Since the 1950s, in analyzing the reasons US schools fail African American learners, sociolinguists have located dialectal difference as central to the educational theater of operations. Recognizing that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) was not itself an obstacle to learning, linguists instead identified “ignorance of nonstandard English rules on the part of teachers and text writers” as the culprit (Labov 1969, p. 29). This article reviews the history of academic responses to the vernacular “language problem,” identifying key issues, moments, controversies, and positions relevant to teaching Standard English in African American classrooms. It argues that while linguistic scholars and critical language theorists have developed intricate analyses, knowledge, and responses to vernacular dialects, these advances have not taken root in the schools of America. This article concludes that until standardized assessments require teachers to distinguish pattern in vernacular dialect from error in Standard English, US schools will continue to fail African American learners.


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