Early Childhood Initiative Speaker Series featuring Makeba Wilbourn

Talking “Black” Doesn’t Mean I don’t Want to Learn!

February 28, 2017
3:00 PM-4:30 PM

Dialect variation, not motivation, influences low-income African-American children’s achievement.

Over 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, educational success remains elusive for low-income African-American children in the United States. With poor academic outcomes,  these children continue to be at increased risk for lower earning potentials, higher rates of incarceration, and diminished lifelong health. Unfortunately, despite insufficient empirical evidence, decreased achievement motivation due to a fear of “acting white” continues to be a focus of inquiry. Through this lens, the fact that many low-income, African-American children enter U.S. schools speaking African-American English (AAE) continues to be marginalized and/or viewed as a deliberate choice.  As a result, “talking Black” is often considered a conscious resistance to “selling out,” relegated to “slang” as opposed to a systematic rule-governed, dialect variation of English. When children’s AAE use is studied, it is most often viewed through a deficit or language-disordered lens. Regardless of perspective, low-income African-American children are not being provided with the resources and support they need for educational success.

Makeba Wilbourn’s research tackles this taboo topic by exploring the influence of AAE (i.e., dialect variation) and vocabulary development on low-income African-American children’s achievement motivation and outcomes. Instead of solely focusing on racial identity and academic motivation in African-American adolescents, Wilbourn’s research dispels the myth of “acting white” by examining dialect variation, intrinsic motivation, and achievement in school-aged African-American children. In a two-year period, data were collected from over 200 African-American students enrolled in a high-poverty elementary school (K-5). Wilbourn will discuss her findings and the importance of providing elementary-school educators with culturally-sensitive assessment tools that disentangle dialect variation from language-disorder risk in African-American populations. In addition, Wilbourn will offer insights into how shifting educators’ perspectives of AAE from “deficit” to “difference,” explicit vocabulary instruction, and/or early AAE interventions would enhance at-risk African-American students’ educational success.

Wilbourn is assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. She recently received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. This is the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their research. Wilbourn studies how children learn language and how different modes of input, such as gestures, may influence early language and cognitive development. In addition, she is interested in how different cultural backgrounds and linguistic experiences influence children’s language learning.