1. Section Editor(s): Nelson, Nickola Wolf PhD
  2. Editor
  3. Butler, Katharine G. PhD
  4. Editor Emerita

Article Content

Whether one agrees with Oakland's educational plan, the crux of the issue was, and remains, how best to teach and prepare Black youth for the future.1


I (N.W.N.) was in my doctoral program at Wichita State University when I first heard Geneva Smitherman, the author of the introductory quote, speak. It was the early 1970s and the Civil Rights movement was sizzling. I was taking a course in "Afro-American English," along with my other linguistics courses and had a great professor. But, in her guest lecture, Smitherman could communicate aspects of the nature of the language that could not be touched by my textbooks and mimeographed articles of "features" of what we then called Black English. In her talk, Smitherman captured the cleverness in discourse events, such as Playin' the Dozens, and the poetic rhythms and themes of Rap, which still seemed new and not all that widely known in the White community. Not being a "Sista" (Smitherman, 2000, p. 261) myself, most of my prior familiarity came from hanging out in the locker room at my high school longer than necessary so I could hear my classmates perform (it was more than mere song) the latest Motown hits.


Then, in my doctoral program, as I listened to my professor and to Smitherman's guest lecture, I was fascinated with the possibilities for conveying nuances of meaning with aspectual markers that were not available in general American English, especially in combination with a range of paralinguistic meaning enhancers that went beyond grammatical inflection. In my classes today, I still use Smitherman's example of being in charge of keeping the coffee hot and ready in the break room. Although I cannot do it justice, Smitherman showed how it was one thing to have someone complain "That coffee cold," and another to have the complaint, "That coffee be cold!!" with the combination of habitual aspect, intonation, and facial and gestural expression making it clear that something had to change.


Fast forward to 1996, when, on December 18, the Oakland California School Board passed its controversial "Resolution on Ebonics." In a time before Blogging, Twitter, and YouTube, it seemed as if every cab driver and person on the street in America was discussing the resolution and expressing an opinion on Ebonics. Smitherman (2000) wrote about this controversy, as did many others (e.g., Baugh, 2000). As background, Smitherman explained the educational gap data of the time. Based on what the Oakland School Board saw as an educational crisis, it passed a resolution that


...called for a plan for teaching its Black youth through their primary language, Ebonics. This language was to serve as a vehicle for "maintaining the legitimacy and richness" of the students' language and "to facilitate their acquisition and mastery of English language" skills. (Smitherman, 2000, p. 14)


From the uproar, one would have thought that proposal argued for something akin to treason, rather than a pathway that included respect for students' "mother tongue" while also consistently calling for them:


... to be taught "English proficiency" and "mastery of English language skills." Thus the students would become bilingual. However, by the time the press got the story right, the damage had already been done; people had formed negative opinions and seemed impervious to the truth. (Smitherman, 2000, p. 15)


Fast forward again to 2010. Although the rhetoric is less heated today, many questions (and some strong opinions) still swarm beneath the surface discussions of language diversity and education. The questions about language intervention are somewhat less tinged with emotion, but, as Frances A. Burns and colleagues, Shelley L. Velleman, Lisa J. Green, and Tom Roeper, address in the final article in this two-issue set, a good deal of uncertainty remains about whether and how teachers and clinicians should take African American English (AAE) (or other dialects or language differences) into consideration when providing language instruction and intervention.


This issue of Topics in Language Disorders focuses on what the research says about AAE and services targeting phonological development (in the article by Velleman and Pearson), morphosyntax (in the article by Craig-Unkefer and Camarata), and written language production (in two articles, one by Horton-Ikard and Pittman and one by Nelson). The issue offers plenty of food for thought, but some reassurances as well, which should make it easier for teachers and clinicians, all of whom speak a dialect, to be more alert, but also more at ease about concerns that they will do something wrong in the attempt to do something right.


We think that the information in this issue and the prior issue on language assessment and AAE-speaking children will contribute to the knowledge base and provide practical information for professionals from several disciplines who work with children with and without language disorders. We appreciate the masterful work that Drs. Frances Burns and Gloria Weddington have done in bringing these two issues to life. We hope and expect that they will contribute to productive conversations and practices across disciplines and in many settings.


Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD




Katharine G. Butler, PhD


Editor Emerita




1. Baugh J. (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press. [Context Link]


2. Smitherman G. (2000). Black talk: Words and phrases from the hood to the amen corner. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company. [Context Link]


1 Geneva Smitherman (2000, p. 15). [Context Link]