Literacy, Text Complexity and African American English

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The purpose of this research was to examine linguistic differences between grade-level texts utilizing Mainstream American English (MAE) and African American English (AAE) to determine whether the differences in morphosyntactic structure were significant enough to pose reading challenges for children whose vernacular or home language is AAE. AAE was chosen because of the persistently low language and literacy scores attributed to African American students and because of its large research base. Research on AAE usage has spanned the fields of education, sociology, communication, anthropology, and popular culture (Lanehart & Malik 2015). My hypothesis was that the cognitive labor required in the transition from AAE, which is primarily an oral language, to MAE in written form may create a greater processing load for students, and this may hinder students’ ability to perform on comprehension tests under timed test requirements. I examined the morphosyntactic differences between four MAE texts and four AAE texts. The four texts written in MAE were found through the CCSS Appendix (National Governors Association for Best Practices 2010), which includes exemplars of literature for each grade level. Those four texts fell within the range of text complexity considered appropriate for 4th grade students. The four AAE-based texts were taken from the 4th grade range of appropriate texts as suggested by the Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP) and the Coretta Scott King Book Awards website (Association 2009; District n.d.). There were several notable morphosyntactic differences between MAE and AAE language varieties evidenced in the respective texts. The AAE texts tended to feature aspectual and auxiliary constructions more frequently than the MAE texts. In addition, many grammatical features commonly associated with AAE, such as multiple negation, absence of copula, subject-verb agreement variations, and culture-specific expressions were observed. The MAE texts tended to follow conventional ideas of grammatical complexity, such as multiple dependent or recursive embedded clauses, and the use of absolutes and free adjuncts in the clausal structures that tend to confuse non-MAE speakers. Syntactic structural differences between AAE and the MAE have proven challenging for early readers (Labov 1995; Rickford & Rickford 1995; Terry et al. 2012). Additionally, the findings affirmed that traditional measures of text complexity for one genre may not be appropriate for measuring the complexity of another. The research results suggest that explicit instruction about linguistic structure in accordance with a variety of disciplines is a necessity for all students (Frantz et al. 2015). Moreover, the use of culturally and linguistically responsive texts would help AAE students develop literacy skills, in addition to making such texts part of the elementary school curriculum (Hollie 2012). The findings of this study contribute to research on literacy and text complexity as it relates to non-MAE speakers. Suggestions for pedagogy and future research are also provided.

Literacy, Text Complexity, African American English