Nonmainstream American English (NMAE) refers to a variety of dialects including African American English, Appalachian English, Caribbean English Creoles, Chicano/Latino English, Hawaiian Creole English, and Southern American English (Wolfram & Schilling, 2016). NMAE is spoken by children and adults in various regions of the U.S. across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. However, dialect density, the rate of dialect produced in spoken language, is highest among Black children, the majority of whom are African American (AA), and/or from low income homes (e.g., Washington & Craig, 1998). Largely fueled by achievement gaps in reading between AA students and students from lower SES backgrounds and their White, higher income peers (McFarland et al., 2019), recent research has addressed differences in relation to language and reading outcomes among children. This research demonstrates that in general, children who use a high frequency of NMAE dialect tend to have lower literacy scores than their peers who use no or very little NMAE dialect (see Gatlin & Wanzek, 2015 for a review).
If we consider how economic disadvantage and NMAE each influence growth of literacy, SES is closely related to vocabulary, background knowledge, and overall language comprehension (e.g., Pace et al., 2017), whereas NMAE is more closely tied to structural aspects of language (phonology, morphology, and syntax). Thus, the combined impact of SES and NMAE will contribute to children’s development of reading as oral language skills form foundations upon which literacy skills develop. In this article, we describe and discuss the challenges of language and reading faced by nonmainstream dialect speakers of English. Referring to a growing research base that illuminates the associations between dialect use, oral language development, and poverty, we summarize major theoretical frameworks for understanding the influence of dialect on learning to read, especially with regard to phonological differences in this population. Citing concrete examples of how dialect may interfere with academic language learning, we offer helpful guidance on how to support and instruct dialect speakers in the classroom. The article also includes citations of several innovative curricula developed for language-minority children and emphasizes the importance of teachers understanding language processes and language differences so that they can address these differences constructively.