Teaching: updating AAVE?

Rebecca S. Wheeler rwheeler at CNU.EDU
Mon Sep 17 16:36:16 UTC 2001

Dear Mai,
Glad to hear you're working in this arena! see responses inside.

Mai Kuha wrote:

> Is anyone interested in sharing ideas about updating our approaches to
> the verbal system of African American (Vernacular) English in introductory
> linguistics courses?
> I'm looking at my copies of handouts from the talks Lisa Green and Charles
> DeBose gave at the symposium on recent advances in research in this area
> at the 2001 LSA meeting. (I'm missing some handouts from other relevant
> talks from that symposium.) I would like to move towards this approach of
> viewing AAVE as a system, rather than focusing on specific features that
> distinguish it from other varieties. For one thing, this approach should
> make it clearer that studying AAVE isn't about "correcting errors". Here
> are the questions I have so far:

yes, moving off of the position that errors/problems/issues are involved is
indeed a central one.

> - How much information would it make sense to include in a, say, week-long
> unit in an introductory course? Would all of Lisa Green's impressively
> massive-looking outline of verbal paradigms be too overwhelming?

It depends what material the students already command. Thus, will they have
previously taken a Structure of English course, so that they will know NP and
VP structuring? Or is this intro ling course a first and independent
experience for them?

As for how much to offer the students,  I believe that if we want students to
change lifelong HABITS of mind, that they must truly comprehend and confront
the material, well, close up and personal so to speak. This suggests fewer
examples that they understand deeply, rather than more arcane vocabulary tht
will roll off them with little effect.

Thus, for example, I anchor my Language and Teaching students in their
stereotypic assumptions about error. I present an example like "He be
watching tv" and ask the students to comment. They all come out with "broken
English, poor grammar, error, problem, etc."

Then I present a real life example like this one, from a student:

1.  Student email

Hi Professor Wheeler,

I just wanted to let you know that I had an encounter with AAVE the other

Here is a conversation between me, my husband, and my nephew.

My nephew and I were picking my husband up from work.
So my husband gets into the car and my nephew asks him
"Uncle Poo-Poo (his nickname) y’all be playing basketball over there?"
(looking at the basketball goal in the parking lot )

My husband replied "Naw man, we don't be playing, but we play sometimes.”


We then contrast AAVE aspect structure and English aspect structure, letting
the patterns emerge.

I then revisit their initial assessment of error, pointing out that we have a
systematic pattern afoot here.

Here's another example, from Noma LeMoine's __English for Your Success: A
developmental Program for African American Students__

Teacher:“Bobby, what does your mother do every day?”
Bobby: “She be at home.”
Teacher: “You mean, she is at home.”
Bobby: “No, she ain’t, cause she took my grandmother to the hospital this
Teacher: “You know what I meant. You are not supposed to say, ‘she be at
home.’ You are to say, ‘she is at home.”
Bobby: “Why you trying to make me lie. She ain’t at home.”

  English for your Success: A Language Developmental      Program for African
American Children. Noma LeMoine. p. 1

Excerpting from a powerpoint presentation I have on this topic:

The case of “Be”
Teacher saw error, a problem needing correction.
   The boy’s language was wrong in her system.
Boy saw the grammar of his home speech
She be at home = She is usually at home.
She is at home   = She is home right now.
The teacher’s language was wrong in his system.

The teacher
didn’t know the home speech grammar
The boy
didn’t know the school speech grammar
Confusion and miscommunication resulted


I believe that in order to truly change off of the deficit approach to
language, our students must deeply grasp a few patterns. Then after they do,
we can offer them a sketch, outline of the broader grammar (as you suggest,
Mai), and they will understand that the same kind of deep pattern inheres

> - Would including technical terminology ("the tense-mood aspect markers
> gon', finta, done, been, and be, do not assign theta-roles" (DeBose), or
> Green's "remote past perfect resultant state") instill respect for the
> complexity of AAVE, or would it just be incomprehensible?

the latter.
Besides, they don't believe us linguists just because we're linguists. They
believe their gut level assessments, UNTIL the point when we bring them to
EXPERIENCE something else.

> - I'm having trouble finding additional examples of the various verb forms
> (is there an obvious resource that I'm missing?) and, when I do find
> examples, I'm not confident that I can match one author's example to a
> structure in another author's paradigm, especially since different
> varieties of AAVE might be represented.

There are a ton of resources on this. Check out Smitherman 2000,
Wolfram, Adger & Christian ¨Dialects in Schools and Communities" 1999;
Perry, Delpit, "The Real Ebonics Debate" 1998,
Wolfram, Estes Schilling, "American English"

not to mention all the books by Rickford, Baugh, Labov, etc. (my bibliography
is at home).

Check the website for the Center for Applied Linguistics, under their Ebonics
headings, and also the ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics.

By the way, I've developed a course in Dialects in the Schools, which draws
on actual writing of inner city 3rd graders (manifesting a great deal of
AAVE). With a prerequisite of Advanced Grammar (structure of English),
students read Wolfram, Delpit, and a couple of other sources on dialects and
AAVE, and then apply their knowledge of syntax to actually do a syntactic
analysis of kid AAVE patterns, all with an eye to teaching code-switching
within the public schools, so that kids become explicitly aware of the
contrasts between various home speeches and school speech.

By the way, the local school system is moving to adopt this linguistically
informed vantage on language arts K - 12. I will be training the leaders of
the school system in intensive residency programs to embody such a vantage
and technique.


Rebecca Wheeler

> Any feedback on these questions, or the issue in general?
> Thanks in advance. If you get this message more than once, I apologize for
> the inconvenience.
> -Mai
> _________________________________
> Mai Kuha                mkuha at bsuvc.bsu.edu
> Department of English   (765) 285-8410
> Ball State University

Rebecca S. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Christopher Newport University
1 University Place
Newport News, VA 23606-2998

Editor, Syntax in the Schools
The Journal of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar (ATEG),
an Assembly of the NCTE

phone: (757) 594-8891;  fax: (757) 594-8870
email:  rwheeler at cnu.edu


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