. Regular feedback and meaningful links between formal writing and informal writing have helped to increase literacy.
In tandem with code-switching, successful adoption of SAE was achieved by teaching students how to break-down their home language into its component parts, and compare that to the grammatical components of SAE. According to research conducted by Wheeler (2002), teachers who implement this strategy have seen the success of their students’ writing in Standard English improve by up to 59% (as cited in Whitney, 2005, p. 67). Wheeler (2008) also offers an explanation as to why this instructional practice is successful when she state, “Because code-switching requires that students think about their own language in both formal and informal forms, it builds cognitive flexibility, a skill that plays a significant role in successful literacy learning” (p. 57). Therefore, teachers who encourage students to see the differences between AAVE and SAE effectively help their students’ transition to the use of SAE. Fisher & Lapp (2013) explain that it is through thoughtful conversation about language that students make meaningful connections and learning occurs (p. 636). In their study, Fisher & Lapp noted that at one high school in California, none of the African-American students passed the state mandated literacy test. After two years of implementing culturally responsive literacy practices, when it came time to take the test, “…97% passed the first time, and the remaining six students passed on a second try. In other words, the passage rate for African Americans increased from none (0%) in 2008 to 78% in 2010 and 97% in 2011” (p.646).
Although the results of teaching literacy skills in this manner are very good, there is still opposition to incorporating AAVE in the curriculum. Many opponents argue that by incorporating AAVE, somehow school will become less rigorous (Whitney, 2005, p. 65). Still others believe using only Standard English is more effective for student learning. However, this is untrue and ineffective because using home languages to build on literacy skills has already proven to be an effective pedagogical tool. According to Whitney (2005), by limiting the use of home languages, teachers are putting several students at a disadvantage, and the teachers themselves are missing the chance to enhance student understanding and therefore improve literacy skills (p. 66).
Culturally responsive pedagogy that not only recognizes home languages and AAVE, but uses it to imbed literacy strategies to improve Standard English literacy rates, should be more readily implemented into classrooms across the United States. As Lex Friedman (2013) writes, “Speakers who arrive at school without constant experience with Standard English thus start at a disadvantage that is compounded by the rejection of their native mode of speech.” Therefore, teachers not only need to honor the diverse cultural backgrounds and languages that students bring with them, but also use these differences to help promote literacy and strong language skills. Code-switching, scaffolding language and deconstructing the components of AAVE and SAE are successful instructional strategies that promote success within the African-American student population. In order to fully serve the diverse student population, more targeted professional development and training of teachers will be necessary. Literacy coaches knowledgeable about AAVE, SAE, and literacy strategies would be of great service in supporting educators.
Allison, B. & Rehm, M. (2007). Effective teaching strategies for middle school learners in multicultural, multilingual, classrooms. Middle School Journal, 39(2), 12-18.
Fisher, D.d., & Lapp, D.J. (2013). Learning to talk like the test: Guiding speakers of African American vernacular English. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(8), 634-648.
Friedman, L. (2013, March 14). Ain’t no reason: A mother tongue spoken by millions of Americans still gets no respect. The Magazine. Retrieved from http://the-magazine.org/12/aint-no-reason#.VhBkZflVikp
Harmon, D. (2012). Culturally responsive teaching through a historical lens: Will history repeat itself? Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 12-23.
Hill, K.D. (2009). Code-switching pedagogies and African American student voices: Acceptance and resistance. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 120-131.
Hollie, S. (2001). Acknowledging the language of African American students: Instructional strategies. English Journal, 54-59.