28 May 2020

Research finds exposure to dialect has no effect on literacy development

Research finds exposure to dialect has no effect on literacy development

A photo of Professor Vera Kempe

ABOVE: Professor Vera Kempe

Exposure to dialect has no negative effect on developing general literacy, a new academic study has found. 

Academics at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland set out to test claims that allowing dialect use in schools can confuse children and slow literacy learning. 

The study saw researchers recruit over 400 adult volunteers who learned to read and spell a specially-created language via an online training procedure. 

The team created a set of invented letters and a mini-language of invented words, with the volunteers first learning the words presented over headphones, then attempting to read and spell them. 

Using completely unfamiliar language in this way ensured every learner received the same amount of training. 

Half of the volunteers heard words in a ‘dialect’ version while also learning to read and spell them in the ‘standard’ version, just as a child might hear a dialect such as Scots at home while learning standard English at school. The other half were not exposed to the dialect version. 

It was found that being exposed to dialect made it more difficult to read words which sound different in the dialect, but had no effect on reading new words the volunteers had not seen during training.

When given a lot of training, volunteers exposed to dialect actually read the untrained words slightly more effectively. Dialect exposure had no effect on spelling. 

ABOVE: Dr Glenn Williams

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 

It was carried out by former Abertay University academic, Dr Glenn Williams who is now at the University of Sunderland, and Professor Vera Kempe and Mr Nikolay Panayotov of Abertay University’s School of Applied Sciences. 

"Although so far shown only for adults, this research gives us early indication that dialect exposure on its own is probably not directly responsible for problems with literacy." - Professor Vera Kempe

Professor Kempe, the senior author of the study, said: “We concluded tentatively that while dialect may slightly hinder reading of words that have a dialect variant, it is unlikely to impair overall literacy. 

“Although so far shown only for adults, this research gives us early indication that dialect exposure on its own is probably not directly responsible for problems with literacy.

“Yes, it may be a bit more confusing to read those particular words that sound differently in the dialect, but dialect does not impair the ability to read new words. 

“It may even push learners to actively deciphering words from letters rather than trying to remember what a word sounds like. 

“Now we need to test whether this is also true for children who are just beginning to figure out how reading and spelling work.”

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