Ebonics was the short-lived Oakland (CA) School Board’s approved program (1996) to teach black students to parse the way they naturally spoke and wrote at home, in the neighborhood, and with friends just as Standard English had to be acquired. The School Board resolution recognized Ebonics–a combination of “ebony” and “phonics”– as the “primary language of African American students,” not a dialect of English. Decades earlier, such speech had been labeled “Black English.” Renamed, the School Board set policy to teach Ebonics to African American students to improve their reading and increase their academic achievement.
And linguists agreed with the concept of Ebonics.
At their 1997 meeting, the Linguistic Society of America [LSA] approved a resolution describing Ebonics as “systematic and rule-governed like all natural speech varieties,” saying that the Oakland School Board’s action was “linguistically and pedagogically sound.”
The policy-driven program commenced in 1997 to an uproar across African American communities in the U.S. and top public officials about the wisdom of teaching both the “primary language of African American students” and Standard English—students would learn to “code-switch” as bilingual students and adults do (see here, here, here, and here).
In a subsequent resolution a month later the Oakland School Board stepped back and said that the program will now concentrate on “African Language Systems principles to move students from the language patterns they bring to school to English proficiency.” The Board directs the superintendent to devise a course of instruction to facilitate “mastery of English language skills, while respecting and embracing the legitimacy and richness of the language patterns.” The divisive and overblown debate over the program led to angry discussions within and across white and African American communities. By 1998, the Oakland School Board had dropped the word “Ebonics” and recognized it–now called African American Vernacular English–as one way for students to learn Standard English and “code switch.”
Where and When Did Ebonics originate?
What Problems Did Ebonics Intend to Solve?
The Oakland (CA) Board of Education’s two resolutions on Ebonics in 1996-1997, show clearly that these policymakers connected Black English to “primary” African languages to bring “positive appreciation of the language” and to increase self-respect of a historically oppressed minority’s home language while simultaneously working toward solving the problems of “students’ acquisition and mastery of English language skills.” Ebonics sought to remedy the dismissal of current language used by most African American students and make it a respected tool in acquiring Standard English, the language used in school textbooks, worksheets, and standardized tests.
African American students in Oakland scored poorly on state tests. Ebonics was a way for children and youth to use Standard English and gain increased reading and writing skills to raise their academic achievement.
What Did Ebonics Look Like in Practice?
In Oakland, Prescott Elementary School was the only district school where a majority of teachers voted in the mid-1990s to become part of a Ebonics pilot called the Standard English Program (SEP). A fifth grade teacher, Carrie Secret, who had the same group of children since they were in kindergarten was interviewed about how she used Ebonics in her classroom:
I’m lucky in that I have been with these children five years and at a very early age I engaged them in listening to language for the purpose of hearing and understanding the difference between Ebonics and English. However, by the middle of second grade, they were all readers. So at that point it was easy to go to the overhead and show them exactly what they said and then call for the English translation of what they said.
Hearing the language is a crucial step. Children who speak Ebonics do not hear themselves dropping off the “t” for instance. You have to teach them to hear that. So we do a lot of over-enunciation when they are small. I also do a lot of dictation where I will dictate a sentence and have the children write what I said, by sound only. I also try to always point out what is Ebonics speech and what is English. Children must first hear and develop an ear for both languages in order to effectively distinguish between the two.
In fifth grade, I encourage the students to practice English most of the instructional time….
There’s a misconception of the program, created by the media blitz of misinformation. Our mission was and continues to be: embrace and respect Ebonics, the home language of many of our students, and use strategies that will move them to a competency level in English. We never had, nor do we now have, any intention of teaching the home language to students. They come to us speaking the language.
We read literature that has Ebonics language patterns in it. For example, last year in fifth grade we read Joyce Hansen’s “Yellow Bird and Me,” and in fourth grade we read her book “The Gift Giver.” The language was Ebonic in structure. The language was the bonding agent for students. The book just felt good to them.
When writing, the students are aware that finished pieces are written in English. The use of Ebonic structures appears in many of their first drafts. When this happens I simply say, “You used Ebonics here. I need you to translate this thought into English.” This kind of statement does not negate the child’s thought or language….
When the children are working in groups together, say three or four of them, I try to keep them in an English-speaking mode but I don’t prevent them from using Ebonics. I want to give them time enough to talk through their project in their comfortable language. It’s like a rewrite to me. But at some point, they have to present their project to me and these are required to be presented in their best English….
When they come in the morning, we start by standing behind our chairs and we do some recitations out of our poetry readers. All of these are self-enhancing pieces of poetry, something that touches the children so they get the joy of being in the classroom. After reciting the poetry, we sing songs. We use a variety of music that touches the spirit of the child. For example, we have used “I Believe I Can Fly,” or Whitney Houston’s “Step by Step,” and “To Be Loved,” or some Sweet Honey in the Rock. We have used Sounds of Blackness, classical jazz, and even some Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. We may even do some African dance movement to music by Herbie Hancock or Quincy Jones.
A newspaper reporter watched Secret teach and described a portion of the lesson:
Secret’s classroom was one of the first stops on the conference agenda so that teachers and others could better understand the teaching methods for African American children that Oakland plans to expand into more classrooms — methods that have been in place on a hodgepodge basis in classrooms across California for the past 16 years.
At Prescott, the children faced each other knee-to-knee as they practiced their enunciation with the sentences: “I just once want to feel America is proud of me — black. I just want America to get off my back.”
Students also substituted pronouns in the sentence and changed the verb to match. For example, some students wrote, “She just once wants to feel America is proud of her — black.”
“Make sure you put on those ending sounds,” Secret told her students as they recited their sentences, referring to some of the children’s tendency to drop the “s”sound at the end of “wants.”
“You can leave those off when you are talking in the home. Exaggerate it as we go through this….”
At Prescott, those language patterns were illustrated on worksheets giving examples of how “American English” differs from the African American language systems. One example was of what the worksheet called the “habitual be.” The example in American English said, “She is often at home.” “She be at home,” said the ebonics sentence.
As a child completed his or her grammar task correctly, Secret and the other children often said, “Ashay.” The expression means, “So be it” or “It is so” in West Africa.
“If one of us doesn’t know, none of us knows,” Secret told her students.
Did Ebonics Work?
While many stories from teachers, students, parents, and observers say that it did work–that is, was put into practice and caused differences in student knowledge and skill in moving from Ebonics to Standard English, no systematic studies–either qualitative or quantitative or combinations of both–have shown that Ebonics can (or cannot) improve students’ language arts skills and knowledge using standardized tests or similar measures.
Politically, the Oakland Board of Education’s resolutions and pilot programs in the late-1990s “worked” in the sense that both drew attention to the the situation of low-income African American children and youth in need of attention, resources, and experienced staffs to find ways of improving the schooling they received.
What Has Happened Ebonics Since the late 1990s?
Between linguists, academics, and practitioners Ebonics shed its politically-charged image in the late 1990s and morphed into African American Vernacular English or AAE. A dialect that like other dialects in New England, the Southwest, and rest of the world is legitimate and distinct from the Standard English spoken in schools, doctor offices, and white-collar workplaces. Being bi-dialectical isacquiring a crucial set of language and cultural skills that helps children and youth negotiate the differences between home, school, and workplace without feeling any stigma.
Efforts to teach AAE to children and youth in order for them to switch codes easily, understand that language is contextual and that no stigma attaches to a dialect spoken at home have made some advances in urban schools enrolling large numbers of African American students (see here, here, here, and here).
But it is hard work as Julie Washington, professor at Georgia State University and long-time advocate for teaching African American children the importance of code-switching, has found out over the years. She learned tough lessons as recounted in a recent article.
In preparation for one of her first studies of AAE, she sent out consent forms to parents, describing her goal of studying “the role Black English plays in children’s oral language.” Weeks passed, and not a single form came back. Eventually, Washington called a parents’ night and asked why no one had signed the form. Two dozen parents stared at her in silence until, Washington told me, one mother erupted: “How dare you say we talk different than other people! What the hell is ‘black English’? We don’t speak ‘black English’!”
“You do,” Washington said, and to make her point, she code-switched. “I think I said, ‘Look, we ain’t got no business doin’ this,’ ” she recalled. The room burst into laughter. “Okay, we do speak like that,” the mother granted. “But we don’t like you calling it that.” It was a lesson Washington never forgot: The dialect was so stigmatized that even among people who spoke it every day, she needed to tread carefully.
As linguist William Labov said in the 1960s about what he called Black English but is now called AAE, teachers should use “the methods used in teaching English as a foreign language.” Washington agrees but puts it differently:
Unless “the places these kids might want to go to learn, work, and live” change fundamentally, she said, “you’re handicapping them by not teaching them the two codes.”