Cultural Differences in Discourse and Its Impact on the Literacy Achievement of African American Students

Article excerpt

In a candid conversation with my 12-yearold sons, I informed them that one's vocabulary and one's ability to write can prevent or grant access to positions of power in our society. Given that my sons had recently expressed interest in attending a high school with rigorous admissions criteria and an equally rigorous curriculum, I felt the need to share two elements of literacy that have historically served as roadblocks for African Americans who wanted to enroll in prestigious universities or secure influential positions of power. My sons and I began discussing academic paths that would lead to prosperous careers of their choice. Understanding the oral literacy tradition in African American communities and understanding how texts can be used to enhance language practices may be necessary for educators who want to shatter these roadblocks.

In many African American communities, instilling cultural values, instructing the young, entertaining family members, and passing down "lessons learned" have been part of an oral literacy tradition. The role of literacy in the African American community has "cultural and community-specific meanings." (1) Whether this tradition is seen in the African trickster tales of Anansi, (2) the historic folktales of the adventures of "Bruh Bear, Bruh Rabbit and He Lion," (3) or in the politically inflammatory rap lyrics of Nas, (4) discourse within the African American community has served as a thread for survival, communication, and community empowerment. It is this rich oral literacy tradition that many African American students bring to classroom life. In this article, I provide an overview of historical and current perspectives on cultural differences in discourse, and discuss the impact that connecting students to historical cultural practices and culturally relevant text has on student achievement.

Historical and Current Perspectives on Cultural Differences in Discourse

African American children's previous experiences with language and discourse can be used to promote reading achievement. Honoring cultural differences in discourse can be particularly helpful to support the literacy development of African American students who initially have difficulty learning to read and do not see their culture reflected in texts. There are authentic ways of using student experiences in the form of discourse to stimulate prior knowledge for comprehending text. (5) The process involves the teacher using expert questioning techniques, leading students in discussions of their prior experiences that relate to the text, using conversation to discuss parts of the text and clearing up any misunderstandings, and making clear the connections between the content discussed in the text and students' outside experiences or knowledges. (6) Students who can connect with text in meaningful ways have a better opportunity to gain meaning and knowledge from the text than students who remain disconnected from texts while reading. Teachers should reflect on their own "philosophy of literacy, instruction and learning" as they consider ways to improve student literacy achievement in their classrooms. (7)

When considering why one should study cultural connections found in classroom literature, the work of ethnographer Shirley Brice Heath comes to mind. (8) She spent time in three different communities in the Carolinas. Differences in the three communities caused Heath to wonder: "Why were some students able to give elaborate direction and tell fantastic stories on the playground, but unable to respond to assignments calling for similar responses about lesson materials?" (9) Working with a group of practicing teachers, Heath inspired them to "unlearn" previously held misconceptions, and to view the classroom, environment, and language processes through the perspectives of the mill families found in two communities--Trackton and Roadville. (10) Some of the teachers realized that they shared views of language and education similar to the business owners known as the townspeople. …