kitchen table math, the sequel: dialect mismatch & the achievement gap

Saturday, August 11, 2012

dialect mismatch & the achievement gap

One current [research] focus is on the so-called "achievement gap," which refers to the lower achievement of poor and minority children in school, particularly in areas such as reading. We have begun a project that examines factors that affect African American children's early school achievement, funded by a significant seed grant from the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. This research is being conducted by Julie Washington and Jan Edwards (Comm Dis), David Kaplan (Ed Psych), Maryellen MacDonald, Jenny Saffran, and myself (Psychology), as well as several other faculty. The focus is on ways in which language background affects early school achievement. Most African American children speak the dialect termed African American English, whereas the language in the school is some version of "standard" (also called "mainstream") American English. This dialect mismatch has many effects on the African American child's school experience; it makes tasks such as learning to read literally more difficult than for children for whom there is no dialect mismatch. Our studies focus on young children's knowledge of the alternative dialects, factors that affect ability to switch between dialects, and ways that negative effects of the mismatch can be ameliorated. The idea is to provide supplementary language experiences early, when the child's plasticity for language is high. We can also use our computational models of reading to predict where dialect differences will interfere with progress, and how experience can be structured to improve performance.

Mark S. Seidenberg
Donald O. Hebb Professor
Hilldale Professor
Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience
Overview of Research
Seidenberg's "connectionist" model of language learning and grammar contradicts Chomsky:
[S]ince Chomsky's early work, knowledge of language has been equated with knowing a grammar. Many consequences followed from this initial assumption. For example, if the child's problem is to converge on the grammar of a language, then the problem does seem intractable unless there are innate constraints on the possible forms of grammar. What if we abandon the assumption that knowledge of language is represented as a grammar in favor of, say, neural networks, a more recently developed way of thinking about knowledge representation, learning, and processing? Do the same conclusions about the innateness of linguistic knowledge follow? The answer is: not at all.

Our goal, then, has been to articulate an alternative framework for thinking about the classic questions listed above. This is not easy: traditional grammarians have about a 40 year lead on us, and only a few linguists actually think the alternative approach will succeed. However, it's a very interesting moment in the study of language. For many years the study of language was dominating by theoretical linguistics, particularly syntax. More recently, there have been important insights coming from outside of traditional grammatical theory: from computational modeling, from studies of the brain bases of learning and neurodevelopment, from renewed interest in the statistical properties of language (which were ignored for many years following Chomsky's famous observations about the statistical triviality of sentences such as "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously").

Chomsky and his followers have always had their critics. However, there was never an alternative theory that could explain basic facts, such as how children acquire language under the conditions that they do. I think for the first time we have the major components of such a theory in hand. And they suggest the remarkable possibility that the standard conclusions about the nature of language and how it is acquired are just dead wrong. This would be an incredible turn of events, a major development in the intellectual history of the study of language.

That's why it's an interesting moment to be studying language.


momof4 said...

Given that it's been documented that black kids watch significantly more TV than others, are they not exposed to standard English on a regular basis? Don't they watch regular programming, including sports, as well as MTV and BET? Many Asian kids came here without speaking English and grow up in households that don't use English regularly and do better than black kids - how do they account for this?

Auntie Ann said...

I read years ago that poor kids, kids of poorly-educated parents have heard 3,000,000 fewer words than their middle-class peers by the time they start school. Adults around them just don't talk to them as much as other populations do to their kids.

That's an astonishing deficit to make up in any dialect.

Auntie Ann said...

I guess my memory was wrong. I found the original source (warning: that's a Word doc, not webpage or PDF) for that info, and it isn't 3 million fewer's 30 million fewer words!

lgm said...

Culture. Parental expectation for Asian students is that their children become good students and they are willing to take the time to ensure that it happens. Asians also have high expectations -- many that have immigrated recently are educated in the home country, so they can make up for the low expectations at school in math and science. They are also willing to move to better school districts and to engage a tutor. Behavior is expected to be respectful towards teacher, no matter what the teacher quality or level of instructional insuitability is. They will do the work outside of the classroom if it is not available inside.

Does anyone know where black acheivement data is found that is disagreggated by country of origin or time/generations in the U.S.?

Catherine Johnson said...

I really don't know what a dialect is .... so pretty much all I can do with this is pass it on.

As to the Asian children of Asian immigrants (or Asian children whose first language is Chinese, say), I wouldn't be surprised to learn that they don't have reading scores as high as native-born children.

How different is one dialect from another?

Auntie Ann said...

Here's one article on British Caribbean Blacks in America.


Several authors have examined whether black Caribbean immigrants are more successful in the American economy than African Americans. This study examines the earnings and occupations of Caribbean American men in the 1990 census and expands previous analyses by examining generational differences within this new black minority. Central findings suggest that: (1) There continue to be important socioeconomic differences between Caribbean American blacks and African Americans. (2) If we can speak of a "black success story," however, it is the story of British Caribbeans; blacks from the French- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean do worse than African Americans. (3) Second- and later-generation Caribbean blacks generally have higher socioeconomic status than the immigrant generation. (4) For British Caribbeans, this implies that later generations have gained further advantages on African Americans. The pattern of generational differences within the Caribbean American community generally does not support the notion of structural assimilation into the black American community.

momof4 said...

Culture/work ethic would be my primary suspect, also. I was wondering how the researchers will account for it or if they plan to address it. I haven't studied the field, but their hypothesis seems to leave quite a few strings hanging.

AA: This comports with what I have read on the subject. In City on a Hill (re CCNY, I think written in the late 90s), the students doing the worst were indigeous blacks who did k-12 here; those doing the best tended to be new immigrants (black and otherwise) who were likely to have done much of their k-12 elsewhere. The two groups really didn't interact socially and tended to be in very different classes.

Certainly, recent immigrants from the British Caribbean would have grown up speaking British English, which has significantly different vocab and idioms from ours. Two of my kids had recent arrivals from the UK as either teammates or coaches and the saying "two countries divided by a common language" was frequently illustrated. The American coach was considerably disconcerted by a newly-arrived Scottish mom asking how much she owed him "for the strip" - meaning her son's uniform. If recent black arrivals can bridge that kind of gap and surpass American blacks, something more than dialect must be involved.

Catherine Johnson said...

Right, culture is huge --- but you guys all probably remember the studies showing that the longer immigrants are in the US, the less impact their immigrant culture has on their kids, right?

Auntie Ann said...

CJ: That's what's odd about the abstract I posted. As time passes Caribbean blacks seem to accelerate their gains.

Hainish said...

Speaking a non-English language at home is (I think) a very different experience than speaking an English dialect. I learned English in k, and there was no other dialect there to "compete" with the new language. I knew what I didn't know.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Speaking a non-English language at home is (I think) a very different experience than speaking an English dialect. I learned English in k, and there was no other dialect there to "compete" with the new language. I knew what I didn't know.

Now that's interesting. I've worked with Indian kids who've had huge problems with SAT writing because they had absolutely no idiomatic sense of how standard American English worked. They'd grown up speaking English, but the English that they were exposed to at home had little to do with what was on the test, and they couldn't figure out how anyone could hear those idiomatic errors. They had no idea what they didn't know.