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Review of  Dialects in Schools and Communities

Reviewer: Mary B. Shapiro
Book Title: Dialects in Schools and Communities
Book Author: Walt Wolfram Carolyn Templ Adger Donna M Christian
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 10.466

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Wolfram, Walt, Adger, Carolyn Temple, and Christian, Donna.
(1999). Dialects in Schools and Communities. Mahwah,
New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 264 pp. ISBN
0-8058-2862-1 (Hardcover; $49.95), 0-8058-2863-X
(Paperback; $24.95).

Reviewed by Mary Shapiro, Truman State Univ.

This updated and expanded version of Wolfram and Christian's (1989)
collaboration, "Dialects and Education," is (continues to be) a
wonderful resource for teachers or would-be teachers (particularly
teachers of English or language arts, although the importance of
language issues in the teaching of other materials is briefly touched
upon). "No previous background in linguistics or sociolinguistics is
assumed on the part of the reader" (ix) in fact, readers with such
background may well find themselves frustrated at the very basic
definitions, the limited discussion of theoretical issues, the lack of
debate in general. Information about what dialects are, where they come
from, how they are evaluated, etc. is presented as factual and
uncontroversial. The discussion is narrowly focused on social and
regional dialects, ignoring other approaches to interspeaker variation
(e.g., social network theory, as adapted by Leslie Milroy (1980)), more
quantitative research on dialect differences (e.g., Labov (1989), and
other kinds of variation which may interact with dialect (e.g., gender
differences). For educators who may be less interested in theoretical
debates and more interested in specific classroom applications, this
book will surely prove enlightening, either by itself or as a companion
volume to Wolfram's recent collaboration with Natalie Schilling-Estes,
"American English" (1998, Blackwell; an updated version of Wolfram's
classic "Dialects and American English," reviewed by Paul Watters for
the Linguist List, volume 9.1085).

Like its predecessor, this volume moves from a definition and discussion
of dialects in chapters 1 and 2, "Language Variation in the United
States" and "Exploring Dialects," to more applied concerns. These
opening chapters are essentially unchanged from the earlier volume,
incorporating no new research or references in the text. The only new
material in Chapter 1 was the inclusion of LSA's 1997 Oakland Ebonics
Resolution (pp. 21-22; box 1.1) and a reprint of a 1993 Wolfram article
on dialect prejudice for the Alumni Magazine of North Carolina as well
as a response to that article. Chapter 2 contains a somewhat expanded
discussion of African American Vernacular English (the term of choice in
this volume; the old edition referred to "vernacular Black English"),
and a different language sample to reflect this dialect (longer than the
example in the previous volume, and more politically correct). The
language samples (an interview with an eleven-year-old African American
from Baltimore, and an Appalachian ghost story from "an elderly White"
woman from southern West Virginia) are particularly well-presented, with
annotated transcripts, and separate discussions of pronunciation and
grammatical differences. The somewhat lengthy section on "variation in
linguistic systems" in this chapter is entirely redundant with the
appendix; this reader could see no reason for this repetition.

Instead of the old question-and-answer format, this edition has section
headers to guide the reader, and shaded boxes to highlight selected
material a trivial difference, yet one that this reader found helpful.
The "Further Study" sections at the end of each chapter have been
updated and contain a handful of well-chosen sources for each chapter,
including books, journals, and occasionally, films. Not just
bibliographies, these lists are carefully annotated for maximal utility
to the reader. A wealth of further references are available in the new
reference section added to the end of the book. It is unfortunate that
the many resources available on the Internet were not exploited in this
edition (the book contains only one URL). Although websites come and go
rather quickly, many teachers are eager to incorporate the new medium
into their classroom activities (and many students are receptive to this
strategy); a listing of resources for this would be helpful.

As previously mentioned, the "theory" presented here is very basic.
"Dialect" is defined only as "a variety of a language associated with a
regionally or socially defined group of people" (p.1). "Standard
English" ... "is a collection of the socially preferred dialects from
various parts of the United States and other English-speaking countries"
(p. 17). It is acknowledged that different varieties are valued
differently in society, and it is implied in the text that there may be
some rewards for speaking a nonstandard variety in certain situations.
(E.g. (p. 15), "Presumably, this nonstandard form was used to evoke a
sense of toughness and resiliency, characteristic connotations of
vernacular dialect forms.") This discussion, however, is too brief and
sketchy to be of much use. There is no overt mention made in this text
of covert prestige (Trudgill 1972), and the notion of hypercorrection is
not introduced until Chapter 6, where it is discussed only in
relationship to writing. Since this book does not provide alternate
frameworks for studying linguistic variation, it would be nice if there
were a "Further Study" list to steer interested readers to texts which
would provide such information.

The third chapter, "Communicative Interaction," provides the transition
from theory to more applied concerns, moving from a general look at
"Cultures and Dialects" to a discussion of "Cultural Styles in the
Classroom." This chapter is new to this edition, and proves to be a
particularly exciting addition. In addition to the sections mentioned
above, this chapter also covers conversational politeness (following
Brown & Levinson 1987), Grice's (1975) conversational maxims, and Hymes'
(1974) SPEAKING mnemonic to capture details of context. The section on
"Researching Classroom Interaction" is especially specific and
practical. Box 3.3 "Checklist for Language Use in Classrooms" (pp.
95-97) details all the speech acts that one might encounter in a
classroom. Labov's seminal 1969 article on "the Logic of Non-Standard
English" is excerpted in Box 3.2 (pp. 85-87), whereas the previous
edition merely recommended it for further study. It would be a pity,
however, if these excerpts were all these readers encountered of this
article; anyone with a serious interest in these topics should really
read it in full.

Chapters 4 and 5 both give a good deal of consideration to the notion of
"Standard American English." Chapter 4, "Language Difference Does Not
Mean Deficit," looks at persistent myths of language decline or decay,
and updates the earlier discussion of this with new numbers from SAT
scores through the early 1990s. The notions of "difference" and
"deficit" (and the distinction between the two) introduced in the first
chapter are reprised here, but this topic is emphasized much less than
it was in Wolfram and Christian (1989), which devoted an entire chapter
to speech and language disorders. In addition to the College Composition
and Communication Conference's 1974 statement of students' dialect
rights, the 1997 AAAL resolution is also included. Chapter 5, "Oral
Language Instruction," carries this discussion to its logical conclusion
of implications for curriculum development. Despite its title, this
chapter offers very little advice to the teacher grappling with dialect
differences and oral language instruction, focusing more on the level of
educational policy rather than practice. Certain types of classroom
activities are mentioned (e.g., dramatization and role play, repetition
and structural drills), but no real-life examples are given.

Chapters 6 and 7, "Dialects and Written Language" and "Language
Variation and Reading," in contrast, both offer useful tips for
teachers. Chapter 6 argues effectively that all students, regardless of
dialect, have to make a transition between spoken language and written
language, and offers a taxonomy of "areas of vernacular influence in
writing," along with suggestions for dealing with these. Chapter 7
offers sections on "Influences of Dialect Differences on Reading: What
Teachers Need to Know" and "Instructional Methods." It is, perhaps,
greedy to wish that every chapter contained analogous sections; they
are, however, the strongest sections in this text, and it is hoped that
this feature will be expanded in future editions. The Instructional
Methods section gives specific examples from the curriculum developed
for use with the Ocracoke dialect speakers, a project with which Wolfram
has been involved for some time. Although the existence of dialect
readers is mentioned in passing, much more attention could have been
given to this approach and the controversy surrounding this methodology.
It is more confusing than helpful to note that "linguist John Rickford
and educator Angela Rickford contended that it was a mistake to discard
dialect readers" (p.155) without going into any detail about the
findings of their research (Rickford and Rickford 1995).

While the vast majority of the book focuses on what the teacher needs to
know about dialect in order to be effective in the classroom, the final
chapter, "Dialect Awareness for Students," offers strategies for making
students aware of the issues discussed throughout this book. There is a
variety of specific examples of classroom activities some suitable for
use with all populations, others targeted at speakers of particular
dialects, covering dialect issues in general, Southern pronunciations,
African-American Vernacular English, Appalachian English, and the
Ocracoke dialect. The wealth of examples (13 pages) from the Ocracoke
curriculum contained in Chapters 7 and 8 is both a strength and a
weakness of this text: we see at length the different ways a particular
dialect can be exploited; unfortunately, the dialect selected is one
that most of us are unlikely to ever encounter. (The Ocracoke Audio
exercises are not particularly helpful without the tape which presumably
is intended to accompany them.)

The reference materials at the back of the book include an "Appendix: A
Selective Inventory of Vernacular Structures," a reference section, an
author index, and a subject index. The references and author index are
new to this edition, and very helpful. The subject index is not as
comprehensive as one might hope. (For instance, there is no entry for
Ocracoke, even though this dialect is discussed at several different
points throughout the text. "Testing" is included, but there is no entry
for "assessment.") The Appendix has been slightly expanded from the old
edition with certain features renamed ("expletive it/they" is now termed
"existential it/they," "verb subclass shifts" are now labeled
"co-occurrence relations and meaning changes"), and a few points added
(a brief overview of ongoing vowel mergers, mention of the "perfective
be," "fixin' to" as a special helping verb form, and the use of the
historical present.)

It is somewhat disappointing that this new edition does not contain more
facts about current classroom strategies. The discussion is consistently
interesting and relevant, but it is often unsupported. The reader is
left wondering exactly who is doing exactly what with dialects in the
classroom nowadays. One might expect that a book with this title would
include more information about the 1979 Ann Arbor decision and the more
recent Oakland Ebonics controversy (both of which are dealt with in
passing). The sections on testing and assessment would be far more
effective if more data were presented to justify the generalizations
being made. This book, however, does serve as an excellent introduction
to these topics, particularly for would-be educators who may have no
previous background in linguistics and who should not remain ignorant of
these issues.

Brown, Penelope and Steven Levinson. (1987). Politeness:
Some Universals in Language Usage. New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and Conversation. In P. Cole and
J.L. Morgan (Eds.), Speech Acts, 41-58. New York:
Academic Press.
Hymes, Dell. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An
Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press.
Labov, William. (1969). The Logic of Nonstandard English. In
J. Alatis (Ed.), Linguistics and the Teaching of
Standard English to Speakers of Other Languages and
Dialects (Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics
No 22). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Labov, William. (1989). The Exact Description of the Speech
Community: Short a in Philadelphia. In R. Fasold and D.
Schiffrin (Eds.), Language Change and Variation, 1-57.
Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.
Milroy, Leslie. (1980). Language and Social Networks.
Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.
Rickford, John and Angela Rickford. (1995). Dialect Readers
Revisited. Language and Education 7: 107-128.
Trudgill, Peter. (1972). Sex, Covert Prestige, and
Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of
Norwich. Language in Society 1-2:179-196.
Wolfram, Walt and Christian, Donna. (1989). Dialects and
Education: Issues and Answers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall Regents.
Wolfram, Walt and Schilling-Estes. (1998). American English.
Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell.

Mary Shapiro is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Truman State
University in Kirksville, MO. In addition to general linguistics
courses, she teaches a Topics in Sociolinguistics course and a course
called "Language and Learning."