Familiarity With School English in African American Children and Its Relation to Early Reading Achievement


  • This research was sponsored in part by Program Project Grant HD01994 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to Haskins Laboratories and by Grant R215U990010 from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Research and Improvement to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). We thank Marsha Berger for her cooperation and leadership during her tenure as director of the AFT project. We are also very grateful to Sharon Hughes, Adrienne Dowden, Doris Taylor, Susan O'Donnell, Marie Hotard, Leslie Garibaldi, Joan Dorsey, Lisa Ratstatter, and Benita Nicholson for collecting the data, and to Brook Swainson for assistance with scoring the sentence imitation measure. Valuable input on the research was provided by our colleagues William Labov, Anne Fowler, and Alice Faber. A preliminary report of this study was presented to the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading.

concerning this article should be addressed to Anne H. Charity or Hollis S. Scarborough, Haskins Laboratories, 270 Crown Street, New Haven, CT 06511-6695. Electronic mail may be sent to acharity@babel.ling.upenn.edu or hscarborough@att.net.


For children whose everyday speech differs greatly from the School English (SE) they encounter in academic materials and settings, it was hypothesized that greater familiarity with SE would be associated with more successful early reading acquisition. Sentence imitation and reading skills of 217 urban African American students in kindergarten through second grade (ages 5 to 8 years) were assessed. Children in each grade varied widely in the extent to which their imitations of SE sentences included phonological and grammatical forms that are acceptable in African American Vernacular English but not in SE. Higher familiarity with SE (reproducing SE features more often when imitating) was associated with better reading achievement, and these relationships were independent of memory ability.