Speaking Up for African American English: Equity and Inclusion
in Early Childhood Settings
Margaret Beneke •Gregory A. Cheatham
Published online: 8 April 2014
ÓSpringer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Abstract A large percentage of young children entering
preschool are English speakers who speak a language
variety that often differs from the English dialect expected
by educators within early childhood programs. While
African American English (AAE) is one of the most widely
recognized English dialects in the United States, the use of
AAE in schools and programs has been viewed negatively.
In this article, we assert that to meet the needs of young
children who speak AAE, educators can take an equity and
inclusion perspective to consider practices related to dia-
lect. To this end, we discuss (a) meanings of equity and
inclusion, (b) AAE dialect characteristics and importance,
(c) educator perceptions of AAE, and (d) recommendations
to provide equitable and inclusive early childhood services
to young children who speak AAE. We suggest that early
childhood educators reﬂect on linguistic identity and bia-
ses, investigate linguistic diversity, explicitly teach stan-
dard English, and partner with families to learn about
diversity and dialect. By focusing on both equity and
inclusion, early childhood educators can foster an accept-
ing environment and positive outcomes for all children,
including those who speak AAE.
Keywords African American English Dialect Early
childhood Equity Inclusion
Early childhood programs in the United States are becoming
increasingly diverse. Importantly, a sizable percentage of
young children are English speakers who come to school
speaking a language variety (i.e., what is considered a non-
standard English language dialect), which often differs from
the English dialect expected by educators within early
childhood programs. African American English (AAE),
perhaps the most recognized English dialect in the US, tra-
ditionally has been viewed negatively. While educators want
to do their best for children, and program policies are written
to promote positive child outcomes, addressing the needs of
children who speak AAE requires a different focus than that
of the past. Because privilege is placed on standard English
in schools and nonstandard English speakers may be inap-
propriately referred to special education programs (Rickford
et al. 2004), a more pointed approach to promoting their
competencies is needed. Recognition of and respect for
children’s linguistic diversity, including diverse English
dialects, is supported by both the Division for Early Child-
hood of the Council for Exceptional Children (2010) and the
National Association for the Education of Young Children
(1995). It also aligns with Developmentally Appropriate
Practice (2009) whereby early childhood programs and
practices can welcome and build on all children’s language
and culture to open the doors to learning activities designed
to support language, early literacy, and other developmental
competencies. In turn, these same supports can provide
learning opportunities for all children regardless of dialect
In this article, we assert that to meet the academic needs of
young children who speak AAE, educators can take an
M. Beneke (&)G. A. Cheatham
Department of Special Education, School of Education,
University of Kansas, 1122 West Campus Rd., Lawrence,
KS 66045, USA
G. A. Cheatham
Early Childhood Educ J (2015) 43:127–134
inclusion and equity perspective, which is then translated
into early childhood practice. To this end, we discuss
(a) meanings of equity and inclusion, (b) AAE dialect
characteristics and importance, (c) educator perceptions of
AAE, and (d) recommendations to provide equitable and
inclusive early childhood services to young children who
Equity, Inclusion, and Dialects
There is a currently a critical need to support the success of
young African American children in schools (Sektnan et al.
2010; Shonkoff and Phillips 2000). Two approaches for
this support will be discussed here. First, Ladson-Billings
(2009) describes how educators can build ‘‘bridges’’ from
African American children’s experiences to achieve aca-
demic success through culturally relevant pedagogy. She
contends that teachers should (a) set high expectations for
African American children and provide them with positive
attention to foster academic success; (b) honor African
American children’s cultural expertise and utilize families
as a resource to develop and maintain children’s cultural
competence; and (c) engage children in investigating
challenges in their own communities to develop critical
Second, added to this is Artiles and Kozleski’s (2007)
and Artiles et al.’s (2011) notion of equitable and inclusive
education, which they conceptualize as a movement away
from thinking about inclusive settings only for students
with disabilities. Instead, they suggest that equity and
inclusion provide a learning environment in which all
children are nurtured, feel that they belong, and experience
academic and social success, particularly those who are
marginalized and most vulnerable, typically children from
diverse racial and linguistic backgrounds. In this way, what
is commonly perceived as difference (e.g., language, cul-
ture, ability level, gender, sexual orientation) is recognized
not as deﬁcit but as a natural dimension of human social
and cultural identities.
Artiles and Kozleski (2007) and Artiles et al. (2011)
point out that barriers to equity and inclusion include
ingrained educational practices and social conditions that
are inadvertently designed to respond to child and family
deﬁcits rather than strengths. These ingrained educational
practices can be upended to support not only access to
learning but also greater inclusion for children who are
often marginalized. Inclusive practices also hold promise
for avoiding inappropriate referral and placement of chil-
dren in special education programs. Indeed, a new set of
dispositions and associated practices can improve educa-
tional outcomes for children who are most vulnerable.
In the context of language use and more speciﬁcally
English dialects within early childhood classrooms and
programs, we link Artiles and Kozleski’s (2007) and Ar-
tiles et al.’s (2011) conceptualization of educational equity
and inclusion with Ladson-Billings’ work in order to sug-
gest support for diverse dialects in early childhood. This
involves educators recognizing the importance of diverse
English dialects for children and their families as well as
reﬂecting on teachers’ own culture and dialects. For those
who speak AAE, equity and inclusion means that early
childhood programs demonstrably value children’s lin-
guistic diversity and ensure that all children fully partici-
pate in their program learning communities. A
commitment to equity requires understanding how educa-
tors’ personal and school/program structures impede as
well as support children’s language use, identity develop-
ment, and school success.
Characteristics and Importance of African American
All people speak a dialect, some of which are closer to
standard English dialect than others. Because character-
istics of dialects are both obvious and hidden, educators,
families, and children may recognize some but not all
characteristics of their own and others’ English language
dialects (Cheatham et al. 2009). The primary focus of this
article is on AAE, a term used here with recognition that
not all African American individuals speak this dialect
(Adger et al. 2007). AAE has unique characteristics
including word pronunciation (e.g., aks for ask), phrases,
grammatical constructions as well as semantic and
pragmatic aspects (e.g., norms for being polite, taking
turns, changing conversational topics; Adger et al. 2007).
Other subtle characteristicsofAAEarealsoimportant,
such as the ways in which children tell stories (i.e., oral
narratives) (McCabe and Bliss 2003). For example, rather
than telling explicitly-sequenced stories with clear
beginning, middle, to end, many African-American chil-
dren tell stories that focus on a particular topic with less
explicit reference to time sequencing (Cazden 2001;
Michaels and Cook-Gumperz 1979). These oral narra-
tives reﬂect family and community language socialization
and identity. While different from what is considered
standard English, AAE is as logical and provides as many
ways for children to express meanings as standard Eng-
lish dialect. Moreover, when combined with standard
English dialect use, children who speak diverse dialects
have the opportunity to draw from a large linguistic
repertoire as they express a wide variety of nuanced
meanings with diverse listeners.
128 Early Childhood Educ J (2015) 43:127–134
Language is linked to racial, ethnic, community, family,
and individual identity. For example, AAE is tied to
identities including a history of enslavement, discrimina-
tion, and oppression (Hilliard 2002). However, AAE also
provides means for children and families to demonstrate a
positive cultural identity, a connection to rich oral histories,
and a sense of collective resilience. Moreover, language
use and individuals’ perspectives on dialects are strongly
associated with societal power. Dialects spoken by indi-
viduals from marginalized groups, those from low socio-
economic status, and diverse racial and cultural back-
grounds are typically viewed negatively. In contrast, stan-
dard English and individuals who speak the most like it are
widely held in the highest regard; they are also the indi-
viduals with the greatest power and prestige within US
society. Greater equity and inclusion for children who
speak AAE provide a purpose for educators to understand
dialect characteristics and their importance within early
Educator Perceptions of African American English
Educators’ beliefs and actions about language diversity
have important implications for inclusive learning envi-
ronments, because misperceptions can result in marginal-
izing children who speak AAE and create barriers to
equitable participation in early childhood programs. While
research has shown that no one English language dialect is
superior (Godley et al. 2006), educators may have negative
attitudes toward AAE and individuals who speak it. Edu-
cators’ misunderstandings of AAE can unintentionally
interfere with children’s academic success and sense of
belonging as well as result in making inappropriate judg-
ments about children’s abilities based on the way they talk.
These unfavorable attitudes can create low expectations
and inequitable learning opportunities for young African
American children. Indeed, teachers have expressed that
AAE is inappropriate and impractical for school (Blake and
Cutler 2003), and dismissed African American children’s
story-telling style as incoherent (Gay 2002; Michaels
Misperceptions of children’s dialect can lead teachers to
attempt ‘‘replacing’’ AAE with standard English, or—
alternatively—to avoid acknowledgment of the difference
between AAE and standard English for fear of being cul-
turally insensitive (Harris-Wright 1999). When children are
regularly corrected for speaking AAE, they may self-con-
sciously edit their talk, making it difﬁcult for them to
equitably participate in classroom learning activities
(Delpit 2006). Children pay attention to the messages
adults send. If AAE is not explicitly recognized as a valid
form of communication, children may silence themselves
or feel disempowered (Corson 2001; Fordham 1999). Most
alarmingly, educators’ misperceptions of dialect can lead
to inappropriate referral for special education and a mis-
diagnosis of disability (Rickford et al. 2004). Indeed,
African American students are already disproportionately
represented in special education programs (Skiba et al.
2008; Blanchett 2006). Misdiagnosing children’s language,
cognitive, social, and behavioral skills based on a deﬁcit
view of AAE has the potential to perpetuate poor school
performance ‘‘status quo’’ for African American students
(Reaser and Adger 2008).
Furthermore, differences in communication styles may
lead to poor educator–family relationships (Hughes and
Kwok 2007). Although family–school involvement is
associated with early school success for African American
children (Hill and Craft 2003), schools struggle to recog-
nize the strengths and resources of their families (Harry
et al. 2005). Based only on the way they talk, teachers may
form negative conclusions about adult AAE speakers’
intelligence and motivation (Cross et al. 2001). Educators’
negative attitudes and biases can make it difﬁcult for
African American parents to establish shared understand-
ing, build trust, and partnerships (Wong and Hughes 2006).
These same perceptions of dialect may also result in fam-
ilies who speak AAE feeling excluded or unwelcomed in
their children’s early childhood programs. Biases toward
families that speak AAE may create inequitable opportu-
nities for linguistic minorities to establish teacher–family
partnerships, marginalizing their role in schools, and
making it challenging to be involved in their young child’s
Including African American English and Equity
Shifting practice to be more inclusive and equitable toward
young children who speak AAE means that teachers rec-
ognize their own assumptions about dialect as they nurture
and welcome linguistic diversity. When children feel they
belong, and that their identities matter, they may stand a
better chance to be socially and academically successful in
school (Datnow and Cooper 1997). Though research indi-
cates that no dialect is superior (Godley et al. 2006),
standard English is used in school and is a part of academic
literacy. Yet young children come to school with a wide
repertoire of sociocultural and linguistically diverse com-
municative practices (Dyson 2006). Teachers can help
young children learn the meanings and conventions of
language through repeated exposure to vocabulary and
intonation, communication patterns in different contexts,
and practice over time (Clark 2007). AAE speakers
develop linguistic ﬂexibility (e.g., learning to code switch
Early Childhood Educ J (2015) 43:127–134 129
between the linguistic expectations at home and school;
using both AAE and standard English for emphasis at
school) when they are empowered to make choices about
how they use language in various contexts (Brown 2006;
Dyson and Smitherman 2009). As children who speak AAE
enter preschool, teachers can support their linguistic com-
petencies and command over language choices, while
simultaneously teaching explicit language skills.
Constructing an equitable and inclusive early childhood
classroom is an ongoing process of creating spaces that are
accessible and where success is attainable for all children.
The following recommendations are based on an equity and
inclusion perspective (Artiles and Kozleski 2007; Artiles
et al. 2011) while also drawing from culturally relevant
teaching (Ladson-Billings 2009) for young children who
speak AAE. These recommendations are not to be taken as a
step-by-step guide, but as part of the continuous develop-
ment of teaching and learning. Importantly, at the end of
this section to support recommendations presented here,
Table 1provides a list of young children’s books to foster
discussion about dialects and AAE. Similarly, Table 2
provides several resources for early educators’ further
reading on topics addressed here and means to implement
recommendations within early childhood programs.
Examine Linguistic Identity and Potential Biases
Just as everyone has culture, every individual speaks a
dialect. Teaching with an inclusive attitude toward lin-
guistic diversity requires that teachers examine their own
dialects. Educators can examine the dialect they use in the
classroom as well as how classroom language expectations
are related to beliefs about dialect (Martı
´nez 2003). By
seeking out resources and professional development,
Table 1 Picture books to foster discussion of dialects and AAE with
Battle-Lavert, G. (2004). The barber’s cutting edge. San
Francisco, CA: Children’s Book Press
In this ﬁctional story, Mr. Bigalow the barber demonstrates the
importance of the barbershop in the African-American
community as a place to talk. The book includes examples of
phrases, grammatical construction, semantics and slang used in
Duncan, A. F., & Keeter, S. (2005). Honey Baby Sugar Child.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Through warm and playful dialogue, this picture book puts a
spotlight on the interaction between an African-American
mother and child, and includes pronunciation, grammatical
construction, and rhythmic speech in AAE
Giovanni, N., Medina, T., Perdomo, W., & Scott, M. (2008). Hip
hop speaks to children: A celebration of poetry with a beat (Vol.
1). Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc
This collection of poems and lyrics highlights the use of AAE in
hip-hop and rap music, and includes audio tracks of
performances by poets and artists
Hill, L. C. (2013). When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and
the Creation of Hip Hop. New York, NY: Roaring Brook Press
Through an energetic historical narrative, this book introduces one
of the creators of hip hop, Clive Campbell, and demonstrates
how linguistic identity was positively integrated into an art form
Hooks, B. (2002). Be boy buzz. New York, NY: Hyperion
Pairing short phrases, some grammatical construction of AAE, and
rhythm, this book celebrates the identity of African American
Table 2 Further reading for early childhood educators
Print resources for understanding equity, inclusion, and African
Adger, C. T., Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (2007). Dialects in
schools and communities (2nd edition). New York, NY:
Cheatham, G. A., Armstrong, J., & Santos, R. M. (2009). ‘‘Y’all
listenin?’’: Accessing children’s dialects in preschool. Young
Exceptional Children,12(4), 2–14
Delpit, L. D., & Dowdy, J. K. (Eds.). (2008). Skin that we speak:
Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. New York,
NY: The New Press
Derman-Sparks, L., & Edwards, J. O. (2010). Anti-bias education
for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National
Association for the Education of Young Children
Elster, C. A. (2010). ‘‘Snow on my eyelashes’’: Language
awareness through age-appropriate poetry experiences. Young
Green, L. J. (2002). African American English: A linguistic
introduction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful
teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: John
Wiley & Sons
Harry, B., & Klingner, J. K. (2014). Why are so many minority
students in special education? Understanding race and disability
in schools (2nd edition). New York, NY: Teachers College Press
Sands, D. J., Kozleski, E. B., & French, N. K. (2000). Inclusive
education for the 21st century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/
Online resources for understanding equity, inclusion, and African
Center for Applied Linguistics
Here, background information about African American English is
provided. Links to other resources are listed
Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
Do You Speak American? http://www.pbs.org/speak/
This website presents interesting information about language
varieties spoken within the United States. Videos and activities,
which can be adapted for early childhood programs, are provided
This website discusses importance of equity in children’s books. It
includes a list of inclusive children’s books
130 Early Childhood Educ J (2015) 43:127–134
teachers can learn about the developmental and sociolin-
guistic characteristics of dialect (Smitherman and Vi-
llanueva 2003). This knowledge can help teachers provide
children with appropriate scaffolding and better distinguish
between dialect and disability to avoid inappropriate
referral for special education evaluation. Taking an inclu-
sive approach to dialect means teachers also recognize the
dialects and sociolinguistic identities of their students
(Goldstein and Horton-Ikard 2010). Teachers can acquire
the knowledge, skills, and mindsets for supporting all
students in diverse schools (Howard 1999). When teachers
are able to incorporate knowledge of AAE, learn strategies
to support AAE, and apply strategies in practice, they are
more sensitive to the needs and capabilities of their stu-
dents (Fogel and Ehri 2006). Through self-reﬂection and
inquiry, teachers can develop a more inclusive, equitable
perspective regarding the relationship between dialect,
identity, and cultural diversity (Godley et al. 2006).
Investigate Linguistic Diversity
In addition, classroom curriculum can be examined to
create inclusive, welcoming learning opportunities for
children who speak AAE and for all children. Teachers can
support young African American children’s cultural com-
petence (i.e. sense of cultural expertise, awareness of cul-
tural identity, ability to learn and build upon cultural and
community norms) by setting up learning activities for the
classroom community to explore and afﬁrm language
diversity (Ladson-Billings 2009). Engaging children in
ongoing, curriculum-embedded investigations of language
and language diversity within their communities is a way to
build on family linguistic and cultural strengths, as well as
to enhance multicultural literacy (National Center for
Culturally Responsive Educational Systems 2007).
Teachers can implement literacy activities that connect
spoken language to written language, such as incorporating
AAE through poetry, rhymes, joke telling, chants, and
songs (Delpit and Dowdy 2008). Critically evaluating the
narrative structures and dialects that are valued in the
books and environmental print in the early childhood
classroom can help teachers assess how AAE may be better
represented. Inclusive teachers can incorporate multicul-
tural picture books that equitably represent the language
patterns of children and families in the classroom
Providing accessible entry points for children from lin-
guistically diverse backgrounds through curriculum can
make a value for language diversity obvious to children
and families. Teachers might also explore the topic of
language diversity through inquiry projects that are
meaningful to children and developmentally appropriate,
such as through the Project Approach (Foster 1992; Katz
and Chard 2000). Project topics could include: differences
in the ways people talk (e.g., vocabulary differences like
water fountain vs bubbler, accents, languages), spaces and
places in which different linguistic styles are practiced
(e.g., how language is used at community events, at reli-
gious functions, at the diner, on the playground, etc.), the
functions of communication styles (e.g., ‘‘call-and-
response’’ invites community interaction), and the variety
of ways individuals use language throughout the day (e.g.,
singing in the car, asking a doctor questions, telling a story
at dinner, etc.) (Green 2002). When dialects are purpose-
fully incorporated and included in instruction as a valuable
aspect of diversity, children’s understanding of language
and dialect use can improve (Adger et al. 2002). This
approach provides children who speak AAE opportunities
to share their linguistic knowledge while building their
cultural competence (Delpit 2006; Ladson-Billings 2009),
and raising all children’s sociolinguistic awareness and
appreciation for language diversity (Gay 2002). By criti-
cally examining why linguistic expectations vary across
and between contexts, children can also begin to develop
critical consciousness about language expectations (Lad-
son-Billings 2009) thereby opening them to more equitable
access to learning opportunities.
Explicitly Teach Standard English Dialect
To inclusively support the needs of young children who
speak AAE and to ensure that all children have equitable
opportunities to be academically successful (Kozleski
et al. 2011; Ladson-Billings 2009), teachers can expand
children’s linguistic repertoires by explicitly teaching
standard English in reading and writing. During standard
English instruction, teachers can communicate to children
that standard English is just one dialect of many, with
rules and purposes that will help them to be successful in
school. Researchers have found that explicit instruction of
the features of the standard English dialect increases
African American children’s literacy skills and successful
language use (Ball 1995; Fogel and Ehri 2000). Addi-
tionally, teachers can raise awareness of how and when to
use standard English as young children develop reading
comprehension strategies, including questioning, making
connections, and drawing inferences (Charity et al. 2004;
Nagy 2007). For example, using role-play or puppets can
raise children’s awareness of how standard English might
differ from AAE in reading and writing (Adger et al.
2007; Lockhart 1991). Young children’s ability to produce
personal, ﬁctional, and other narratives are critical for
successful writing in school (McCabe et al. 2008).
Because the story-telling structures of African American
children may differ from standard English story style
(Bliss and McCabe 2008), teachers can tap children’s
Early Childhood Educ J (2015) 43:127–134 131
diverse narrative structures as a an entry point into their
understanding of story, but concurrently teach classic
narrative structure. In ‘‘teaching the standard,’’ educators
should ﬁnd ways that connect texts to children’s lived
experiences and incorporate language patterns that are
consistent with the children’s community (Foster 1992).
For example, when children are writing or telling stories,
teachers might explicitly teach children about a character’s
‘‘voice,’’ to build a child’s own awareness of the phrases,
slang, or language patterns they hear outside of and within
Partner with Families in Learning About Diversity
When teachers engage families in dialogue about dialect,
they can construct a more equitable, inclusive, and
responsive understanding of how children learn language
across home, community, and school contexts. Norms for
communication in schools can create barriers in partnering
with African American families (Lareau and Horvat 1999).
Because family involvement and family–educator part-
nerships can support academic achievement for African
American children (Hill and Craft 2003), teachers can
dialogue about awareness of and value for linguistic
diversity. Families provide a critical perspective on how
dialects are negotiated at home and across contexts outside
of and within school. It also is important to raise families’
critical consciousness about the languages and identities
that are valued at school (Ladson-Billings 2009). Families
might discuss values and goals about the appropriateness of
using AAE at school with educators. Teachers can also
share strategies implemented at school that support both
academic success and cultural competence (National
Center for Culturally Responsive Educational Systems
2007). Additionally, teachers can reach out to families as a
resource in developing equitable and inclusive learning
environments. For example, recording families’ narratives,
spoken in their dialects, and using these stories as ‘‘books
on tape,’’ can invite family voices into the classroom.
Through respectful and honest conversations with families
about AAE, teachers can form partnerships, working with
families to create more inclusive and equitable learning
opportunities for linguistically diverse children. When
teachers provide an inclusive and supportive space for
AAE, families may feel their linguistic identity is accepted,
instead of having to ‘‘check their dialects at the school
door’’ (Cheatham et al. 2009).
To conclude, children’s culture, language, identity, and
educational success are intricately linked. Educator
understandings and perceptions of and responses to young
children’s AAE can impede or promote children’s learning.
To this end, early childhood educators can reﬂect on
linguistic identity and biases, investigate linguistic diver-
sity, explicitly teach standard English, and partner with
families to learn about diversity and dialect. By focusing
on both equity and inclusion, early childhood educators can
foster an accepting environment and positive outcomes for
all children, including those who speak AAE.
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