Teaching writing to speakers of nonstandard English

Bypassing the controversy of whether nonstandard dialects of English are legitimate forms of our spoken language, educators agree that students in U.S. schools must acquire competence in writing Standard English.

The purpose of the present study was to examine how to structure instruction so that it is effective in teaching Standard English to students who use what these researchers call Black English Vernacular. Grammatical features that differentiate Black English from Standard English were targeted.

Howard Fogel and Linnea C. Ehri, City University of New York Graduate Center, focused on
helping children to correct these nonstandard syntactical features in their writing without identifying the nonstandard English as Black English Vernacular. They worked with third- and fourth-grade teachers in two cities, identifying common syntactical errors in their students’ writing.

Focusing on six common differences between Black English Vernacular and Standard English, Fogel and Ehri sought to determine which of three interventions increased the use of Standard English syntax in these students’ writing. The first two treatments were selected because they are typical of instruction commonly used in schools. The first is simple exposure to Standard English literature. The second is exposure combined with explanation o Standard English rules.

These researchers had noted in their observations that while teachers frequently explained features of Standard English, they usually did not show how these features corresponded to or differed from the nonstandard features they were trying to correct in students’ writing.

Therefore, Fogel and Ehri designed a third intervention that combined exposure to standard English stories and explanation of grammatical rules with guided practice and feedback in rewriting sentences with nonstandard syntax into Standard English. Teachers gave students
sentence-by-sentence feedback on their accuracy. They provided a set of standards for students to use while rereading and correcting their own writing. The six syntactical differences included:

  • The possessive “s” (Bob’s friend versus Bob friend)
  • The past tense formed with “ed” (she played versus she play)
  • The third-person singular present-tense “s” (Jessica lives versus Jessica live)
  • The plural “s” (three books versus three book)
  • The indefinite article (an orange versus a orange)
  • Subject-verb agreement (they were versus they was, he has versus he have,
    he doesn’t versus he don’t)

Study Population and Training

In this study, 12 intact third- and fourth-grade classrooms in poor, largely minority, urban areas were randomly assigned to one of the three intervention groups. Eighty-nine of the 265 students in the study exhibited syntactical features of Black English Vernacular in their writing.

A researcher met with teachers and explained that in samples of their students’ writing, some syntactical errors were common. He pointed out that these correct forms were difficult for
many inner-city students to acquire because they differed from the common spoken forms used by students at home or with their friends.

The researchers did not link the targeted features to any particular dialect or ethnic group. In this way, researchers avoided teachers associating lower writing achievement with any ethnic group. They presented a rationale for the particular intervention and explained the specific
procedures to be followed.

All the teachers agreed that the targeted features were problematic for many of their children, but none commented on or appeared to recognize the nonstandard forms as representing
Black English Vernacular.

All students in each of these classrooms were trained and tested as a group. A researcher was present during all training and testing sessions to verify that procedures were followed correctly. Training took place in two sessions held a week apart and totaling about 60 minutes.

In pretests, training sessions, and post-tests, students were taught to rewrite sentences in their correct grammatical form or to write a paragraph or answer questions using correct grammatical forms. Students’ existing knowledge of standard syntactical forms was measured on a pretest consisting of sentences whose incorrect forms they were told to correct. A week later, students were trained in one of the three interventions.

In the first intervention, exposure to Standard English, students were told to pay careful attention to the grammatical forms used in the stories teachers read aloud. In the exposure-plus-strategy instruction, teachers reviewed a worksheet that provided specific information about each of the six targeted syntactical features. Teachers explained that many students were having trouble with these forms and that they were sometimes hard to learn because they differed from the way students spoke at home or with friends.

Children were shown how to apply each of the rules to specific examples on the worksheet. Teachers then read aloud two short stories and students responded in writing to three comprehension questions.

Classes receiving the third form of treatment began with a review of the worksheet rules. Then they were given an opportunity to practice the rules by translating a seven-sentence paragraph written with nonstandard syntax into its equivalent Standard English form.

Students rewrote the sentences one at a time, after which the teacher orally reviewed how to transform the sentence into Standard English syntax. At least two examples were given for each of the six targeted features.

Following training, students in all three interventions were given sentences to correct and then asked to write a story.

Study Results

Results revealed that before training, classes assigned to the different treatment groups did not differ in their knowledge of targeted Standard English forms. To calculate the effects of the three forms of intervention, Fogel and Ehri subtracted the pretest scores on the translation exercise from post-test scores.

The treatment groups differed significantly on their post-test scores. Students in the exposure, strategy instruction and guided practice group made significantly greater gains from pretest to post-test than students in the other two groups. Students who received
explicit instruction in the syntactic rules but did not have the opportunity to practice those rules scored no better than students who were not given the rules at

There appears to be little value to explaining linguistic structures to students this age if students have no hands-on practice. Forty-two percent of students in the guided-practice group received passing scores on the post-test compared to 14 percent of the strategy group and 17 percent of the exposure group.

This was a significant difference after only one training session. More important and quite surprising to the researchers was the fact that the students who had received guided practice transferred their new knowledge to a free-writing exercise for which they had not been trained.

The disparity between groups was even greater on this free-writing exercise. Eighty-one percent of the students who received guided practice had passing scores, while 55 percent of the strategy group and 33 percent of the exposure group received passing grades on their writing samples.

Results revealed that having students practice applying grammatical rules by correcting non-standard syntax and giving them sentence-by-sentence feedback was highly effective. All the students involved in the study also took a self-confidence measure before and after training.

Beforehand, interestingly, they all seemed to feel quite confident of their ability to write correct English. However, the more successful students in the guided-practice group actually showed a decrease in self-confidence ratings after training. Fogel and Ehri speculate that these students seemed to acquire a more realistic assessment of their skills.

These researchers conclude that third- and fourth-grade teachers in typical inner-city classrooms implemented the training easily. Researchers spent about 30 minutes explaining the rationale and procedures to teachers.

The intervention itself was very limited; students received less than one hour of training on six
syntax forms. Because of the ease of implementation and the substantial improvement after only one brief practice session, these researchers recommend that teachers explore the value of this approach in classrooms where students exhibit features of nonstandard syntax in their writing.

“Teaching Elementary Students Who Speak Black English Vernacular to Write in Standard English: Effects of Dialect Translation Practice,” Contemporary Educational Psychology Volume 25, Number 2, April 2000 pp. 212-235.

Published in ERN May 2000 Volume 13 Number 5

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