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Dialect and Reading Difficulties

By: Catherine Snow, Susan Burns, Peg Griffin
Children who speak nonstandard dialects of English may be at greater risk for reading difficulties.

Dialect differences among English speakers are widely recognized – for example, a Boston accent or a Southern drawl. There is ample evidence that listeners make stereotyped judgments about speakers of particular dialects.

Of greater concern here, however, is that some dialect differences are viewed by some not as regional variations but as "incorrect" English, connoting aberrant or delayed language development, poor learning, lazy or sloppy articulation, or even purposeful insolence. Particularly under these conditions, the differences between a young child's dialect and the standard classroom English dialect may become a risk factor for reading difficulties.

With regard to reading instruction in particular, the risk for confusion is considerable. For example, if the teacher is pointing out the letter-sound correspondences within a word that is pronounced quite differently in the child's dialect than in the teacher's, the lesson could confuse more than enlighten.

Moreover, teachers who are insensitive to dialect differences may develop negative perceptions of children and low expectations for their achievement, and they may adjust their teaching downward in accord with those judgments.

Although these situations undeniably occur, there are many difficulties in measuring the extent to which they happen and the degree to which their occurrence is correlated with, and may contribute to, poor reading achievement. As is the case for children with limited English proficiency, dialect differences are often confounded with poverty, cultural differences, substandard schooling, and other conditions that may themselves impose very high risks for reading difficulties.

Even measuring the phenomena and their relation to achievement is confounded by the risk factor itself (Labov, 1966; Smitherman, 1977; Wolfram, 1991). The knowledge base, therefore, is spotty. Some dialects have been researched more thoroughly than others.

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Endnotes

Endnotes

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Excerpted from: Snow, C. E., Burns, S. M., & Griffin, P. Editors. (1998). Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, Chapter 4: Predictors of Success and Failure in Reading.. National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of National Academy Press. Reprinted with permission.

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