Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

African American English and Spelling: How Do Second Graders Spell Dialect-Sensitive Features of Words?

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

African American English and Spelling: How Do Second Graders Spell Dialect-Sensitive Features of Words?

Article excerpt

This study explored the spelling skills of African American second graders who produced African American English (AAE) features in speech. The children (N = 92), who varied in spoken AAE use and word reading skills, were asked to spell words that contained phonological and morphological dialect-sensitive (DS) features that can vary between AAE and print- and dialectneutral (DN) orthographic patterns that do not. Analyses indicated that all children had more difficulty spelling DS than DN features, especially the regular past-tense inflection. Struggling readers had more difficulty spelling both features, after controlling for differences in AAE use. Children in both groups made few AAE-related errors. A significant, though weak, negative correlation was also found between AAE use and spelling of DS features. The findings indicate that linguistic variation should be considered in the differential diagnosis of spelling disorders among African American children.


All beginning spellers are faced with the challenge of mapping their speech patterns to print. However, this challenge may be even greater for children whose speech patterns differ significantly from standard orthographic conventions. This study explored how a particular group of linguistically diverse beginning spellers negotiate these mismatches: Children who speak African American English (AAE). It may seem odd to include a study of spelling skills among children who speak AAE in a special issue of the Learning Disability Quarterly. We would argue that there are three very important reasons why researchers and professional educators interested in spelling achievement among individuals with learning disabilities should also be mindful of this population.

First, achievement gaps between African American and White children are well known, and these gaps cannot be explained solely by socioeconomic status (SES) or family or school differences (Jencks & Philips, 1998). Thus, the search continues for variables that might contribute to the apparent difficulty that many young African American children experience while learning to read and write. One possible factor may be language differences or, more specifically, dialect differences. Given accumulating evidence that oral language skills are critical for reading and writing achievement (e.g., Scarborough, 2001), it is important to explore how variation in spoken language may influence how children develop these skills.

Second, as classrooms in the United States become more diverse linguistically, teachers will benefit from greater understanding of not only the linguistic structures that children bring to school but also of how their knowledge of these structures interacts with their literacy performance. AAE is the most widely known and thoroughly researched dialect of American English (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes, 2006), and it is estimated that most African American children enter school speaking AAE (Washington, 1996, 2001). Thus, AAE is a likely place to begin the search to understand how dialect variation might be related to literacy skills in general and spelling skill in particular.

Third, and perhaps most important, language differences must be considered in the differential diagnosis of learning disabilities, as well as remediation plans for instruction. Evidence from multiple sources indicates that African American children are misrepresented among children receiving special education services, and the learning disabilities category is not immune to incidences of over- and underrepresentation (Markowitz, Garcia, & Eichelberger, 1997; National Alliance of Black School Educators & IDEA Local Implementation by Local Administrators Project, 2002). Clinicians, school psychologists, and special education teachers must be knowledgeable not only of the language differences that children may bring to school, but also of how these differences may interact with the acquisition of specific literacy skills. …

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