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Language-based Differences in the Literacy Performance of Bidialectal Youth

by Patriann Smith, Jehanzeb R. Cheema, Alex Kumi-Yeboah, S. Joel Warrican & Melissa L. Alleyne

Background/Context: Standard English functions as a dominant language in the English-speaking Caribbean context despite the bidialectal, bilingual, and multilingual nature of countries. Notwithstanding, Caribbean non-Standard English-speaking students continue to be administered literacy assessments that do not take into account their nonstandardized English language use. This practice inadvertently reinforces assumptions that privilege Standard English as a language of assessment (Canagarajah, 2006b; Shohamy, 2006) and that devalue certain World Englishes (Canagarajah, 2006a) in academia.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In this study, we examined the way in which 3,184 15-year-old 9th and 10th grade Trinidadian bidialectal adolescent youth self-identified linguistically on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) literacy assessment and explored their reading, math, and science literacy performance based on their self-identification as native English and non-native English speaking students.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The population included 3,184 15-year-old students, 52.3% (n = 1,666) of whom were girls and 47.7% (n = 1,518) of whom were boys. Of this population, 28.5% (n = 909) were in Grade 9 while the rest were in Grade 10 (n = 2,275); 89.7% (n = 2,856) were enrolled in public schools and 10.3% (n = 327) were enrolled in private schools; and across these groups, 97.3% (n = 3,098) identified English (i.e., Standard English) while 2.7% (n = 86) identified a language other than Standard English as their “native” language (i.e., non-Standard English).

Research Design: The statistical results in our study were based on secondary analysis of a survey-based nationally representative sample of 15-year-old students from Trinidad and Tobago. We used analysis of covariance in order to control for demographic differences and used hierarchical linear modeling to verify the robustness of our empirical findings.

Findings: The majority of students self-identified as [Standard] English speakers despite the predominant use of nonstandardized Englishes in their country. Findings showed large and significant differences between “self-identifying native” and “self-identifying non-native” speakers of English, with higher mean scores for the former group in all three assessed areas of literacy as measured in English. Self-identifying native English speakers performed significantly below the PISA 2009 OECD mean of 500 and reflected a high degree of volatility in performance. These differences persisted even after controlling for important student demographic differences such as grade, gender, school type, and indicators of socioeconomic and cultural status.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The study serves to justify the need for closer attention to the pervasive role of colonialism in the dominance of Standard English in multilingual testing (Shohamy, 2006), highlights the need for attention to bidialectal students’ performativity in World Englishes that challenge normative Standard English literacy proficiency (Canagarajah, 2006a), and requires that assumptions steeped in colonialism that underlie Standard English literacy testing on the PISA international measure be revisited if bidialectal adolescent learners are to be accurately represented on these measures in much the same manner as their monolingual and Standard English speaking counterparts.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 1, 2018, p. 1-36 ID Number: 21947, Date Accessed: 10/23/2018 11:09:20 PM

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