Reading Instruction for the Black Underachieving Student
By: Frank Simpkins
An overriding theoretical, philosophical and political consideration of the cross-cultural approach to education designed to accommodate the culture and language of Black non-mainstream students is; that any educational program for Black non-mainstream students must be part of, and sympathetic to the students’ culture, language, experiences and interests. A second major consideration is the importance of language in the educational program. The culture and experience of students are reflected in their language. They speak the language of those with whom they identify and those who are most meaningful to them..African American Vernacular English (AAVE) aside from being central to human communication and identity, has been the convenient whipping boy of programs which have sought to normalize Black non-mainstream students under the guise of remedying a defective language and culture. A basic premise of the cross-cultural approach is that the repertoire of language skills and competencies brought to school by Black non-mainstream children can and should be used to facilitate new learning. This approach represents an attempt to utilize the learning that Black non-mainstream children have experiences outside of school. The strategy of this approach is to engage the students by using a starting point in the learning process, the verbal behavior of the students in their familiar cultural context. In educational pedagogy, there is almost universal belief in the Dewey axiom, “Start where the child is.” In the field of linguistics, this axiom becomes a battle cry, “Begin with the child’s cultural – linguistic knowledge and experiences as an educational foundation upon which to build.”
The cross-cultural approach views language as the common denominator between what students know and what they are expected to learn. It embraces the presupposition that reading, or any other subject matter, can be best taught by beginning with the verbal behavior that is available to learners, and utilizing instructional materials that incorporate language with which the learners already have phonetic, lexical, syntactical and cultural familiarity., It assists the learners in comprehending concepts that otherwise may appear strange and confusing. It is assumed in the cross-cultural approach that Black non-mainstream children have the same cognitive apparatus and abilities as mainstream children; that differences in academic performance occur because their cognitive apparatus is deferentially triggered by cultural context. The differential triggering of the cognitive apparatus cause learning to be more effective for students “in the streets” than in the classroom. Similarly, as will the phenomenon that occurs in reading, the student must perform an additional cognitive operation in order to grasp many concepts taught in the schools. They must translate incoming conceptual material into their familiar cultural context.
Study the behavior of Black Non-mainstream students at the entering college level and see the evidence of this phenomenon..The following is one of similar observations made by the author: “Hey, man, what was he talking about? I ain’t understand a word of that stuff..I was completely lost, and everybody look like they know what was going on..I’m gon drop this class; that stuff is hard as Chinese algebra.” The other student responded, “No, man, hang on in..That stuff is light. It’s just the way he talk that make it seem hard. Dig it, what the dude was trying to say was.” After the fellow student finished translating the lecture, the first student said “Damn, man, why didn’t he say that in the first place? Them White folks always be trying to make stuff hard.” In the above exchange, one student was able to translate the conceptual material into the familiar cultural context and was therefore able to help his fellow student understand the concepts.
The problems encountered by these students are not isolated, amusing instances; they are representative of the difficulties experienced by a great many Black non-maintream students at all levels of the school system throughout this country. Many students sit through classes confused, never understanding the concepts that are being presented. They manage to pass classes, some with high grades, by mimicking back the instructor’s lectures and the contents of their texts without ever understanding the concepts. The underlying academic problem of Black non-mainstream students appears to be a mismatch in the two languages and the instructional system. Most teachers do not possess the knowledge and ability to eliminate the additional cognitive operations that many of these students have to perform in translating from Standard English (SE) to African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
The cross-cultural approach addresses the problems encountered by Black non-mainstream students. There are two teaching-learning strategies in the cross-cultural approach in teaching reading in the “Bridge Program.” They are designed to accommodate the culture and language of Black non-mainstream students and bridge the gap between learning in the Black community and learning in the schools. The first educational strategy, “Peer Control”, is designed to give students control over the learning process and accommodate the oral tradition of the Black community. The Peer Control Procedure is autotelic. The term “autotelic” describes the quality of an instructional sequence which becomes an end to itself so that perceiving the sequence is intrinsically reinforcing. Students tend to engage in Peer Control for its own sake rather than for extrinsic rewards or punishment. Teachers report that often students do not want to disengage from their Peer Control groups when class ends. The Peer Control Procedure draws heavily on the “call and response” oral tradition of the Black community, which is seen in the call-and-response behavior of the Black church where the audience becomes an active participant with the speaker.
The second strategy, “Associative Bridging”, is the process of going from the familiar to the less familiar in a series of steps, associating the familiar elements with the less familiar elements. The familiar is African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in the context of Black non-mainstream culture. The less familiar is Standard English in the context of mainstream culture. Associative Bridging uses AAVE as a starting point. This method seeks to improve the students’ reading ability by first teaching them in their dialect, and then extending that learning via a series of steps to mainstream English. Reading in the mainstream dialect is thus taught as an extension of reading in the students’ familiar dialect. In this way, AAVE serves as a springboard from which to move to the presentation of Standard English.
The Bridge Reading Program took into consideration that Black non-mainstream children know more about reading and Standard English than they are able to display on tests. They do not spend as many hours as they do looking at television and movies without understanding a great deal about SE. They often have good receptive abilities, but have not acquired productive abilities. They don’t know where AAVE stops and where SE begins and find it difficult to perform the fine discriminations necessary to “code-switch.” There are gaps in their learning which prevent them from putting it all together.
The Bridge Reading Program was designed to fill these gaps, help the students improve their reading ability, and to enable them to read the Standard English materials. Reading in Standard English is taught as a logical extension of reading in the students’ dialect which is presented on equal footing with Standard English. Students start with Black vernacular, proceed through several steps of Associative Bridging and finish with Standard English in Study Book Five. Intended for junior and senior high school under-achievers in reading, the Program is also suitable for adults with reading problems. It makes effective use of peer influence and provides for differences in learning rates/styles, differences in levels of achievement, and accommodates cultural differences.
There is a great need for further experiments with the cross-cultural approach to reading that measure attitude and behavioral changes. Long-term studies also need to ascertain whether the gains last across time and are generalized to other subjects. Since the 1975 publication of the Houghton Miffin Field test, I find no large or medium-scale research using the difference model. Although non dare call it racism, I firmly believe that stereotyped concepts of AAVE influence government and foundation research money brokers, resulting in a lack of funding for R & D regarding the Black non-mainstream student.