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IES Grant

Title: Exploring the Contribution of Social, Cognitive, and Linguistic Factors on the Development of Style Shifting by Young African-American English-speaking Students Learning to Read
Center: NCER Year: 2012
Principal Investigator: Craig, Holly Awardee: University of Michigan
Program: Literacy      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (8/1/2012-7/31/2015) Award Amount: $1,172,679.98
Type: Exploration Award Number: R305A120320

Co-Principal Investigators: Ed Rothman, Nell Duke (Michigan State University)

Purpose: On average, African-American students significantly underperform academically in comparison to their non-African American peers, especially in the foundational area of reading achievement. Part of the reason for this underperformance may be that many young African-American students, especially in urban areas, are speakers of African-American English (AAE), a rule-governed variety of English that contributes to the culture of African-American communities. New research has shown that there is an inverse relationship between AAE feature production and reading achievement such that students who produce more frequent AAE features tend to have lower reading scores. On the other hand, African-American students who are able to switch between AAE and Standard American English (SAE) when appropriate—called style shifting—show increased reading performance. This project's activities were motivated by results from an IES-funded Development and Innovation project (R305A100284) which is developing an intervention intended to teach style shifting to young African-American students. The team observed that a substantial proportion of the students in that study were never able to learn to style shift, which potentially places them at an academic disadvantage. Because little is known about the predictors of learning to style shift, the current Goal 1 study will explore the developmental trajectory of AAE feature production, and examine if student features such as metalinguistic awareness, executive function, and demographic characteristics predict the ability to style shift.

Project Activities: One hundred and forty kindergarten and first grade students will be recruited for this study. Each student will be assessed three times per year for two years. During each assessment, students will be asked to describe what is happening in a picture, and to narrate a wordless picture book. Cognitive abilities, reading skills, and oral language will be evaluated once per year, with assessments distributed across the year so no single assessment session is excessively long. Researchers will use the data from these assessments to examine the development of AAE feature production over time and the associations between cognition and AAE feature production.

Products: The products of this project will be evidence of potentially promising factors that predict style shifting and peer reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will be conducted in a large, urban school district in Michigan.

Sample: Participants will include 140 typically-developing African-American students who will be recruited into the study in kindergarten or first grade. Students will be followed into first or second grade, respectively.

Intervention: In this exploratory study, the researchers are examining students' metalinguistic awareness and executive function in order to identify possible targets for intervention. The findings from the proposed study will provide critical information about assisting students with learning to style shift, and will be applied in further work to the development of an intervention designed to teach style shifting to young African-American students.

Research Design and Methods: To assess style shifting, its development and relationship to the emergence of reading skills, participants will engage in two oral language activities three times per year for two years. The first activity is designed to produce low rates of SAE (or high rates of AAE) and asks students to describe a picture (called the Picture Description task). The second activity is designed to produce high rates of SAE (or low rates of AAE) and asks students to narrate a wordless picture book (called the Frog Story task). Based on these oral language samples, a dialect density measure will be calculated for Picture Description and for Frog Story. Researchers will also calculate a new style shifting coefficient (SSC) which will be the difference in slopes between the dialect density measures for the Picture Description and Frog Story tasks.

Additionally, once per year for two years, students will be administered assessments for metalinguistic awareness (phonological awareness and pragmatic awareness) and executive function (cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control).

Control Condition: Due to the nature of the research design, there is no control condition.

Key Measures: style shifting will be assessed three times per year for both years. Other measures of metalinguistic awareness and executive function will be administered once per year, with the assessments distributed across the three testing sessions. Phonological awareness will be assessed using the Sound Awareness subtests of the Woodcock Johnson III (WJ-III). Pragmatic awareness will be assessed using the short narrative subtest of the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation. For executive function, the Dimensional Change Card Sort and the WJ-III Concept Formation subtest will be used to assess cognitive flexibility, and Heads-Toes-Knees-Shoulders (HTKS) and the WJ-III Pair Cancellation subtest will be used to assess inhibitory control. General oral language and cognitive skills will be assessed with the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Fourth Edition, and the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children, Second Edition—Nonverbal scale. Finally, the Woodcock Reading Mastery Tests-Revised will be used to measure reading achievement.

Data Analytic Strategy: The researchers will use hierarchical linear modeling to examine the developmental trajectory of style shifting in both the Picture Description task and the Frog Story task over time. The moderating or mediating roles of metalinguistic awareness and executive function on the association between style shifting and reading achievement will be assessed using structural equation modeling.

Related IES Projects: Developing Contrastive Analysis Techniques for Teaching Academic Classroom English to Young African American English-Speaking Students (R305A100284)



Craig, H.K. (2016). African American English and the Achievement Gap: The Role of Dialectal Code Switching. Routledge.