Orange: Teaching Reading not Simply Black-and-White

My mother was born and raised mostly in the hills of North Carolina (although she moved around quite a bit, including some time in South Carolina). I didn’t fully recognize it until I was an adult and Mom was providing daycare for my daughter, but my mother had a very slow and pronounced Southern drawl.

Even in our little redneck family, my mother, sister, and I would make fun of my dad’s pronunciation—notably “pecan,” “corner,” and “story.”

What is interesting is that despite the so-called nonstandard dialect of my home language, I learned from my parents to judge people by their pronunciation of words.

Growing up in upstate SC, I heard three versions of “orange”—”ORange,” “ARange,” and “ERange” (the final racialized as how Black people spoke).

Although white Southern “ARange” and Black English “ERange” were both corrected in our classes, white pronunciation shaming in the form of racism never acknowledged the shared marginalization.

I also heard and associated different pronunciations of “aunt” and “ask” as racialized; Black people often said “aunt” as we associated with people in the North (not our Southern “ant” version) and used the transposed (and historically original) “aks.”

With the advantages of hindsight and almost 40 years as a literacy educator and scholar, I recognize a powerful and corrosive dynamic about language I was indirectly taught in my home.

We used pronunciation shaming within our family as good-natured ribbing (although my dad didn’t find it funny), but we also practiced pronunciation shaming as a way to reinforce the blatant and subtle lessons of racism.

My parents simultaneously skirted class and regional dialect shaming while actively using dialect shaming to support their racism.

Over five decades of teaching, I more and more carry my Southernness and working class background with me as I teach and consider the teacher of reading and writing.

I have held a critical if not skeptical view of “standard” English for decades and caution the use of “standard” when addressing grammar and phonics with beginning and developing readers and writers [1].

Traditional approaches to grammar and phonics are grounded in some language usage is “correct” and others are “wrong.” There is a long history of associating dialects and nonstandard usages with intellectual and moral inferiority.

Therefore, one of the current problems with the “science of reading” (SOR) movement driving reading legislation and mandates is that the negative elements of standardization are often ignored or only briefly acknowledged.

Yet another NYT article announces the usual misinformation about the failures of teaching reading, linking that failure again falsely to the use of reading programs, and explains that “[u]nder the plan, all school districts will adopt one of three curriculums that have received high marks from national curriculum review groups.”

Buried in this mostly uncritical coverage is what should be highlighted [2], notably about one of the three mandated programs:

Into Reading is the most traditional option, a “basal” program that uses texts written specifically to teach reading. Some teachers and principals have worried over a recent New York University report that found its content “likely reinforces stereotypes and portrays people of color in inferior and destructive ways.” Ms. Quintana said the company has assured officials it is “adamantly working on making revisions.”

New York Is Forcing Schools to Change How They Teach Children to Read

The newest wave of shuffling from one set of reading programs to the “new” reading program craze involves labeling programs as “science of reading” or “structured literacy”; theses programs are often scripted, de-professionalizing teachers and erasing individual student needs (such as their background diversity).

In short, teaching systematic phonics to beginning readers with cultural, racial, and regional diversity is not simply black-and-white—too often popularly and politically [3] portrayed as phonics v. no phonics.

Once again, the scholarly response to the current reading crisis is much different than the media, public, and political response.

Washington, Lee-James, and Standford conclude in Reading Research Quarterly:

Overall, it is important to underscore that good instructional practices— differentiation of content and pacing, following a systematic and cumulative skill sequence, explicitly modeling, scaffolding, and providing specific feedback and frequent checks for understanding— are effective for all children. For those who are bidialectal, how you implement these instructional practices, must be informed by the structure (rules that govern phonology, morphology, and syntax) and function (e.g., context, and preservation of community and cultural connections) of the dialect. Indeed, African American children will have background experiences, exposure, cultural practices, and language knowledge that reflect their culture and speech community. These practices may differ in important and impactful ways from the education context. The contrasts between a child’s oral dialect and the academic language of print, become a barrier to mastering reading, writing, and spelling if teachers are not (1) aware of the dialect and how it impacts reading instruction and (2) knowledgeable about how to leverage students existing language strengths to scaffold and support learning.

Teaching Phonemic and Phonological Awareness to Children Who Speak African American English

The SOR movement is proving to be yet another round of crisis rhetoric and ultimately harmful conservative mandates that are erasing the lives and needs of the students who need public schooling and literacy the most.

Heathy and powerful literacy instruction and acquisition must avoid the right/wrong dichotomy that fuels dialect shaming. As linguists caution: “Neither of these pronunciations is wrong. They’re just different.”

And the differences children bring to the classroom must be honored as their valuable and valid literacy upon which they can and will build even more awareness of their worlds and the worlds they encounter.

[1] Teaching Reading and Language Variation: A Reader

[2] See Does the “Science of Reading” Fulfill Social Justice, Equity Goals in Education? (pt. 1) and America Dishonors MLK By Refusing to Act on Call for Direct Action (pt. 2)

[3] See among Republican governors from OH, VA, and AL: