Academic journal article Language Arts

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Speakerly Texts: Models for Young Writers

Academic journal article Language Arts

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Speakerly Texts: Models for Young Writers

Article excerpt

"It's two more books that we can read with, you know, the voices," commented Vanessa, after she and Denise had sung a text from their basal reader, gospel-style, "like you're in church." (Dyson, 2003, p. 31)

As the work of Dyson (1993, 1997, 2003) suggests, in constructing their own literate voices, children draw on the "landscape of voices" that comprise their lives both inside and outside of school (Dyson, 2003, p. 12). In the epigraph above, Vanessa and Denise, two African American first graders, borrow the cadence and rhythms of church music to read/sound their basal reader text. Dyson, researcher and witness to their reading, reflects on the way in which the girls' rendering of "Lazy Mary" as a gospel song changed the meaning of the verse for her, the adult listener: "I had never before so experienced the frustration of the verse's long-suffering mother who could not get that child up" (p. 176). For Vanessa and Denise, making gospel music of "Lazy Mary" can perhaps be seen as a way of appropriating the text, making the written words their own by reading into them the sounds of familiar voices.

As linguist Geneva Smitherman (1998) notes, African American people's deep love of language is evident not only in the gospel sounds Vanessa and Denise tried to emulate in their oral reading, but in the stylistic flair and "dynamic colorful" vocabulary used by all segments of the Black community- "from the young to the old; from Baptists to the Nation of Islam; from political activists to street people" (p. 204). Whether exemplified in a Hip Hop artist's latest lyrics, a preacher's Sunday sermon, the novels of Toni Morrison, the scholarly writing of Michael Eric Dyson, or a child's clever retort to a peer on the playground, the ability to capture the essence of a person, thing, or idea with just the right word or well-turned phrase is a skill highly admired in African American communities.

An important challenge for teachers of young African American children is figuring out how best to build on these well-documented linguistic abilities to help their students become more fluent and accomplished writers. This article examines how the use of mentor texts that incorporate stylistic features of African American English (AAE) gives children literary models that encourage them to build on their linguistic strengths and express their ideas in rhetorically powerful ways. My main purpose is to illustrate how teachers can draw on the work of authors who use AAE features to provide instruction that is not only culturally relevant, but also aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts.

While many African American children's authors incorporate AAE stylistic and rhetorical patterns in poetry and narrative fiction, I focus here on the work of Andrea Davis Pinkney, who is relatively unique in her use of these patterns in the nonfiction genre of biography. A number of educators have argued that AAE rhetorical patterns can be a powerful linguistic resource for students to draw on in creative writing (Lee, Rosenfeld, Mendenhall, Rivers, & Tynes, 2003; Smitherman, 2000b). Pinkney's biographical writing illustrates how such patterns can be used to communicate ideas in more informational kinds of writing as well. Before discussing Pinkney's work, I first examine research on African American children's language development and explore how teachers can provide an instructional bridge that connects children's oral language to their developing skills as writers by using mentor texts that incorporate AAE expressive language features.

Young Children's facility with Words

There is a good deal of research to suggest that facility with words begins to develop early for many children socialized in Black communities. Based on her long-term ethnographic study of language socialization in a small, working-class African American community located in the Piedmont Carolinas, Heath (1983) reports that young children there learned to be especially sensitive to the contextual meanings of words. …

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