Noma LeMoine speaks into the mic during the Q&A portion of the 2017 Mays Lecture

LeMoine shines light on Standard English Learners at Mays Lecture

Noma LeMoine began the 2017 Benjamin E. Mays Lecture with a distressing statistic: According to recent data, 75-80 percent of African-American students in the United States are demonstrating below levels of proficiency in English/language arts, reading and mathematics.

But LeMoine, whose 35-year career in education includes serving 20 years as director of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Academic English Mastery Program and 10 years as director of the district’s Closing the Achievement Gap Branch, believes educators can reverse this decades-long trend.

She suggests educators consider how they perceive African-American, Native American and other students who have been traditionally subordinated in the U.S., citing Nigerian-American anthropologist John Ogbu’s research on the differences in school performance between minority- and dominant-group students.

“Attitude and perception relative to students of color plays a huge part in determining their success within American educational institutions – much larger than many of us recognize,” said LeMoine, who spoke to faculty, staff and students at the 28th Annual Mays Lecture. “How we perceive students, what we believe about them in terms of their capacity to learn is the largest component of why many of our students of color are not successful in American schools.”

This same consideration can be applied to children who have spent their formative years learning variants of English at home – Hawaiian English, African-American English, Native American English – that don’t quite match up with the Standard English educators teach in their classrooms and expect students to understand.

These students, known as Standard English Learners, begin preschool and kindergarten demonstrating mastery of the language their families modeled. But schools often view them as having a language deficit.

“We can’t say they’re using incorrect language. That’s not true. They’re using it correctly according to the model at home,” LeMoine explains. “We’re constantly testing their ability to speak, read and write in Standard American English but we have no systemic programs to facilitate the acquisition of that language. They have a linguistic competence in place; the problem is the competence they have does not match the competence teachers expect to hear.”

To combat this problem, LeMoine believes teacher preparation programs should incorporate Standard English acquisition teaching strategies into their curriculum. In addition, she encourages educators to find professional development opportunities like the Academic English Mastery Program LeMoine oversaw in Los Angeles, which trained more than 5,000 teachers in 81 schools on how to teach Standard English to students.

“The Academic English Mastery Program was a comprehensive, ongoing professional development program, which is really key,” she said. “You can’t just have a six-month program or a three-month program – this program actually went on for 20 years. We began to see a tremendous change in written language and language arts in those schools where teachers went through the training and incorporated those methodologies in the classroom.”

The annual Mays Lecture, hosted by the Alonzo A. Crim Center for Urban Educational Excellence, encourages the discussion of issues facing urban educational leaders, promotes a philosophy of excellence in the education of those typically least well served by larger society, and honors the memory of Benjamin E. Mays, an educator and social activist who was president of the Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education and supervised the desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools.

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