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The Right (Write) Start: African American Language and the Discourse of Sounding Right

by Anne Haas Dyson & Geneva Smitherman - 2009

Background: Both academic research and educational policy have focused on the diverse language resources of young schoolchildren. African American Language (AAL) in particular has a rich history of scholarship that both documents its historical evolution and sociolinguistic complexity and reveals the persistent lack of knowledge about AAL in our schools and the continuing negative stereotypes about its speakers. Currently, federal funds for early schooling target the literacy learning of low-income children, who are disproportionately children of color; these programs, though, assume, as a literacy “basic,” a singular correct way of using language. The stage is set, then, for communicative disconnects between teachers and children during literacy instruction.

Purpose: In early literacy studies, such communicative disconnects between teachers and children have been discussed primarily in relation to reading. Our focus is on teacher-student interactions about children’s writing, that is, about their efforts to make a voice visible on paper. Writing is a rich context for studying how AAL figures into early literacy teaching and learning. Teachers urge children to listen to how their words sound in order to compose their message. But what sounds “right” to young children will vary for developmental, situational, and, as emphasized herein, sociocultural reasons. We illustrate how, in the course of teacher-student interaction, young children’s major resources for learning to write—their very voices—may become a source of problems.

Research Design: The article draws on data collected in an ethnographic project on child writing in a test-monitored and basics-focused elementary school in a midsized urban school district. Most of the school’s children were from low-income homes of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. One important pedagogical site for teaching basic literacy skills in the observed first grade was teacher-led editing conferences, in which the classroom teacher focused on written conventions, including standardized usage. These conferences (and all afternoon activities) were documented over the course of an academic year primarily through observation accompanied by audiotaping and collection of children’s products. This article features the writing experiences of one focal child, Tionna.

Recommendations: We conclude with a consideration of the goals of language arts programs in contemporary times. Certainly, assisting children in extending their communicative repertoire to include the Language of Wider Communication (LWC) is a worthy curricular goal for the school years. At the same time, we question U.S. monolingualism and monodialectalism in a multilingual world demanding communicative flexibility.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 973-998
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15228, Date Accessed: 1/27/2021 12:41:14 PM

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About the Author
  • Anne Haas Dyson
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    ANNE HAAS DYSON is currently a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She studies the childhood cultures and literacy learning of young schoolchildren. Among her recent publications are The Brothers and Sisters Learn to Write: Popular Literacies in Childhood and School Cultures (Teachers College Press, 2003) and On the Case: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research, with Celia Genishi (Teachers College Press, 2005).
  • Geneva Smitherman
    Michigan State University
    GENEVA SMITHERMAN is University Distinguished Professor of English and director of the African American Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State University. Her research interests are African American language and culture, South African language planning policy, and writing assessment. Publications include the classic Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (Houghton Mifflin, 1977), and Word From the Mother: Language and African Americans (Routledge, 2006).
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