“Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence”

In “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” William Labov seeks to discredit the idea of “verbal deprivation,” the theory that attributes the educational “deficits” of black children in urban areas and their low literacy scores on standard assessments to the verbal deprivation of their upbringing. He explains how the theory endorses this idea that black children in urban areas are raised in homes with infrequent verbal interaction and stimulation, and that this accounts for the low literacy rates and overall stunted academic achievement of students in urban areas.


Labov essentially argues that we must view the achievement gap as a direct result of the problematic relationship between the school system and the child, not as a result of other commonly held beliefs to explain the low academic achievement of black urban children, such as genetics or environmental factors. Throughout the reading, Labov systematically undermines bodies of research conducted by educational psychologists that point to environmental factors, such as “verbal deprivation” or other “cultural deficits” that seek to explain exactly why black children in impoverished areas struggle in school. In one such example, he focuses on the research of Carl Bereiter, and his work with a pre-school program that operates under the claim that lower-class black children have “no language at all,” and thus must be taught in a manner that addresses the deficiency.


Labov does not discount Bereiter’s claim that his interactions with the young black children, which he relied heavily on for his research, revealed a limited use of language, but instead offers up an alternate explanation for these observations: that the “mono-syllabic” language observed by Bereiter was a result of the context of the adult-child interaction, not of the language capacity of the child. Labov came to this conclusion after conducting research, along with several colleagues, through a series of interactions and interviews with a group of boys in Harlem. The result of the interviews clearly demonstrated that the boys had incredible control of language,  could speak freely and verbosely in a context that defused the power dynamic between adult and child, and that the “social situation is the most powerful determinant of verbal behavior” (140). Sadly, these verbal skills will never be recognized within the context of standardize tests or any other measure of linguistic ability that we currently use to assess literacy.  


Labov’s arguments—especially when he goes on to explore the differences between the speech of Larry, an incredibly skilled speaker of the Black English Vernacular, and Charles, whose language represents the more “verbose,” often meandering language associated with the educated, middle class—are very compelling and have innumerable implications for the classroom. It definitely challenges us to think that maybe, in a certain context, many of our students are not struggling with language nearly as much as we believe, and, that many students who speak the Black English vernacular have a much more sophisticated control over language than we are currently, as educators in a system that holds such high esteem for formal English, are able to acknowledge.


Moreover, I think Labov’s research forces us to think about our own assumptions and judgments about how our students use language. Though of course we are genuine in our desire to help students succeed, it seems that we can easily be guilty of what Labov describes as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” that black urban students often experience as result of their interactions with teachers that don’t value their use of language, and, through subtle or overt means, make them feel as if they have “no language at all.” I know for a fact that even if I am working to honor and validate the black vernacular or other non-standard English through projects or alternate assignments in my own class, I still require standard English on the majority of my assignments, which I know sends a clear message that standard English is the language of intelligence and power. Adopting Labov’s research to the classroom and education policy would clearly radicalize the way that we teach and assess students in urban areas.

 As teachers, I think we have to consider:

1) How can we look critically at our literacy assessments to make sure that they are inclusive and revealing of the true literacy skill level of our students?

2) How can we continue to design lessons and assessments that validate the use of non-traditional English without it feeling superficial or forced?

3) How do we make sense of Labov’s compelling research while at the same help our students be prepared for a professional world that will judge them on their ability to use standard English, and to adopt this “verbose” rhetoric that serves as signal for intelligence, accomplishment and entrance into the middle class?

4) How can we challenge ourselves to reconsider that this standard, middle class language that we have always deemed superior, may just be a “style of language” ?



9 thoughts on ““Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence”

  1. Thanks Paual! I agree that Labov made some compelling arguments about whether standard English is “better.” I would agree that not all middle class aspects of language are desirable – in addition to the problem mentioned with middle-class students overly complicating language, friends of mine who teach in white-middle class districts complain that their students are not passionate enough and can’t form opinions. Labov’s examples seemed to support this point as well. I think as ELA teachers we love when our students have passionate debates in the classroom – but as Paula apty puts, we then require Standard English on the assignment thus devaluing the debate work and valuing the writing. But (and I hate that it always ended here), the standardized assessments are judged on Standard English so what are we to do? How will this cycle ever end?

    I was a little confused when Labov said, “an adult must enter into the right social relationship with a child to find out what a child can do. This is just what many teachers cannot do.” Huh? I would argue that teachers have a much better sense of what their students can do than standardized test makers, and while I may not be an expert in test-design, I feel that my role as the teacher is very valuable

    I thought this article repeated some of the points we’ve been reading about in the past few weeks – do schools support other cultures or are we systematically failing them. As a teacher who has worked in private boarding schools and urban public schools, it seems clear to me so much of the lack of achievement can be blamed on the culture of poverty. However, Labov has shifted my thinking slightly – especially when he noted that perhaps we are not “adjusting to the social situation.”

  2. Thanks, Paula, for such a clear and cogent summary of Labov’s article, which is difficult to comprehend at points. Sue pointed out one of his confusing statements . . . but I’ll get to that in a moment.

    I like this essay as a follow up to Delpit’s because it does more than establish nonstandard Englishes as “real languages.” It suggests that in many situations, or what linguists call “discourse communities” or “social domains,” these vernaculars operate at a much more sophisticated level than Standard English. This has historically been the case for the emergence of dialects and vernaculars – they offer an alternative power and poignancy that the “standard” cannot accommodate. And as we have been discussing in class, once we make these nonstandard dialects part of the classroom domain, we risk appropriating these languages and evacuating the energy that they possess outside of school. But we all know that we have students who use these vernaculars actively in school, and often in class discussion.

    All of this is to lead into a response to Paula’s compelling question: “How can we look critically at our literacy assessments to make sure that they are inclusive and revealing of the true literacy skill level of our students?” While I doubt that standardized assessments can ever (or will ever) consider nonstandard Englishes, I do think Labov makes a provocative point about “logical” languages. Part of our job as English teachers is teaching argument, and I think we need to cautious about insisting that students ALWAYS pursue arguments in Standard English. As Labov points out, Standard English is no more logical than any vernacular, and in fact a vernacular often offers a more precise and concise persuasive vocabulary. One year I taught a unit on “Happiness” at the senior high school level. We began by reading Plato’s Philebus, which is essentially about how one achieves happiness, and then followed it up with Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of my students proposed a final project in which he would write a Socratic dialogue using Hurston’s West Florida dialect. It is one of my greatest pedagogical tragedies that I no longer have that paper because it was one of the most brilliant pieces of student work I’ve ever received. And I’m convinced that the paper would not have possessed the persuasive power it did if it were written in Standard English.

    One last point, in response to Sue’s great comment about Labov’s suggestion that teachers cannot “find out what a child can do.” I was perplexed by this too, but after some rereading, I think he’s saying that teachers, by virtue of their authority over their students, can never have true access to the sophisticated uses of a vernacular because the vernacular’s potential is only witnessed in situations in which the linguistic field is level. This is a somewhat discouraging conclusion, but I think this is accurate. It also makes our job of assessing student intelligence and language ability very difficult (if not ultimately impossible). If Labov is right about this, can any literacy assessment (no matter how well a teacher knows his/her students) be adequate?

  3. Standardization. This solitary word seems to be the Achilles’ heel of the entire public education model. The word contradicts the very core of our educational philosophy. We promote viewing every student as a unique individual, telling educators that every academic lesson, method of instruction, and form of assessment should meet the individual needs of the individual student; yet, we mandate a standardized curriculum (Common Core), a standardized assessment (MCAS), and a standardized language (Standard English). The phrase “standardized education” appears to be an oxymoron.

    The research presented in this article is very compelling, and as Paula pointed out, it forces us to think about our own assumptions and judgments about how our students use language. Perhaps, as ELA teachers, we should place primary important on semantics and (logical) meaning, rather than syntax and formal rule of standard English. However, as noted by Sue, this can lead to catastrophic results on standardized test scores. Is this an either/or conundrum?

    I tend to value meaning over syntax for the vast majority of assessments, unless assessing writing mechanics specifically; yet, I do not explicitly encourage non-standard forms of English. This is something in which I will attempt to incorporate with greater frequency in the future. Regardless, I do support the notion that “an adult must enter into the right social relationship with a child to find out what a child can do.” I took this as meaning that a relationship and environment must be fostered to ensure that student feel comfortable in expressing themselves, thus avoiding a defensive stance in a perceived hostile classroom. I believe this can only be achieved in affirm other forms of English and looking for critically at what our students are producing, rather than basing student products against flawed research and preconceived notions of what is “correct” English.

  4. Thank you Paula for such a clear summary of Labov’s viewpoint. I think you’ve brought up some great questions about how we can address the use of Black English in the classroom.

    I think it is important to give students a chance to write in their own voices. I find that writing for the sake of meaning can often help students get their ideas on paper in a more fluid way. Perhaps we can validate the use of Black English by allowing students to write Freewrites, journal entries, or first drafts in their own voices without worrying about standardization or literary conventions. The process of writing drafts gives strength to the first draft, as it is where the ideas are mapped out. As Labov wrote, speakers of Black English are just as able, if not more so, to create logical arguments. Written or recorded first drafts would allow them to make their arguments in their own voice.

    As Paula wrote, many of us require students to use Standard English during formal writing assignments. By having students rewrite or edit their drafts to follow the conventions of Standard English, we are not invalidating their arguments or their voices, but rather teaching them another form of code switching. For all papers, the goal should be clarity. This refers not only to Black English, but also excessive wordiness. I liked Labov’s argument that the stylized verbosity of the academic world is not the most effective way to make one’s point.

    Creative writing is another area in which students can write with their own voices. When I taught Their Eyes Were Watching G-d, we spoke at length about the dialects in the story. One of our writing assignments was to write an additional scene into the story using the dialect of the characters. This assignment could be tweaked to include any dialect, slang, or language. Like ELLs, students should have a chance to use the language that they grew up speaking. This way they will be able to retain it as a means of communication as well as a cultural tie to their community.

  5. “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
    You’d celebrate the minute you was having dough”

    Yesterday I printed out a set of 40 rhetorical devices for speechwriters and went through it, marveling at how many names there are for these tricks I use without really thinking of them. Inspired by the logical breakdown of a student’s argument for/against the existence of heaven and hell given by Labov, I decided to choose two almost throwaway lines from the first hip-hop song that came to mind, “99 Problems,” and went through my flashcards to see if I could identify any rhetorical devices used within those two lines.

    In those measly 12 words, I found SIX uses of rhetorical devices:

    • Hyperbole (celebrate the minute)
    • Allusion (zapatos)
    • Metonymy (having dough)
    • Assonance (holes, zapatos)
    • Exemplum (anyone from a poor background would be happy to be rich)
    • Synecdoche (holes in your shoes stands in for poverty)

    That’s like one rhetorical device for every other word! Of course there’s also rhyme, literary consonance (celebrate, minute), scansion, and the successful use of an “if/then” conditional sentence.

    Jay-Z never graduated from high school. Although of course not all AAVE-speaking children will grow up to be lyrical geniuses, I find Labov convincing when he says that when children fail school, schools are actually failing children. (That’s polyptoton and antimetabole and antithesis btw.)

    I wish I knew how to answer Paula’s elegant questions. But I suspect that the root of the problem lies far below what teachers can address (though we should still try!), and has nothing to do with how black families raise their children, and everything to do with how blackness is pathologized in our society at every level.

  6. I loved how Labov juxtaposed the two arguments, one in BEV and the other in “middle class English,” pointing out that the logic in the former was much more sophisticated and sound. Like others of you have noted, I also grade most assignments for ideas and only mark grammar on major writing assignments that have gone through the entire writing process. Also as other have noted, though, when we correct our papers to fit standardized English, it does send the message that this is the language of power, marginalizing the languages of many of our students and their families. It reminds me of this article’s heartbreaking conversation with Larry where he explains his conclusion as to why G-d must be white.

    I think it’s interesting to note that Labov is advocating for shifting the emphasis on middle-class speech patterns while his argument is written in incredibly lofty language. Like Alex’s student who wrote a Socratic dialogue in Hurston’s dialect, it would be interesting to see Labov publish this article or even a piece therein in BEV or any other non-standard English. Presumably this is because of the very societal prejudices against non-standard English that Lavov mentions and his desire to get published, but it is just something that stuck out to me as I attempted to make sense of certain pieces of his article. Part of me feels that it will be impossible to shift the power dynamics ingrained within our language, but with the demographics of our country changing so rapidly, perhaps this is just naïve and with time, the shift will occur naturally.

  7. Jen:

    What I thought was interesting about Labov’s article was the approach he took to research students strengths instead of weaknesses. I think most teachers are guilty of constantly thinking of their students’ weaknesses. They do not do this maliciously, but it is our way of trying to “fill in gaps” or identify what resources and supports our students need to improve. I know that I spend more time thinking about my students’ weaknesses and what I can do to remedy these than their strengths at times.

    Labov cites that most research takes this “deficit” approach. Labov’s study is actually the first time I have ever heard of someone actively searching for students’ strengths. His suggestion of identifying students’ strengths and building upon these to help them become more successful is so up lifting and out of the norm for me.

    I liked the question that Paula proposed about looking at literacy assessments so that they determine what students actually know. I often find that my students do not understand what a question is asking. Once I read it out loud or re-phrase it, a light bulb goes off and students often know the answer. If a student doesn’t understand one word that we assume they know, it can prevent them from showing what they know in their responses. I know that I am not allowed to do this on the MCAS or other standardized tests, but if a student does not understand a word, unless it is a vocabulary word that they should have had memorized for the test, I always tell them what the word means on the exam. When I grade their papers, this helps me know what my students actually know, and not what they were prevented from telling me because they didn’t know a random word on an exam.

  8. When reading Labov’s piece I could not help but think about the ways that I grade the writing of my students. Like many have said already, much of my grading is not based on grammar or use of Standard English, but on the ideas and the way in which they are presented. I try to ask myself: Is there a claim or argument? Is it supported? And can I understand the students analysis of the supports provided? If their language is not a hinderance to what they are trying to present, should it be an issue? In terms of standardization, I would say “yes” since the CC and MCAS asks for students to use Standard English, as Matt successfully examined. So, where does that leave us? How should we teach students to write? I think perhaps the best way to do this would be to have students examine writing in different contexts. For example, let students know their audience and what is expected of them, especially when moving forward with MCAS open response writing. Try to teach them how to present their argument, claim, stance, etc. in a way that will make the person grading the piece give it a high score.

    I also enjoyed the focus on communicating in different social situations. I think seeing the different approaches to communication presented by the Clarence Robins interviews really made the point of vernacular and communication come to life for me. It is amazing that when the boys were questioned together, they were able to communicate their ideas in a comfortable way. I find it eye-opening to my teaching. What if I have a student that never seems to comment in class or does not like to write, then when I see him with his friends he is arguing and chatting up a storm. Should I consider sitting in the lunch room in order to evaluate his speaking skills? Am I making him uncomfortable somehow in my classroom? It’s really a tough place to be. I try to make various assignments that allow my students to present their work in various ways, but what if this is not enough?

  9. Sometimes I find that the issues encountered at school, as ambiguous, frustrating, messy, or difficult they might seem, seem to stunningly represent the community in which the school exists. It seems as though I don’t need to understand even the complete problem in all its detail to feel confident enough to say that it reflects the shortcomings of the world in some proximity outside the classroom. I suppose this isn’t some kind of odd occurrence or new idea, since in a democracy the ideal is that the policies behind public schools are designed by the people whose children they aim to educate. If a community has problems regarding race relations or poverty, these problems are likely to be brought to school. As much as a school and those who educate within it might try to create a specific culture, the entrance seems to be a porous membrane. That said, when I consider these connections I wonder, too, if I’m somehow unloading any responsibility for helping to solve them. As teachers we seem to hold a unique spot in the middle of everything—at the same time we are likely to be blamed for the symptoms or manifestations of problems outside of schools which we have no part in creating, we are also somehow connected to that society in which the problems occur. As a result, along with showing a great deal of compassion, I think we sometimes become surrogate nurses, applying metaphorical band-aids to problems here and there. One student needs lunch money and is denied aid from the government, another student is simply unable to get to a store in which s/he could purchase pencils or a notepad, another student feels neglected by a teacher so comes to you to edit his or her essay. A few years ago, I even had one instance when a parent was asking me to fail her daughter so that they could apply for government aid (I can’t recall if it was Social Security or something else). While I have provided lunch money a couple times, the last example was a difficult (and ridiculous) one to experience.

    This all occurred to me in light of the topics of the readings for today and last class, insofar as we are given a somewhat nebulous and volatile problem of reaching students with a great variety of language abilities and backgrounds. The majority of my students speak more than on language fluently, and though I had no ELL students this year, the task of adapting to these differences in a way that teaches without degrading your students’ sense of pride and identity seems similar to dealing with other elements of students’ identity. Likewise, although there may be a clear difference among reading abilities of students who come from very different homes and families, the concept of “verbal deprivation,” yet another instance of deficit thinking, seems to somehow attempt to address the problem while not taking any effective responsibility for helping to solve it, for it places the center of the problem itself within the student—there is something wrong with him or her, not with the instruction, the assumptions in the educational philosophy. Why would one not expect a student to react in the way the examples do on pages 137-39? Being told directly or indirectly that there’s something wrong with the way you speak, especially by someone who systematically clearly has power over you (via age, race, size, position) would logically be received with reticence to speak further, unless the individual has learned to defend him or herself in the face of such assumptions. As Labov says, “If there is a failure of logic involved here, it is surely in the approach of the verbal-deprivation theorists, rather than in the mental abilities of the children concerned” (147). Even interesting, too, in this quote is the last phrase, “children concerned.” It doesn’t seem hard to imagine that a child might become (even actively so) less concerned in an environment that makes him or her feel less than important, or worse, consistently wrong or abnormal.

    Perhaps it would be more beneficial for us to reconsider not only the language standards by which we measure a student’s ability to express ideas, but also the place that language has in our assessment of student learning as well as the various means of communication besides spoken words or words on a page. What about music? What about visual content? Might it be possible that it is the assessor who is limited in his or her ability to communicate?

    All of that said, these problems continue to seem daunting. Nonetheless, it seems (oddly) that we do not deem the diversity in our populations (which is ultimately the result of the freedoms the country advertises, protects, and takes pride in) as being worth the resources to guarantee smaller class sizes, more focus on each individual student, greater chance of reaching each student in a meaningful and appreciative way.

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