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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


Relations Among Children's Use of Dialect and Literacy Skills: A Meta-Analysis

Research indicates that African-American and Hispanic students are often at lower levels academically than are their same-age Caucasian peers. Collected data fail to support the theory that low SES levels are the only cause of this trend, leading some researchers to suspect that use of non-standard English dialects could be a factor. After all, sufficient practice in oral communication is essential to developing proper literary skills; if words spoken and words read are presented in different arrangements, the theory is that students will develop difficulties in perceptions of spelling, followed by struggles with reading as a whole and thus comprehension of information. A meta-analysis of 19 recent studies conducted on this topic has revealed certain trends, indicating that this may be an influential area for future study!

Overall, dialect negatively correlates with reading, spelling, and writing – as usage of non-standard English increases, performance in these areas decreases. Reading seems to be the biggest area of difficulty, for reading alone and reading, spelling, and writing together yield stronger correlations than when spelling and writing are looked at alone. Nevertheless, there is still a statistically significant negative correlation between these areas, indicating that dialect does affect spelling and writing skills. Further analysis of the data collected thus far reveals that neither grade level nor SES had an impact on the found correlations, revealing the following: heavy usage of dialect correlates with decreased literacy skills throughout the K-6 years, and this relationship is present regardless of economic status. It is important to note that the data collected are not conclusive and do not support the statement that dialect usage causes a decrease in academic achievement. Future research regarding dialect usage and its results on academic achievement is necessary – perhaps dialect usage in itself is not as important as the ability to make mental switches between standard and non-standard English based on context, and different kinds of dialects could impact literacy in different ways!

Gatlin B, Wanzek J. “Relations Among Children's Use of Dialect and Literacy Skills: A Meta-Analysis.” J Speech Lang Hear Res. 2015 Aug;58(4):1306-18. doi: 10.1044/2015_JSLHR-L-14-0311. PubMed PMID: 26090843; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4765162.