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Should Dialect Readers Be Used in Schools to Teach AAE-speaking Students to Read?

April 16, 2010

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First of all, you might be wondering, what are dialect readers anyway? Dialect readers are reading materials written in African American English (AAE).  The goal of using them is to teach students who speak AAE to read in their own dialect, and then transfer that ability to reading Standard American English (SAE).  One program created in 1977 by Simpkins, Holt, and Simpkins, the Bridge program, produced 3 books that had similar stories in both AAE and SAE.  The idea was that learning to read in AAE would act as a “bridge” to learning to read SAE. 

Linguists such as William Labov and Geneva Smitherman supported the program, believing that it was a good tool for improving the reading skills of AAE-speaking students. In 1981, Simpkins and Simpkins tested effectiveness of the Bridge program on students ranging from the 7th to 12th grade.  Students were from all over the U.S., and a total of 540 students were tested over 4 months.  Those who participated scored significantly higher on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in Reading Comprehension than those who were in the control group and did not receive the dialect readers.

Even though students’ scores improved, many parents complained about the dialect readers, and the Bridge program had to be shut down.

According to John and Angela Rickford, in their article “Dialect Readers Revisited,” the issue here was that there was not enough communication between the linguists and teachers implementing the program, and parents.  Parents did not fully understand the purpose of the Bridge program, and were of the belief that their children should use only SAE in school.  John and Angela Rickford explain that if dialect readers are to be used in the future, parents should receive a better explanation about their purpose.  What do you think? Should dialect readers be used in schools to teach AAE-speaking student how to read?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. ships permalink
    April 16, 2010 6:15 pm

    I think it sounds like a great idea and it is sad to see so many parents going against it. The bridge program would provide African American students opportunities to identify differences between AAE and Standard English and help them learn how to work around these differences.

  2. Louisa permalink
    April 19, 2010 4:34 pm

    Even though dialect readers can’t be kept perfectly up to date I still think they serve a purpose. I remember in elementary school we would often read stories that seemed out of date and these were books using SAE. I think this is always a problem in all readers. Even though AAE slang changes more frequently than in other dialects, do you think students are able to understand the meaning even though the word is outdated?

  3. Richard McDorman permalink
    June 11, 2010 11:58 am

    In my opinion, the answer is a strong and resounding “yes.” I believe that optimal learning outcomes can only be reached by explicitly acknowledging the distinctiveness and validity of both AAE and SE.

    A primary goal of our schools should be the encouragement of full bidialectalism, which cannot be achieved unless the pedagogical framework includes a component that addresses AAE literature (both oral and written). To exclude such an important feature of the AAE linguaculture implies that AAE literature either does not exist or that it is of little value–neither of which is the case–and only risks perpetuating old stereotypes and myths about AAE.

  4. Shub A permalink
    November 1, 2010 6:36 pm

    I strongly support the theory behind the use of dialect readers in school. Dialect readers could not only be utilized as a useful means of transition between AAE and SAE, but they can also help dispel any linguistic insecurities speakers of AAE have about their language. By creating a dialect reader, one is legitimating AAE in the same way that SAE is legitimated. A dialect reader is a tribute to the distinct grammatical, syntactical and lexical properties of AAE in the same way that traditional readers are to SAE. Furthermore, dialect readers can be used to encourage a bidialectism that is encouraging to speakers of AAE. Instead of organizing AAE and SAE into prestige and non-prestigious dialect, dialect readers encourage a more egalitarian organization.

    I think it is also important to note that dialect readers are a huge step toward an additive model of education for native speakers of AAE. While speakers of SAE already engage in additive learning (where a student builds upon their home learning), speakers of AAE are often subject to subtractive learning (where a student must tear down the foundations of their previous/home learning, and build a new SAE understanding). It is this difference between additive and subtractive learning for speakers of SAE and AAE that is in part responsible for the academic disparity between speakers of each dialect. Though this difference is not solely a result of linguistic divergences, addressing language is one way of beginning to resolve the problem.

  5. October 29, 2012 9:59 pm

    Insofar as the Bridge Reading Program, while there were no lack of commentary from african Americans, it was noted that the respondents were all from the middle class,,The author of the Bridge Program spoke extensively with Black non-mainstream parents, teachers, and community leaders throughout the country and , without exception, found them highly supportive of the Bridge Project. Once they understood what the reading program consisted of, its philosophy, theory, and goals, they endorsed the program..A good example of this community acceptance was the Roxbury community in Boston.. As a result of the many research projects conducted in the Black non-mainstream community by Harvard and other schools in the area, the community had formed the Community Research Review Committee(CRRC)..After rejecting a research project by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, the CRRC enthusiastically endorsed the author’s request to conduct research and development on the Bridge Reading Program..
    The author did not experience any resistance to the reading program of the use of African American Vernacular English(AAVE), at the community level..The opposition came from outside the Black community. It came from proffessionals whose children were doing well in school and did not attend inner-city schools or public schools in general! It was orchestrated by the media and given validation by Black middle -class professionals..In the end, the negative media coverage and negative statements by goverment and educational officials, combined with the response of the Black middle class, prevented the Bridge Reading Program from being used in schools.(.”The Unfinished Business of The Civil Rights Movement:Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations.”) Available in late December,2012, on

  6. Margarita permalink
    August 27, 2013 2:05 pm

    I agree that the data shows positive results. Does anyone know how or if there is a way to get a hold of any dialect readers?

    • September 19, 2014 1:46 pm

      I’m in the process of obtaining a research grant for an extensive large scale extension of the original Bridge Program.. Read my latest book” The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement: Failure of America’s Public Schools to Properly Educate its African American Student Populations,” (Barnes&, or

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