Date of Award

August 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Communication Sciences and Disorders

First Advisor

John J Heilmann

Committee Members

Joyce M King-McIver, Maura Moyle


African American English, Dialect, Emergent Literacy, Narrative, Speech therapy, Speech-language pathology


Purpose. The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of the complex relationship between spoken language and emergent literacy skills for children who speak African American English (AAE). Therefore, this study examined children’s language proficiency, dialect use, and emergent literacy skills at the beginning of Head Start preschool and throughout the entire academic year.

Methods. This study analyzed scores from a database of 120 preschool children who spoke AAE. Data included narrative retells of the wordless picture book Frog Where Are You? that were transcribed utilizing Systematic Analysis of Language Transcript (SALT) Software. Narrative retells were then coded for dialect density (DDM), Narrative Scoring Scheme (NSS) and an adapted Subordination Index (SI) score that accounted for AAE morphosyntactic features. Additional measures included the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and two subtests of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening for Preschool (PALS-PreK) (i.e. print awareness and alphabet knowledge). Taken together, these measures were analyzed for potential relationships using correlation analyses, repeated measures analysis of variance (ANOVA), and multiple regression analyses.

Results. Analysis revealed significant negative correlations between DDM, print awareness, PPVT, and NSS at the beginning of Head Start. However, a multiple regression analysis indicated that there was no unique relationship between DDM and print awareness scores. Upon examining growth across the academic year, children demonstrated significant gains in their NSS and emergent literacy scores when comparing fall and spring performance; however, changes in dialect were not related to changes in NSS scores and emergent literacy gains were again shown to not be exclusively related to dialect. Overall, NSS scores most predicted measures of emergent literacy across analyses, indicating that any relationship between dialect use and emergent literacy skills was fully explained by the children’s oral language skills alone.

Conclusions. Because dialect use did not uniquely predict language or emergent literacy skills, we concluded that, at this early stage in literacy development, dialect use is more of an independent factor. This adds to the work of Terry and Connor (2012), who found dialect use to be independent of word reading, receptive vocabulary abilities, and phonological awareness skills. These findings will help clinicians working with diverse speakers better understand the relationship between dialect use, language skills, and emergent literacy abilities, as well as better support children’s literacy development at this crucial early stage. Due to small sample sizes and the inclusion of only two dimensions of emergent literacy skills, caution should be used when generalizing and interpreting the findings.