Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate / Edition 2

Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate / Edition 2

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Multilingual Matters Ltd.


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Ebonics: The Urban Education Debate / Edition 2

Controversy erupted in 1996 when the Oakland Unified School District’s ‘Ebonics Resolution’ proposed an approach to teaching Standard English that recognized the variety of English spoken by African American students. With new demands for accountability driven by the No Child Left Behind policy and its emphasis on high-stakes testing in Standard English, this debate will no doubt rise again. This book seeks to better inform this next episode.

In Part 1, leading scholars place the debate within its historical and contemporary context, provide clear explanations of what Ebonics is and is not, and offer practical approaches schools can and should follow to address the linguistic needs of African American students. Part 2 provides original documents that accompanied the debate, including the original resolutions, legislation, organization position papers, and commentary/analyses from leading linguists. This book is written for all those whose work impacts the lives of Ebonics speakers in our public schools.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853597978
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 04/30/2005
Series: New Perspectives on Language and Education Series , #2
Edition description: 2nd Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.05(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

J. David Ramirez is Dean of the School of Education at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus. Dr Ramirez is a nationally recognized educational leader and the former principal investigator of the Ramirez Study (the most often cited longitudinal study on bilingual education in the US and the first national study of its kind).

Terrence G. Wiley is Director of the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the College of Education at Arizona State University. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on language policy, literacy, biliteracy, and language diversity. He currently co-edits, with Thomas Ricento, the Journal of Language, Identity, and Education.

Gerda de Klerk is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Arizona State University. She has worked in language policy formulation and implementation issues in South Africa, where she was the editor of Bua!, a magazine popularizing sociolinguistic matters.

Enid Lee is the director of Enidlee Consultants. She consults internationally on anti-racist, inclusionary, and equitable education. Enid has been involved in the professional development of teachers for two decades. She is the author of over 30 publications, including Letters to Marcia: A Teacher’s Guide to Anti-Racist Education.

Wayne E. Wright is an assistant professor in the Division of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He also serves as the Co-Director of the Language Policy Research Unit of the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

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Ebonics: Background to the Policy Debate


This chapter addresses the Ebonics debate within the broader context of language policy and alludes to a number of historical factors. In setting a context for the Ebonics controversy, examples will be shown regarding how governments and schools react to language diversity in other circumstances while attempting to locate it within the broader context of language policy options.

There are in the world today somewhere between 4000 and 5000 languages, and there are many varieties of language (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). Those varieties with higher status are called languages, and those with lesser status are usually called dialects. Sociolinguists usually focus on two major types of dialects – regional and social. From a linguistic perspective, there is no conclusive way to resolve the difference between what we consider languages and what we consider dialects. One way to avoid the issue is to refer to both as 'varieties' of language. For the purposes of this discussion, the more salient point is that most varieties of language spoken by students have not been elevated to the status of school languages. In this country languages and dialects are usually considered mutually intelligible forms of a related language. For the Chinese, however, 'dialects' need not be orally mutually intelligible. So there is no absolute consensus on the difference between languages and dialects. Nevertheless, most children around the world enter schools in which there is some difference between the language variety they speak and the language of the school. Quite often, the language of the school is mutually intelligible with the language of the home, but many times it is not. When language differences between the child's and the school's language is acknowledged, consideration of those differences needs to be reflected in instructional and educational policies and instructional plans. Failure to do so merely stigmatizes children as being nonstandard or non-native.

The choice of terms in referring to the language(s) or language varieties children bring from home to school is significant because the choice of terms ascribes a status to them. Despite the fact that dialect and vernacular, as linguists use them, are intended in a neutral or descriptive sense, in popular speech, dialect implies something less than standard that has a lower status. Expressions such as language varieties (Hudson's sociolinguistics, 1980) have been offered as preferable ways to talk about the subject. In this discussion, the terms 'Standard English' and 'school English' will be taken as roughly equivalent.

Normally, acquiring the language of home and community is not a problem. Children do this naturally and quite well in the interaction with their parents and local speech communities. There are far fewer languages that have been standardized as languages of literacy than are spoken. Moreover, there are far fewer languages that have been elevated to the status of school languages. The acquisition of literacy, however, does not always come as naturally. It can, however, be acquired naturally if it is a part of one's environment (Schieffelin & Cochran-Smith, 1984), if literacy is used in a meaningful way. Literacy becomes a problem, however, when the language variety of the home and school differ. Quite frequently, not only the variety of the school and home differ, but so too do the ways in which language is used, as well as the purposes for which it is used. Thus, many children who come to school will be disadvantaged by the perception that they are deficient unless it is recognized that differences are quite natural.

Unfortunately, because many educators view language varieties of the home and community as deficient, they do not believe that children should have a right to their own language (Smitherman, 1995). For those educators, the idea that a child who speaks a minority language or a vernacular should have a right to instruction in his or her language is seen as a novel, if not a heretical notion. However, it is not really a new concept. In 1953, the United Nations passed a resolution to that effect. Unfortunately, despite that resolution, the status of language rights around the world is very tenuous. The legal foundation for language rights is on a very shaky constitutional foundation (Wiley, 2002). When language rights are discussed, the notion tends to be interpreted as meaning something different from freedom of speech – as if freedom of expression was conditional on the use of English. Unfortunately, even though organizations like the UN have taken positions on language rights, all too frequently nations do not act on them because these resolutions are not binding (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2002).

Currently in the USA, the majority of people speak English. Nevertheless, there are about 46 million people, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, who speak other languages. However, results of the 1990 Census indicated that 98% of adults in the USA speak some kind of English at some level (Wiley, 1998). What is meant by 'some kind of English?' Consider several background issues. First, English speakers are the second largest language group in the world right now, and English is the world's principal second language. In the early days of the Republic, Noah Webster did his best to make American English different from British English and to eradicate social and regional dialects (Lepore, 2003). However, today, when one travel's around the USA or around the world in many countries, one finds many native speakers of English who sound and speak differently. There are many Englishes. If that word jumps out at you, do not be surprised because your spellchecker probably will not recognize it either unless you add it, even though there is even a periodical entitled the Journal of World Englishes, which is devoted to the study of the subject. Nevertheless, if one use the word 'Englishes' in a composition for a freshman English class, the transgression will usually get it circled with a red pen, unless there is considerable explanation for which one is using it.

The notion of Standard English raises some technical issues. There is considerable consensus on what most of the features of the standard are as prescribed by notions of correctness, particularly as these have been conventionalized in written English. However, in the USA, there is no English academy of experts as there is in some countries with the authority to define all of the characteristics of the standard. Authority is deferred to dictionary writers, prescriptive grammarians, or English teachers. However, even among these, there is no absolute consensus. When the so-called American English Standard is compared to the British, we quickly become aware of variations in spelling and pronunciation, as well as interpretations of minor points of grammar and punctuation. Just as there is more than one Standard English, so too there are many varieties of English – many Englishes. Despite their differences, these varieties are mutually intelligible. This flexibility of English has provided it with the power to spread around the world. English then is something elastic – elastic enough to expand around the world and reflect local, regional, and social characteristics. English is also elastic enough to be indigenized or bear the mark of contact with other important languages. In India, for example, one finds English and Hindi existing side-by-side with one being infused and enriched by the other in varying configurations of borrowing and mixing known as 'Hinglish.' Thus, even as English has changed the world, the world has changed English. Historically, this has always been the case in the USA as well, where English, despite Weber's lament, has always had varieties, both regional and social. Even 'native' English speakers came speaking different Englishes, and, in contact with one another here, developed new varieties of the language.

The fact that 98% of the people in this country speak some kind of English at some level makes the USA one of the most monolingual nations in the world – not the most, but one of the most monolingual. Given that fact, why are so many people so worried about perceived threats to English? Why do they fear that somehow it will be overwhelmed by other languages when all the evidence that we have indicates that the opposite is the case? Generations of immigrants have come here and subsequently lost their languages (Veltman, 1983, 1988, 1999). Most states, including California, have long since passed statutes mandating English as the official language of instruction and have conferred official status on English. Given the unquestionable dominance of English as the language of the land and the high status accorded to it around the world, there is no rational basis to support the fear that it is in any danger of losing its dominance.

An equally paranoid concern is that 'Standard' English is somehow becoming contaminated by other regional and social varieties of English. Lippi-Green (1994, 1997) locates the basis for these concerns in what she calls the Standard English ideology. She defines it as 'a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogeneous spoken language which is imposed from above ... which takes as its model the written language,' and which has as its goal the 'suppression of variation' (Lippi-Green, 1994: 166). Often with the best of intentions, schools are one of the primary propagators and defenders of this ideology (Wiley & Lukes, 1996). Norms for standard language are derived from written or 'literate' varieties of language rather than from oral varieties (see Milroy & Milroy, 1985; Wolfram & Fasold, 1974). Beliefs about the formal standard of language are based on a 'taught,' that is, school-based variety of language (Illich, 1979; Wright, 1980), which explains why children must go to school to learn their 'native' language. Because the school variety corresponds to the language of some people more than others, the choice of whose language variety is taken as the standard has the effect of advantaging some students while disadvantaging others at the point of entry, unless we take steps to recognize and accommodate the linguistic differences (cf. Heath, 1983).

Language diversity among students has always been a fact of life. However, over time so-called 'creolized' varieties of language have tended to de-creolize – that means they have moved more in the direction of the dominant school language. Certainly we have plenty of evidence that has happened, except when people have been denied equal access to the standard due to segregation and unequal education. Thus, if certain segments of the population are not learning the high status school variety of the language that is expected in schools, we have to look at the social, political, and the economic contexts and at educational language policies in order to try to determine why this is happening.

In order to assess various school and governmental policies toward language diversity, it is useful to locate them in a language policy framework. In Table 1, promotion-oriented policies refer to an active governmental agenda in which resources are allocated to furthering the official use of minority languages (Kloss, 1998). Expediency-oriented laws represent a weaker version of promotion laws as they are not intended to expand the use of minority languages, but are seen only as a means of accommodating them on a short-term basis (examples include: US Title VII bilingual education programs to accommodate perceived English deficiencies of speakers of languages other than English; accommodation for bilingual ballots and court interpretation). Tolerance-oriented policies are characterized by the noticeable absence of state intervention in the linguistic life of the language minority community. Maintenance of an ancestral language is contingent on the community having the desire and resources to support it. Restriction-oriented policies are those which make social, political, and economic benefits, rights, and opportunities conditional on knowing or using the dominant language (formal restrictive policies were passed during the World War I era and their effects persisted until the 1960s. However, since the 1980s there has been movement toward language restriction again).

When we refer to Table 1, it is useful to think in several dimensions about language policies. The easy policies to identify are official policies. Examples include California's Proposition 63, which declared English to be the state's official language. Other examples include school policies in which English has been declared the official language of instruction. More commonly in the USA, however, language diversity is responded to within an environment in which informal practices have the same, or sometimes even more, force than official policies. Schiffman (1996) has called such practices implicit and covert policies. Implicit policies are those which may not even consciously start out to be language policies, but in fact have the effect of policy. Covert policies, as the word would imply, are a little more sinister. They are policies that seek to use language or literacy requirements as a means of barring someone from some kind of social, political, educational, or economic participation. Historically, for example, literacy requirements for voting and English literacy requirements for entry to the USA for immigrants have been used as gate-keeping mechanisms to exclude people on the basis of their race or ethnicity (see Leibowitz, 1969).

Historically, there has never been any real controversy over promoting English or Standard English. Although advocates of English-only policies frequently depict bilingual advocacy groups as being against the promotion of English, bilingual education policy in the USA has always attempted to advance English education by building on and developing literacy in home languages. Many bilingual education advocates support a policy of English Plus; that is, they support the promotion of English and another language. Based on the policy framework depicted in Table 1, bilingual education has been based on a policy of expediency or accommodation.

Similarly, African American educators and parents have sought to have their children learn Standard English. There has never been any attempt to promote Ebonics as the medium of instruction. What remains controversial, is whether Ebonics should be acknowledged as a legitimate variety of language and, thereby, used to accommodate instruction and the acquisition of Standard English, particularly in the lower grades. In the late 1970s there was serious experimentation with expediency tools for African American children, which included the use of 'dialect' readers such as those used in the Bridge program (Simpkins et al., 1977) that John Rickford refers to in his chapter.

From a legal standpoint, the most significant case related to Ebonics is Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School vs. Ann Arbor Board of Education. Geneva Smitherman, one of the key witnesses on behalf of the plaintiffs for that case, has written a book on the subject which is highly recommended (see Smitherman, 1981). Over the years a certain mythology has developed about the case. Several writers, including Baugh (1995) and Schiffman (1996) have discussed this. One myth is that the judge ordered Black English to be taught as a language of instruction. The other myth is that this was a landmark case. Both of these claims are false. First, the judge did not order Ebonics to be taught or promoted. From the perspective of the framework in Table 1, his decision was in the category of expediency. Regarding the second myth, that is, that it was a landmark decision, this too is false. Unlike the better known Lao vs. Nichols (1974) case, the King case was neither decided by, nor appealed to, the Supreme Court. Rather, it was decided only at the Federal District Court level. The school district which lost the decision chose not to appeal it. Thus, the impact of the decision was only relevant for school districts in states within that federal court's jurisdiction.


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Copyright © 2005 J. D. Ramirez, T.G. Wiley, G. de Klerk, E. Lee, W.E. Wright and the authors of individual chapters.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, vii,
Introduction, ix,
Part 1: Ebonics in the Urban Education Debate,
1 Ebonics: Background to the Current Policy Debate Terrence G. Wiley, 3,
2 Using the Vernacular to Teach the Standard John R. Rickford, 18,
3 Educational Implications of Ebonics John Baugh, 41,
4 Black Language and the Education of Black Children: One Mo Once Geneva Smitherman, 49,
5 Ebonics and Education in the Context of Culture: Meeting the Language and Cultural Needs of LEP African American Students Subira Kifano and Ernie A. Smith, 62,
6 Language Varieties in the School Curriculum: Where Do They Belong and How Will They Get There? Carolyn Temple Adger, 96,
Part 2: Background to the Ebonics Debate,
Introduction, 111,
Oakland Unified School District's Resolution,
Examples Of Legislative Reaction,
Legal Background,
Linguists' Reactions,
Organizational Responses,
Recommended Readings on Ebonics,

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