Dr. Carole Cobb is an accomplished curriculum designer, program developer, and coalition builder with over thirty combined years of successful teaching and administrative experiences as a public school educator, university professor, and education consultant. She is the Executive Director of Sankofa Education Alliance, a non-profit training and consulting company, whose mission is “creating healthy learning and living environments for children to excel, families to thrive, and communities to flourish”. Recently, Dr. Cobb served for four years in the Los Angeles Unified School District as its K-12 District Coordinator concentrating her efforts on eliminating educational disparities for Standard English Learners (SELs) and providing professional learning opportunities for administrators, teachers, support staff, and parents in cultural responsive educational practices to ensure equitable access to quality education for these historically underserved students.

Standard English Learners Defined

Standard English Learners (SELs) represent a population of students whose ancestral or home languages reflect unique cultural and linguistic histories other than English, and differ in structure and form from the language of school [i.e. mainstream standard American or academic English]. Their languages incorporate English vocabulary while embodying phonology, grammar, and sentence structure rules transitioned from various indigenous languages including African languages, Native American languages, Hawaiian languages, and Latin American Spanish. These languages relexify English vocabulary into their respective ancestral linguistic structure; however, because their primary language is now English, they are classified as English Only. Subsequently, these “language and linguistically-different” students do not receive the instructional support they need to become proficient in school language or mainstream Standard American English. Historically marginalized, Standard English Learners have been academically underserved in both K-12 and post-secondary educational settings.

How To Identify Standard English Learners

A large percentage of students in inner-city urban school districts are SELs and perform in the low and far below basic range on standardized achievement tests. They come from home environments where the absence of standard or academic English spoken by their parents or primary care-givers has had a significant impact on their level of Standard English language proficiency. Thus, their challenge in speaking, reading, and writing, or comprehending Standard English language structure may deny these individuals the ability to meet state proficiency levels of achievement on annual primary language proficiency assessments. Some research studies suggest that as high as 90 percent of African-American students who attend urban public schools arrive speaking African American Language (AAL) or “Black English” as their home language (Dillard, 1972; Smitherman, 1977). While a large percentage of other students in urban school districts also arrive speaking their home languages: Mexican-American Language (MxAL) or “Chicano English”, Hawaiian-American Language (HAL) or “Pidgin English”, and Native-American Language (NAL) or “Red English”.

According to linguistic scholars, like all natural speech varieties, SELs speak a systematic rule-governed language that differs in significant ways from mainstream Standard American English (Dillard, 1972; Smitherman, 1977; Labov, 1970; Williams, 1991; E. Smith, 1992). This cohort of students brings to school rich and diverse experiences – funds of knowledge – and home language and literacy patterns that, when embraced, can serve as a bridge to the acquisition of school language and literacy. Their language profile is characterized by several speech patterns that differ from standard and academic English: phonologically – in how sounds are formed and used to construct words; morpho-syntactically – in how words and sentences are formed to carry meaning; and pragmatically – in how language is used in social contexts (Dillard, 1972; Smitherman, 1977; Baugh, 1983; Labov, 1983; Williams, 1991). As a result, SELs are distinguished by their language difference and often by below grade level performance in reading, English language arts, and other content areas. Therefore, though they have rich ancestral languages, they also need to acquire knowledge of the rules of standard and academic English in its oral and written forms in order to access core instructional curricula and be successful in American schools.

Addressing Specific Instructional Needs of SELs

Major research has focused on why current reforms are not working to assist culturally and linguistically diverse students, and has identified the role of language as a common factor in their low academic achievement. In order to fully access the core curriculum and take advantage of post-secondary educational opportunities in the dominant U.S. culture, Standard English Learners need to be proficient in standard academic English and literate in the forms of mainstream English that appear in newspapers, magazines, textbooks, voting materials, consumer contracts, etc. However, limited proficiency in standard and academic English is only part of the problem. The research also suggests that negative attitudes of educators toward the language of SELs is often an antecedent to their academic failure and may be the principal barrier to their academic achievement. Fairchild and Evans (1990) asserted that teachers with low expectations of students tend to engage in conscious and unconscious behaviors that produce failure in them. William Labov (1972) wrote, “There is no reason to believe that any nonstandard [language] is itself an obstacle to learning. The chief problem is ignorance of language on the part of all concerned,” (p.15).

In other words, language difference does not denote language deficit; therefore, teaching methodologies must accommodate the cultural, language, and linguistic needs of all children. When provided opportunities to learn, that are pedagogically responsive to their linguistic and cultural needs and that incorporate rigor and high order thinking, Standard English Learners achieve at high levels as do all students. Teachers can enhance their classroom instruction by giving them opportunities to validate, appreciate, and build upon their own rich cultural, language, and linguistic heritage. Culturally responsive instructional practices teachers can use to effectively facilitate literacy and learning in SELs include: use of second language acquisition methods to support acquisition of school language and literacy; infusion of the history and culture of SELs into the curriculum; and intentional integration of cognitive and cultural learning style preferences into instructional design. Six researched-based anchor strategies that help all students access core content, and that are key in accelerating learning for Standard English Learners are:

1. Making Cultural Connections – connecting instruction to students’ lives to increase motivation, engagement, and learning by activating prior knowledge; infusing history/culture of students; understand and utilize students’ frames of reference; utilizing culturally relevant literature, and creating authentic learning experiences

2. Contrastive Analysis – the systematic study of a pair of languages with a view to identifying their structural differences and similarities. Contrastive Analysis promotes the acquisition of academic language and helps students become proficient readers, writers, and speakers of Standard American and academic English.

3. Cooperative and Communal Learning Environments – supportive learning environments that motivate students to engage more with learning and that promote language acquisition through meaningful interactions and positive learning experiences to achieve an instructional goal.

4. Instructional Conversations (ICs) – discussion-based lessons carried out with the assistance of more competent others who help students arrive at a deeper understanding of academic content. ICs provide opportunities for students to use language in interactions that promote analysis, reflection, and critical thinking.

5. Academic Language Development (ALD) – the teaching of specialized language, vocabulary, grammar, structures, patterns, and features that occur with high frequency in academic texts and discourse. ALD builds on the conceptual knowledge and vocabulary students bring from their home and community environments.

6. Advanced Graphic Organizers – visual tools and representations of information that show the structure of concepts and the relationships between ideas to support critical thinking processes.

The health of a community can best be measured by its success in developing all of its children. Therefore, educators and stakeholders must work individually and collectively to eliminate achievement disparities and make a strong showing in today’s highly competitive global, technologically driven society. For more information on best practices for serving Standard English Learners and other culturally and linguistically diverse students, contact Dr. Cobb at 323.786.1120 or email her at sankofaeducationalliance@gmail.com or carole.cobb@lausd.net. Visit her website at www.sankofaed.org for related topics and upcoming events.


Baugh, J. (1983). Black Street Speech: Its history, structure, and survival. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Dillard, J. L. (1972). Black English: Its history and usage in the United States. New York: Random House.

Fairchild, H. & S. Evans. (1990). African American Dialects and Schooling: A Review. In A. Padilla (Ed.). Bilingual Education: Issues and Strategies (pp. 75-86). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Labov, W. (1970). The Study of Nonstandard English. Champaign, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Labov, W. (1972), June). “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence”. The Atlantic Monthly, 229, 14-17.

Labov, W. (1983). “Recognizing Black English in the Classroom”. In J.W. Chambers (Ed.), Black English Educational Equity and the Law (pp. 29-55). Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma.

Smith, E. (1992). “African American Language Behavior: A world of difference”. In P.H. Dreyer (Ed.), Reading the world: Multimedia and multicultural learning in today’s classrooms. Proceedings of the Claremont Reading Conference (pp. 38-52)). Claremont, CA Graduate School.

Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin’ and testifyin’: The Language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Williams, S. (1992). “Classroom use of African American Language: Education tool or social weapon?” In C. Sleeter (Ed.), Empowering through multicultural education (pp. 199-215). New York: State University of New York

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2 Responses to “Who Are Standard English Learners? by Carole A. Cobb”

  1. adrienne santola on 8/23/12 6:58 AM US/Eastern

    I have found these suggestions to be very helpful.

  2. Andrea Clifford on 8/27/12 7:46 AM US/Eastern

    I enjoyed your very informative article, and I learned a lot about many of my students’language. Do you have any examples of the anchor strategies I could use in my classroom?
    Thank you,
    Andrea Clifford
    Inclusive Secondary English Teacher
    (Residential Treatment Center)

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