How Should Teachers Respond to the Ebonics Debate? Essay
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What are teachers to do when our students respond to a question saying “It don’t make no difference” or “It ain’t good. ” What about students write: “All the mens and womens was forced to go” in a research paper? On one hand teachers want to respect and honor our students’ heritage and culture, but on the other hand, we want to prepare them for the best chance of success. Ebonics refers to a form of language that many African-American students speak.
The issue came to public attention in 1997 when the Oakland school board proposed to teach African American students by incorporating Ebonics into the curriculum.
This began a heated national debate. Lisa Delpit (2002) explains the issue in a very poignant and insightful way: I have been asked often enough recently: “What do you think about Ebonics? Are you for it or against it? ” My answer must be neither. I can be neither for Ebonics or against Ebonics any more that I can be for or against air.
It exists. It is the language that is spoken by many of our African-American children. It is the language many African-American children heard as their mothers nursed them and changed their diapers and played peek-a-boo with them.
It is the language through which they first encountered love, nurturance, and joy (p 93). Lisa Delpit’s article entitled “What should teachers do? Ebonics and culturally responsive instruction” goes on to explain how Ebonics is a reality, and that teachers must develop sound methodology to help students learn to code switch between the two languages. While some critics such as Christopher Todd (1997) fervently believe that if teachers are to acknowledge Ebonics as an acceptable form of language, then they in turn will only further handicap African-American students.
Todd argues that this pedagogy will not give non-standard English speakers sufficient skills in Standard English, and in doing so teachers will help to perpetuate cycles of poverty that these very teachers purport to end. Catherine Compton-Lilly’s (2005) “Nuances of Error: Considerations Relevant to African American Vernacular English and Learning to Read” addresses the issue of how teachers should respond to students who did not grow up in homes where Standard English is spoken.
She goes on to establish that African American Vernacular is a well documented form of spoken English, complete with its own syntax and intonation, and that it has been deemed inferior to standard English. Compton-Lilly suggests that until recently there has been very little awareness among teachers that by correcting student’s language, they also undermine their cultures and families. Compton-Lilly then sites research documenting the specific linguistic differences between standard and African American Vernacular.
The bulk of the article’s original research is a case study of Lashanda, a first-grader who had fallen behind her peers in reading and had grown up in a house where African American Vernacular was used. Catherine Compton-Lilly tutored Lashanda individually over the course of several weeks and meticulously documented when and how her home language emerged to cause a miscue in her reading. Lashanda made typical “errors” such as reading aloud “the roses was broken” instead of “were” broken.