Tim Tomkinson

Studying African-American Vernacular English wasn’t Julie Washington’s plan. But one day in the fall of 1990, her speech-pathology doctorate fresh in hand, she found herself sitting with a little girl at a school outside Detroit. The two were reading the classic P. D. Eastman picture book Are You My Mother?, which tells the tale of a lost hatchling trying to find its way home. The girl—4 years old, homeless, and a heavy speaker of the dialect known as African-American English, or AAE—listened attentively as Washington read:

“Are you my mother?” the baby bird asked the cow.

“How could I be your mother?” said the cow. “I am a cow.”

Washington closed the book and asked the girl to recount the story from memory. The girl hesitated, then launched into it. “She goes, ‘Is you my mama? I ain’t none a yo’ mama!,’ ” Washington recalls. “She did the whole thing in dialect.” Washington found the girl’s retelling deft and charming, and she left the classroom smiling.

Only later, sitting in her office at the University of Michigan, did Washington have the flash of insight that would redirect her career. “As a scientist, I stepped back and thought about what that girl had to do,” Washington told me recently, while waiting to address a gathering of linguists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child. The experience convinced her that dialect was playing a significant and unrecognized role in the reading achievement of millions of children—and very likely contributing to the persistence of the black–white gap in test scores.

In the decades since, Washington, now a professor of communications sciences and disorders at Georgia State, has devoted her career to exploring the challenges that speakers of African-American English face in the classroom. Not all African American students speak the dialect, but most do. Teaching kids to “code-switch” between their home dialect and the dialect spoken at school, Washington has come to believe, is an important step toward creating a more level playing field. She is not, of course, the first person to make this argument. Linguists pioneered the case for code-switching in the 1960s, and over the years at least half a dozen programs have sought to teach speakers of AAE how to speak standard English in the classroom. Most of them, however, have provoked furious backlash and quickly met their end.

The most notorious of these controversies occurred in 1996, when the school board of Oakland, California, approved the use of “Ebonics” as a tool for reading instruction. The board had hoped to raise students’ scores by teaching kids to code-switch. But the prospect of encouraging the dialect in the classroom elicited national, and near-universal, censure. As the White House and editorialists for the country’s top newspapers condemned the plan, several states banned the use of AAE in education, and Oakland’s superintendent was called before the U.S. Senate. The school board’s program was never implemented, and the word Ebonics became a national punch line. New research by scholars like Washington, however, suggests an interesting possibility: Maybe Oakland was onto something.

Washington grew up in an all-black part of Seattle, at the height of the civil-rights movement, surrounded by African-American English and fascinated by language from an early age. As a young girl, she played a game with herself, eavesdropping on her mother’s phone calls and trying to guess who was on the other end. She found that she could always tell just by listening to the different ways her mother spoke after saying “Hello?” Her father was a high-school history teacher and her mother was a gospel singer; like many middle-class parents in the neighborhood, they held AAE in low regard—they considered the dialect a barrier to “mainstream” success—and forbade Washington and her siblings from speaking it in the house. But Washington picked it up from friends. Today she code-switches effortlessly and unremarkably.

At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) As she waited to deliver her own talk, on the language and literacy of African American children, she walked me through one of her career’s guiding questions: Why don’t all kids learn to code-switch as easily as she did?

Like speakers of any nonstandard dialect, from Swiss German to Cypriot Greek, most speakers of African-American English do learn to code-switch naturally, Washington explained. “Some start during kindergarten, then we see a big wave at the end of first grade and another at the end of second. Then you get to third grade and it’s over.” At that point, about a third of them still can’t speak the standard dialect, and “code-switching isn’t going to happen unless you teach it. We know those kids will have trouble.” By the end of fourth grade, “switching” students—that is, students who are proficient in both their home dialect and standard English—score at least a full academic year ahead of their nonswitching classmates in reading.

Why exactly does speaking a nonstandard dialect stymie kids as they’re learning to read? In his seminal 1972 book, Language in the Inner City, the linguist William Labov advanced the reigning theory. A teacher writes a word on the blackboard—something simple, like told or past—sounding it out letter by letter as she does. For a speaker of standard English, the lesson is clear: The four letters represent the four sounds that make up the word. But the rule is more complex for AAE speakers. In the black vernacular, many consonant clusters—such as the -ld in told, and the -st in past—aren’t fully pronounced when they appear at the end of a word. A speaker of African-American English is likely to say told the same as toll (or even toe), and past the same as pass. The profusion of homonyms obscures the fundamental sound-to-letter principle: AAE-speaking kids are presented with an enormous number of words that are all pronounced the same yet spelled in nonsensically different ways. To help kids grasp the dialect of the classroom, Labov wrote, teachers should employ “the methods used in teaching English as a foreign language.”

Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.

The social effects of this type of classroom environment have been acknowledged for decades, but what’s come to concern researchers more recently is the extent to which dialect differences between student and teacher increase the student’s cognitive load. “What does it do to your response times when you have to stop and interpret something before you can move on?,” Washington asks. “Over the course of a school day, those moments have to add up.”

In this way, Washington believes that dialect may very well account for a significant part of the black–white literacy gap. At the start of kindergarten, she notes, research finds a relatively small academic gap between black and white children, and what little gap exists can be entirely explained by controlling for socioeconomic status. Yet by first grade, the gap between them has widened considerably. If recent research on the effects of mismatched dialects is right, Washington reasons, one way to narrow the gap is to help kids learn the dialect of school, while also helping schools accept the dialect students bring with them.

To this end, one group of researchers has developed a code-switching curriculum called ToggleTalk, which has met with modest success; last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest school system, implemented it in a few dozen classrooms. (Teachers in the district have also requested lessons meant for speakers of Chicano English, a Spanish-influenced dialect used by a large minority of students there.) But getting code-switching lessons into schools remains a challenge.

As Washington learned early in her career, even seemingly benign conversations about African-American English can be fraught—and often, it’s speakers of the dialect who most fiercely resist efforts to incorporate it into the classroom. In preparation for one of her first studies of AAE, she sent out consent forms to parents, describing her goal of studying “the role Black English plays in children’s oral language.” Weeks passed, and not a single form came back. Eventually, Washington called a parents’ night and asked why no one had signed the form. Two dozen parents stared at her in silence until, Washington told me, one mother erupted: “How dare you say we talk different than other people! What the hell is ‘black English’? We don’t speak ‘black English’!”

“You do,” Washington said, and to make her point, she code-switched. “I think I said, ‘Look, we ain’t got no business doin’ this,’ ” she recalled. The room burst into laughter. “Okay, we do speak like that,” the mother granted. “But we don’t like you calling it that.” It was a lesson Washington never forgot: The dialect was so stigmatized that even among people who spoke it every day, she needed to tread carefully.

A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”

Washington believes that programs used to strengthen bilingual students’ grasp of English grammar could provide a stealthy way of slipping code-switching lessons into the classroom. “Many of the features covered for students who speak another language are exactly the same ones that cause African-American English speakers trouble,” she said. She has seen firsthand the ways such curricula can benefit kids who speak the dialect. At one elementary school she studied in Michigan, teachers implemented a bilingual curriculum for the majority-black student body and saw a 75 percent increase in the number of students who passed state reading tests.

Despite such results, code-switching remains a tough sell, even in academia. Some linguists I spoke with said they’d come to see code-switching lessons as well intentioned but ultimately marginalizing—a linguistic version of “separate but equal.” Washington told me she understands their concerns, and faults some code-switching programs for focusing too much on the “harms” of not being able to code-switch. But she said she refuses to lose sight of the children, usually poor and black, whose futures are on the line. Until and unless “the places these kids might want to go to learn, work, and live” change fundamentally, she told me, “you’re handicapping them by not teaching them the two codes.”

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