Children Unfamiliar with Standard English Dialect

Differences between the dialect children speak at home and the dialect taught at school may contribute to difficulties in learning to read. In the United States, some teachers, administrators, and policy makers view dialect differences not as regional variations, but as incorrect English. Some teachers develop low expectations for these students. Under these conditions, children are being placed at risk because of their unfamiliarity with standard English dialect.

As discussed in the previous two chapters, developing children’s awareness of the sounds of words—their phonemic awareness—is a critical step toward helping them learn to read. However, what they need more specifically is an appreciation of the phonemes or sounds of words that are presumed in how the words are spelled. This is especially hard for dialect-speaking children. A teacher pointing out the “d” sound in the words “sold” or “find” can befuddle the African American child who pronounces these words “sol” and “fine.” A child who pronounces the words “deaf” and “death” in the same way is likely to be confused if the teacher uses these words in a lesson on contrasting final consonants. However, these kinds of confusions in phonemic awareness and reading instruction can largely be avoided by making teachers more aware of dialect differences. A teacher who is sufficiently knowledgeable and sensitive about dialect will prepare materials and lessons that are consistent with the phonology, syntax, and vocabulary of the children’s dialect.

Children Living in Communities in Poverty

Poverty undeniably poses numerous threats to children’s educational prospects. Children in low-income families tend to have uneducated parents, lack adequate nutrition, live in poor communities, and attend substandard schools. All of these factors can be detrimental to reading.

However, all else being equal, coming from a low-income family, in and of itself, does not greatly increase a child’s risk for learning to read, provided they are given the instruction and support they need. Therefore, poverty in individual families should not be used exclusively as an identifier for children at risk. It is more effective to identify children who come from families with low income status and attend a school with large numbers of poor students.

Schools with kindergartners who are poorly prepared in language and literacy skills must have programs that are better than or at least equivalent to the programs found in schools with well-prepared kindergartners. In order to provide such reading programs, schools with underprepared students need extra funding. To be effective, the extra funding should be used for methods with previously established success, and should be coupled with smaller student-

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