When the Books You Read Don’t Look or Sound Like You: Challenges of Learning to Read in MAE


Mother and son readingI’m sure by now we’ve all heard that according to educational reports, our nation has a reading problem.  More specifically, African Americans boys and children living in poverty.  What’s worse, is that there are still people out there who think issues, such as this literacy gap, are about intelligence…

“I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” – Ms. Stephanie Grace, third-year Harvard Law Student.  I am definitely not asking her to defend any case for me.

But, what really IS the problem?

I don’t think anyone has an answer.  But, I do know that learning to read is not just about the words on the page.  There is so much more that goes into learning how to read, and oh so much more for a child who has a communication disorder and/or for a child who is not from the mainstream environment.

Perhaps one problem has to do with the lack of representation.  Walter Dean Meyers and others have talked about the need for more people of color in children’s books and I’ve started to think about what other challenges may be occurring as a result of this.

For some kids, the words and sentences they say and hear are not the same words and sentences they read.

A)    Let’s start with the more apparent differences we see just in the words and sounds we use.  Imagine a teacher is reading a book to her kindergarten students and the dialect they use in the book is Mainstream American English (MAE).  The sentence the children are reading is: This is your house.  So, in MAE, the ‘th’ is pronounced /th/ like in ‘them’ and you use ‘is’ to link ‘This’ to ‘your house.’ And that’s great and all, however, if you are a user of African American English (AAE) features, you may say “this”, as “dis”, because the ‘th’ in AAE at the beginning of a word may be pronounced as /d/ and you may leave out the linking verb ‘is’, making the sentence: Dis your house.  Now, you see the problem when the sentences in the books that you are learning to read don’t “sound” the way you sound.

Granted, once a child becomes linguistically flexible (that is being able to switch between one dialect or language to another), perhaps this area will not be as much of a challenge, but by then, perhaps the child has lost interest in reading because the books’ words are not representative of how they sound and what they know.

Many kids grow up in an environment very different than the kind of environment the books talk about.

B)    Another issue we have is this thing about background knowledge.  Seriously, everyone seems to think that your background knowledge and my background knowledge are the same.  Fine, maybe parts of it are.  But, the way society works, more than likely, if we are from different socioeconomic statuses, races, cultures, neighborhoods, regions, etc., our background knowledge will be different.  For example, let’s say the class is reading a book that talks about Billy’s backyard, and the sentence reads: We played together in his backyard. I may not be able to read or make a connection to the word ‘backyard’ as well as a boy like Billy, because, well, Billy HAS a backyard and I, a child living in a 5th floor walk-up apartment building in Brooklyn, do not.  Therefore, that word is unfamiliar to me conceptually and unfamiliar within my own spoken vocabulary.

Family camping

Families have different kinds of experiences that build different kinds of background knowledge and vocabulary.

Cultural differences also exist in vocabulary.

C)    Speaking of vocabulary, even this is an issue.  For this example, I’m going to flip the roles.  Let’s say a White child who has grown up in a middle-class home and neighborhood, speaking MAE goes to school and starts to learn how to read.  However, the books are written using AAE features, African American cultural norms, and dare I say even pictures of African American boys and girls.  Let’s pretend the sentence in one book reads: Michael mom told him to cut the tv up.  All of the sudden, this White child, whose spoken/oral language and cultural concepts are very different than the written language and concepts he is trying to map onto, is having a difficult time learning how to read and may become “at-risk”.

Now, if you have been socialized to hearing and understanding the grammar (i.e., zero ‘s’ on the possessive Michael) and vocabulary (i.e., ‘cut’) of that sentence, you will have an easier time learning to read, making a connection to, and comprehending that sentence than the child who is used to hearing and understanding a sentence more like: Michael’s mom told him to turn the volume on the tv up.

Boy reading a book.

Often times,  we tend to reduce the skill of learning to read to mostly apparent language features(e.g., phonological awareness, vocabulary) and ‘general’ background knowledge while forgetting about the ingrained cultural influences of learning how to read in a mainstream environment.  The grammar is mainstream, the background knowledge is mainstream, the vocabulary is mainstream, the pictures are mainstream, let’s face it, the people who wrote the books are mainstream.  If we lived in a society where the educational institutions used and embraced multicultural perspectives  (I don’t just mean ‘diversity training’) in their curricula, then we may not have this issue, but unfortunately, we don’t.

As always, while I understand that in our world, upward social and economic mobility is gained by learning and understanding aspects of mainstream culture, including dialect, I’m advocating for a better way to educate all children while maintaining and respecting cultural identities, and building on the strengths a child already comes equipped with.

For this blog I used examples of children who use AAE features, but this applies to all children who do not speak the mainstream dialect or language and are not socialized within the mainstream culture.

So, the next time you read a headline reporting that a non-White middle-class child doesn’t know how to read, please recognize it could be that 1) he isn’t readily making connections to mainstream culture and 2) he hasn’t become familiar (be it by circumstance or even by choice) with the sounds, grammar, vocabulary, and overall language (etc.) of MAE.