“What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics?” Or, alternately, “What Can Teachers Do with Ebonics?”

As ELA teachers, we are responsible for delivering quite a few different types of content to our students. Of all the tasks placed before us, our primary responsibilities are to teach students how to engage with both narrative structure and the English language itself. However, it does not take many ELA teachers too long to realize that even those students who are ostensibly struggling with reading & writing are able to excel in the storytelling aspect of literature. So rather than writing-off those students who do not have complete mastery of the rules and conventions of Standard English, perhaps we should explore their areas of confusion.

Thus is the underlying premise of What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics?, an article by Lisa Delpit.

The piece begins by briefly reviewing feelings arising from the national debate about the legitimacy of Ebonics. Within just a few sentences, Delpit manages to stir up sentiments about the use of non-standard English in the classroom, which is surely an issue generating inner turbulence for many English teachers. I have often found myself engaged in internal debate – while I think an ability to command the English language provides tremendous levels of access, I cannot help but favor the literary aspect of the job, which encourages students to analyze texts (and the world around them!) critically. Then again, language and narrative are hardly mutually exclusive, the ideal would be foster growth in both areas.

Delpit approaches the “debate” about Ebonics from a similar position, arguing that it is a moot point whether or not the language is considered a dialect or a full-blown language. She writes,

“I can be neither for Ebonics or against Ebonics any more than I can be for or against air. It exists. It is the language spoken by many of our African-American children. It is the language they heard as their mothers nursed them and changed their diapers and played peek-a-boo with them. It is the language through which they first encountered love, nurturance, and joy” (242).

By first framing Ebonics not just as slang, but as a means through which an individual has come to understand the world, Delpit inspires the reader to think about the value of teachers’ willingness to interact with non-standard English. The article then runs through some of the angles from which a teacher may consider Ebonics in the classroom. Let’s take a quick look at those!

Group Identity
According to Delpit, it is somewhere around fourth grade that children stop emulating the speaking habits of their teachers, instead favoring the patterns of their home environments. One thought is that although the children are now more capable of handling Standard English, they eschew it as a favor of group identification. “‘These fourth graders had the competence to express themselves in a more standard form but chose, consciously or unconsciously, to use the language of those in their local environments” (243).

Once again, the inference here is that speech patterns are inherently connected to the speaker’s identity. In this sense, to be dismissive of the way a student speaks is, in many ways, to be dismissive to the student’s sense of self. While this doesn’t mean that all students should be given the pass and allowed to speak however they’d like to at any time (for better or worse, there’re very practical uses for mastering Standard English), perhaps recognizing the importance of their speech is a good first step.

The article makes good work of presenting different techniques with which teachers can interact with Ebonics. Most of these techniques involve a comparison of the how the students speak and how they are often expected to speak. If I’m not mistaken, these activities are designed to acknowledge the students’ language as legitimate while still recognizing that there are also more “formal” ways to express the same ideas. For instance, Delpit describes how some teachers in NYC have their students produce newscasts, which are followed by discussions “‘about whether Tom Brokaw would have said it that way’” (245).

Discourse Styles & Reactions to Children Speaking Ebonics
The article takes a brief, but poignant, trip into the arena of discourse styles. Delpit describes some of the findings of Sarah Michaels, a Harvard researcher who has evidence suggesting differences in “story-time” activities. According to Michaels, White children tell stories more focused on a single event, and Black children tell stories that are more episodic in nature (Ana 245).

As teachers, we should resist knee-jerk reactions and value judgments. Delpit goes on to illustrate an instance in which the same set of Black children’s stories were received in drastically different terms; perhaps it’s not surprising, but the White adults saw the stories as indicators of cognitive incoherence and future academic struggles, whereas Black adults appreciated the elevated levels of description.

The danger with these differences comes in the form of the ensuing expectations. “‘This is not a story about racism, but one about cultural familiarity. However, when differences in narrative style produce differences in interpretation of competence, the pedagogical implications are evident’” (Ana 245).

The final section of What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics? interacts with the idea that the speaking of Ebonics necessarily denotes a difficulty with reading comprehension. One of the most powerful aspects of this part is an illumination of the damage wreaked by hyper-correction. Delpit presents an exchange in which a teacher constantly corrects the (mis)pronunciations of a student who is reading aloud (e.g., making sure that every past tense verb ¬–ed suffix is pronounced). Such over-emphasizing of Standard pronunciation is a result of “‘ignoring that fact that the student had to have comprehended the sentence in order to translate it into her own language. Such instruction occurs daily and blocks reading development…’” (247).


As a teacher at a prototypical suburban school, I have only had a handful of students who could be described as Ebonics speakers, or even ELL. However, I do often consider the role of integrating new words, slang, vernacular, or other languages into the classroom. Again, I certainly see the advantages of learning rules of grammar/spelling/syntax, but the free spirit doesn’t allow me to bow before them in dogmatic reverence.

One opportunity that’s presented itself to me comes while teaching Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. At the end of the twenty-ninth chapter, Angelou makes the following statement about language, which I like to have the students discuss. This year, I actually paired the excerpt with a clip from Dave Chappelle’s 2000 special, Killin’ Them Softly. See both:

We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with, ‘That’s not unusual.’ But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, ‘It be’s like that sometimes.'”
(Angelou 225)

This year, I led my students through a reading of Junot Diaz’s No Face (not sure if that breaks copyright, so clicker beware!) and asked them to consider the use of Spanish. Although not every student was on board, there were definitely some interesting discussions about language and the weight it carries.


Anyways, here are some questions to get us thinking!

1)      What do you think of the notion that speech/language/dialect is a means by which students are connected to a group? Have you ever seen group identity linguistically manifest in your classroom?

2)      To what extent does anxiety about different/emerging languages affect ELA policy?

3)      Do you have any activities in which you ask students to compare their vernaculars of choice to Standard English?

4)      How do you explain to your students the value of code-switching?


8 thoughts on ““What Should Teachers Do about Ebonics?” Or, alternately, “What Can Teachers Do with Ebonics?”

  1. Zipedeedodah! Great post, Allen. I think Delpit gets it just right about this tricky issue – at least, I haven’t been persuaded yet for any other arguments for either the complete inclusion or complete exclusion of Ebonics or other nonstandard Englishes in the classroom. My main takeaway is her point about hypercorrection. And I believe that hypercorrection as a pedagogical practice fails in general, whether it applies to speech correction or responses to student writing. All of the research I’ve read on any kind of mechanical correction identifies the roadblock created by an overwhelming number of corrections between ungrammatical writing and discursive prose. In other words, too many comments or interruptions in the flow of any production of language will lead to a stoppage. So I often employ what I call “strategic intervention,” which involves the teacher (me) identifying what I see are the two kinds of language use that are providing the most problems for the general reader. This often means that in a piece of student writing I will temporarily ignore many errors and focus in on only a couple that I see as the most important for the student to improve “their” writing.

    In a way, it’s a relief to know that we, as teachers, can let go of the need to correct everything. That said, I have encountered some problems with this. For example, one time a fellow teacher was very upset with me after reading a paper I graded. He thought it was irresponsible for me to let errors go because it suggested to the student that errors were not a big deal. I had to explain to my colleague that he was only witnessing one step in my process of teaching this student and that I wasn’t just “letting errors go.” If I had been in a calm mind at the moment, I would have asked him if he corrected every error he encountered, whether in speech or in writing, but then again, I think that might have only exacerbated the situation.

    But I want to end by addressing this issue of “code-switching,” that Allen so compellingly brings forward with the link to the Chapelle Show. While I think it is very useful to consider the switch in code from speech act to speech act, I do think there is quite a bit of blurry ground, not just for students but also for academic forms of English. In other words, it’s not always such a clean switch. And let’s face it, what we often value as “voice” in student writing is the use of the clever and appropriate inclusion of nonstandard English – take Allen’s use of “Anyways” above as an example of this!

  2. The usage of Ebonics in an educational setting has always led to fruitful classroom discussions. I have actually facilitated lessons on Ebonics following a unit on Beowulf (and perhaps Canterbury Tales) and discuss the organic nature of the English language. Explaining how Ebonics can potentially be seen as a language in its own right creates some mixed feelings amongst my students. In the past I’ve read a number of articles with students and have had them write a persuasive paper on their stance within the debate.

    After reading one particular text, I encourage students to understand a specific passage: “Standard English is highly elastic and variable, since what counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another” (http://www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/standardamerican/).

    I try to convey the notion of “code switching” in a way that translates into students drawing on the “standard” for the situation in which they find themselves. I think it is important for students to realize that Ebonics is just one example of how we ALL alter language. I admit to student that when I leave school, I do not speak to my wife and my friends in the same manner in which I address my students, just as student would speak to a teacher and their friends in drastically different ways. (This is often referred back to when discussing the importance of word choice–connotations and denotation–in their writing.)

    I agree with the article in that teachers should understand and appreciate any language a student has a personal attachment, Ebonics being one of many. However, I also believe that in order for an ELA class to progress, there does need to be an agreed upon standard that is used and understood across the majority of the glob, of which Ebonics does not qualify. Although, I would stress that Ebonics does have a place in the ELA classroom (as noted earlier pertaining to Voice) and should be permitted, in fact encouraged, when appropriate.

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful (and entertaining!) post, Allen!

    I agree with both you and Alex regarding hypercorrection. I love how the article pointed out that the student in that dialogue had to have understood what she read in order to translate the words into Ebonics, and it is infuriating to think that her teacher’s hypercorrection could prevent her from becoming a lifelong reader. The text I read for my relevance reflection is Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, and his philosophy is that one’s appetite for literature and trips to the library are a better assessment of reading progress than any standardized test. His fifth-graders even made up their own reading test consisting of only the following three questions:

    1. Have you ever secretly read under your desk in school because the teacher was boring and you were dying to finish the book you were reading?
    2. Have you ever been scolded for reading at the dinner table?
    3. Have you ever read secretly under the covers after being told to go to bed? (32-33)

    How badly do I wish that this little girl had had Rafe Esquith as her teacher…

    In response to some of your questions, language is most certainly a means by which students are connected to a group, and they are expert code-switchers, despite the blurry lines for these switches that Alex mentions. When I taught in Randolph, it was common to hear students speaking in Haitian Creole or Vietnamese with some friends, what Delpit refers to as using “youth culture terms” with others, Ebonics with others, and then Standard English with me. The exact same is true of the school where I teach in Boston, only Creole and Vietnamese have been replaced with Spanish. Having a common language, whether official or unofficial, is a uniting force. Why do you think it is so common for youngsters to speak Pig Latin to one another or create secret codes? The common language makes you part of an exclusive club! I see the pride on my students’ faces when they converse in Spanish. Sometimes they offer me lessons in a word or phrase and sometimes I ask for them, and this is a uniting experience for us.

    As I mentioned in class last week regarding the argument assignment regarding social media’s impact on student writing, I do explicitly address code switching in the classroom. Another lesson where we discuss code switching is when I have students pretend they are away at summer camp and get in big trouble from a counselor. They have to write two letters home about the incident, one to their parents and one to their best friend. We later analyze how our tone and language change between the two letters. Like Jen brought up last week, having these discussions is integral to valuing students’ language and culture while providing them with the skills for proficiency in what Paula called the “language of opportunity.” As Delpit puts it, “While having access to the politically mandated language form will not, by any means, guarantee economic success, not having access will almost certainly guarantee failure” (242).

  4. Allen, excellent job categorizing and explaining the essential aspects of this piece. I, like you, have also found myself paying more attention to critical analysis of texts and less attention to grammar and syntax. I have also been reprimanded by other English teachers for not getting out the red pen and throwing some ketchup on minor grammar mistakes. Just makes you think, what are those “grammar hammer” type teachers saying about us, the lax “it’s all in the meaning” type teachers?

    I definitely believe that language and dialect connect kids to different groups. There are so many different slang terms that connect all of our students to current youth culture, which is generally a subculture that may only exist for a short time. Students can know different lingo for any type of music, sneaker, or food. Students that have similar vocabulary, mannerisms, and speech styles are likely to hang out with each other. For example, all of the middle school kids that are really into dubstep are all friends and share a similar vocabulary that, well, I don’t understand when I hear them talking outside of class. In the classroom, I always see students agreeing with those that have similar vocabularies and mannerisms. They also generally disagree with students that have different vocabularies and mannerisms. Just like language, dialect also informs what group the students will likely belong to. In this case, students that have accents and similar speech patterns, whether regional or not, generally hang out with one another.

    I have done activities with my students that take note of vernaculars that are not the choice of Standard English. I did an interview project with my students earlier this year. I recorded several interviews to show my students examples of how to interview someone. The recordings that I brought in were of myself interviewing an adult ESL student, and then, my mother. Both of my interviewees did not speak Standard English. The students considered why some of the answers to the questions were difficult to hear. They came to the conclusion that accent and language were the main causes for confusion. In a similar fashion, I often talk about how people should use certain types of language in different groups and/or contexts. This usually comes with how students should write in their MCAS open responses. For example, me saying something like this is common, “Don’t say ‘you know what I mean, dude’ in your writing.” I then might go on and explain how the person grading their MCAS tests are crotchety old ladies who take pleasure in giving 8th graders poor scores, and they don’t think the word “dude” is appropriate or funny. I do not spend much time focusing on code-switching. I hope that next year I will spend more time doing so. While I discuss differences, I have never blatantly said, “It’s called code-switching and you do it all the time.”

  5. I definitely think that language and dialect can connect students to a group. As a student at a private Jewish high school, my classmates and I all spoke Hebrew to varying degrees. It was not unusual for conversations to be peppered with Hebrew words, both from modern Hebrew and biblical texts. Often you could tell a lot about someone by their pronunciation of the different words; pronounce a letter one way, and you’re of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent, liberal, or a Zionist. A traditionalist used a different pronunciation reminiscent of “the Old Country.” This was by no means accurate; a lot of us just mixed the different pronunciations as a result of the different teachers we had learned from over the years. Nevertheless, the stereotype remains. When I worked at a Jewish preschool, I found myself identifying more strongly with the people who pronounced things the same way I did. Pronunciation of the different letters can be a political thing, and I knew where I stood politically. In my classroom, however, I didn’t notice a significant connection between the Spanish speaking students in the class (that was the only language spoken in my classroom by more than one student). Perhaps, as students in a public school, the students were more accustomed to code switching than my classmates and I were. After all, in my high school, roughly half of the classes I took involved the Hebrew language.

    During my student teaching I co-taught Their Eyes Were Watching G-d. During this unit, we discussed the dialect used by the characters in the story. Many students said that it was difficult to read and understand. This reminds me of the example in Delpit of Izlanguage. Students who were strong readers were struggling to read out loud in class. Many declined to read because they felt uncomfortable with the different spellings of words. On the other hand, a struggling student from Alabama remarked that he loved listening to those words being read because the accents and the way people talked reminded him of his home. Though I have not encountered any students who spoke Ebonics, I have taught ELLs. Like the students reading Their Eyes Were Watching G-d, strong students became shy and self-conscious when asked to speak in English. Rather than worry about conventions, my goal was to help the students become comfortable speaking English. If others could understand what the student said, it was a great victory. There was no urgent need to sully that victory with corrections.

    Additionally, some of the students that I taught during my student teaching had language difficulties like dyslexia or reading comprehension troubles. For those students, I was told to focus on the message of the writing rather than the conventions. This was very difficult for me to adjust to, as I am finicky about grammar. How can we have the best of both worlds? Student confidence should definitely come first, so hyper-correcting is not a good option, but at the same time, I feel as though good grammar and writing skills are necessary for all students. Where is the balance?

    Finally, Leah, thank you for including the quiz from Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire. I’ve read/heard about a study that showed that the number of books and bookcases in a home are an indicator of how well the students will do in school. I think this quiz, despite kind of advocating reading in class, is also pretty awesome.

  6. Thanks for the post, Allen! In this context, language seems to be another means through which deficit thinking might make itself apparent in a system. In other words, it is yet another element of a student’s identity that might be understood in such a way as to not only make a student feel inferior (about his or her own traits as well as that of family, friends, communities), but likewise in such a way that destructively assumes the student has a significant deficit in language skills. It might result in certain placement, in certain tones being used to address the student, and even in unfair assessment (such as with the example provided by Delpit regarding assessment of student stories). Students who speak Ebonics “are unlikely to be viewed as ready for the same challenging instruction awarded students whose language patterns more closely parallel the teacher’s” (246). However, as with many of these readings, while I agree with the ideas, acting upon them becomes tricky. As an English teacher, to what extent do I correct incorrect grammar or word choice/usage? If the correct use of the English language is part of the English teacher’s territory, what role do different dialects have in its teaching?

    Delpit states that “constant correction seldom has the desired effect” and that “forcing speakers to monitor their language typically produces silence” (242-43). This has been true in my own classes until the last couple of years. For my junior and seniors, one of the criteria by which their major assessments are judged concerns the use of an “appropriate register” when speaking. I first addressed this through a consideration of common slang they would find themselves using, and then considering what we called “fillers” such as like, um, and so. We even had moments in class when we focused on not using these in our speaking. The result was just what Delpit says: reluctance, silence. Clearly, if the choice is between having students feel comfortable enough to contribute versus feeling held back by the possibility of incorrect grammar or word choice, a teacher should choose the former.

    Although I am skeptical about relying on such a method, a part of me thinks that some learning might occur simply through osmosis—hearing, listening to, and interacting with people who are speaking “proper” English might lead to the use of it by students (even if it means something else, such as listening to NPR). In this sense, one need not critique the use of language by students, but may provide with an example of how one might need to speak in certain contexts. While this might not directly recognize Ebonics, which is problematic, it also doesn’t assault its presence either. Perhaps this might be seen as simply not addressing the issue, but that assumes there is an issue in the first place, when in actuality it may not be as drastic as thought to be. In my experience, students seem to recognize and know that there is a certain degree of code-switching done in class, in a school environment. One student this year performed an amazing switch between speaking as she does with her friends versus speaking as she “should” in class. The class found it hilarious, but I was amazed at the ease with which she transitioned.

    It is interesting to consider the possibility of a teacher trying to learn to speak Ebonics (who wasn’t previously familiar with it). In my own experience, students dislike when I throw in a slang word or phrase that they consider their own—it is weird, it doesn’t fit, I’m trying too hard, it’s not real (of course it isn’t—I exaggerate the performance). After reading Delpit’s work here, however, one could even see it as a teacher not taking pride in where s/he comes from. Another instant of the importance of backgrounds being de-emphasized in the face of some “shared” idea of what is right.

  7. I recently heard a clueless older white dude poke fun at one of his wife’s former middle school students, an African-American kid who’d introduced himself at some school function or another, saying “I be gifted.” The punchline of course was that a black student speaking AAVE (African-American Vernacular English–to me, a less loaded and dated term than Ebonics) had given the lie to his purported intelligence with his incorrect use of standard English. I wanted to kick him, or at the very least explain how ignorant he sounded. But now I’m thinking of sending him Delpit’s article so he can try to begin to understand why that student had nothing be ashamed of, and he is likely what he said he is. The article is a terrific exploration of why AAVE is worthy of respect and attention, and how educators can pay both r and a to their students who speak it.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading about how each of you addresses AAVE and ELLs in your classrooms. I guess that with AAVE speakers, the distinctions between SAE and AAVE must be stressed at younger ages than you teach (does it ever happen that an older student has never written nor spoken anything but AAVE in his or her entire school career?), whereas ELLs can arrive in classrooms at any age. I’d add that not all African-Americans speak AAVE, especially in this region, where a lot of black people don’t even identify as African-American but as islanders–and are mortified by the idea that they’d speak this dialect.

    I like the ways you described explaining code-switching (or diglossia?) to your students, although I’d also make the point that I have it much easier, because when I switch from addressing my boss to my friend, no one makes fun of the way I talk informally, or thinks there’s something wrong with my vernacular that will make it harder for me to get by in life. When I taught in Trinidad, which has a distinct informal dialect including different vocabulary and grammar–much less understandable to a foreigner than AAVE–my students only spoke standard British English to me, and I never had to address the differences, because Trini speak is a matter of pride, not pathology.

    I’d tend to agree with Todd that kids are generally smart enough to recognize the differences themselves, and that regular reading and listening to SAE will help them be familiar enough with it that they can adopt it when they need to. As for people like me trying on AAVE…here’s one argument why I shouldn’t: http://pedazitosfightsback.tumblr.com/post/37405323266/aave-and-why-it-is-more-than-likely-cultural

    I admire AAVE as a medium for one of my favorite arts and a kind of identity marker, but the way I respect it is by sticking to admiration, not emulation.

  8. In response to the first question, there are definitely times when I see a group language manifest in the classroom. Usually, it is not typically Ebonics that I notice, but more the middle school, teenage slang that is popular at the time. One particular example sticks out in my mind. Students often use the term, “I’m hip.” I assumed that this meant, “I’m cool.” I used the phrase incorrectly once, and we spent 15 minutes of class time teaching Ms. Lamb how to use “I’m hip,” correctly. It is used more to show agreement. If a student says, “I like your scarf,” I can respond with, “I’m hip.” This was a great moment where we talked about how words are used in different meanings and contexts. Students also liked having a turn to teach me something about their language.

    I agree with the way that Delpit looks at Ebonics as being “air”. It is not something that you can be for or against. It is something that exists. I think it is important to point out that all people code switch and talk differently in different contexts, not just African-American students. All people need to learn how to do this. News reporters from the south loose their southern drawl when they try to make it big on T.V. New York and Boston accents loose their edge as they enter the professional world. In talking with students about code switching, I don’t think students that speak Ebonics should be singled out–it is an important lesson for all people to learn and something that all people do. The way we talk with our families and friends is special and sacred. It should be respected. However, it is also important to learn how people speak in a more professional context so we can navigate these experiences as well.

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