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A Time and a Place

Research shows that students achieve more than schools recognize and respect languages other that "s

Research shows that students achieve more when schools recognize and respect languages other than "standard written English." So, why have educators been slow in adopting corresponding practices?

We ain't where we supposed to be." When a teacher walking through the hallway at Newsome Park Elementary School of Newport News (Va.) City Public Schools overheard these words, she pulled the third-grade culprit out of line and told him that "ain't" is not a word.

"But it is," Rachel Swords, the student's teacher, said later. "It's how this child speaks." Her class, a diverse group, discussed the incident and decided that the other teacher meant the student hadn't used a word from formal language. With this in mind, the student might have responded, "Oh, I'm sorry. You want me to speak formally."

Swords and a handful of other educators teach code-switching, a technique grounded in the belief that children need to discover the differences between formal and informal language so they can choose the pattern that fits the situation. For example, addressing a classmate on the playground is different from addressing the school principal. Or, an administrator presenting to a group of teachers uses different speech than when chatting with a friend on the phone.

As simple as this sounds, the implications-such as validating words like "ain't"-take most educators, administrators and the general public to an uncomfortable place. When Swords tried talking to the teacher who had embarrassed her student, the response was, "Oh Rachel, you and your mumbo jumbo." Swords says, "But, I guarantee when the kid answers next time, that will take her back a bit."

Code-switching is just one way educators can practice what linguists have believed about language for at least 40 years. It "comes in many different structures, many different flavors," reflecting time, place, audience and communicative purpose, says Rebecca Wheeler, an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University. Her course in language varieties introduced Swords to language variation. Will this view of language ever become mainstream in the education community?

The Controversy

Because Americans tend to look down on certain language variationssuch as African-American Vernacular English or Appalachian English-the analysis of language variation and its accompanying practices are met with controversy.

"I get hate mail because of things that I've written that are on our Web site," says Carolyn Adger, director of the Center for Applied Linguistics' Language and Society Division. "We have had this belief in our society that standard English is the only English that counts. ... The hard view is that the other dialects should be stamped out. The softer view is that they should be ignored."

Kirk Hazen, director of the West Virginia Dialect Project at West Virginia University, says administrators sometimes veto his one-day student talks. "Some ... have basically told me that they don't want lessons on slang in the classroom," he explains.

"The only case where language is wrong is where [it] is inappropriate to the context," since the audience may miss the message, says Carol D. Lee, an associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, former teacher and founder of two schools. "Most English teachers don't have this knowledge base about language. Most district leaders don't, and certainly, most politicians don't. But linguists are clear on this."

Facing the Facts

Also clear to linguists is that research supports their views. "Right about 100 percent" of students in Wheeler's teacher education classes come in thinking "that anyone who speaks a variety other than standard English is ignorant, lazy [and] lacking in intelligence." After discussing research about dialects in schools and communities-and after identifying grammatical patterns in various languages-students realize that each is a rule-governed system. "As they discover these language patterns, the respect for the speakers goes up," Wheeler says.

Research from numerous studies has found that:

  • Students must be comfortable with themselves as learners before they can be successful academically
  • Minority students often lose their perceptions of personal competence not long after they begin formal schooling
  • Mastering the standard language may be easier if differences between that language and student languages are contrasted, not corrected or ignored
  • When contrastive analysis approaches are used as a way to improve writing skills, student writing contains less non-standard language compared to students taught using traditional methods.

Yet, most educators remember only one thing from well-publicized cases of schools trying something different. What were administrators in Oakland doing back in the mid-'90s when they proposed that educators "take Ebonics into account" when teaching standard English? "Promoting the teaching of Ebonics" is the typical answer.

"A contrastive analysis approach is not about teaching non-standard English," Wheeler says. "It's about using the language patterns that the children bring with them as a springboard in the enterprise of teaching standard English." Walt Wolfram, a professor at North Carolina State University and director of the North Carolina Language and Life Project, says, "We're not trying to sabotage the goals of education. We're trying to be faithful to the objectives to include multicultural education and language."

The Status Quo

When education leaders are setting goals and objectives, language variation issues don't make the cut. More accurately, the issues don't even make it onto the chopping block.

This is the biggest problem, cites Noma LeMoine, director of a Los Angeles Unified School District program addressing the language, literacy and learning needs of non-native speakers of standard English. Programs like hers typically get limited support in districts because of a "lack of knowledge on the part of superintendents and central office administrators about language variation issues in this population and its impact on instruction."

Another challenge is that the textbook industry is "speaking from a vantage which does not bring in contemporary linguistic understanding of language varieties," Wheeler says. "Textbooks for the children [on this topic] don't exist yet. Textbooks for teachers don't exist yet. Instead it's us linguists who are writing papers and bringing them into the education classroom."

A 2000 survey found that teachers generally respect other languages, however. Members of the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (a NCTE subsidiary) were asked about language awareness. Close to 85 percent say they discuss with students the importance of standard and non-standard language and appropriate uses for each. And 95.5 percent say that a college course in language diversity is necessary for anyone preparing to be a teacher today.

"There is respect," says Victor Villanueva, CCCC's former chair. But there's not a "clear indicator that teachers by and large know how to translate that respect into action."

O Pioneers!

A handful of pioneers are bringing the language-variation philosophy to the classroom through programs at the district, school or classroom level, or through short, intensive programs.

District-Wide: Los Angeles Unified School District

When teachers aren't conscious of their students' home languages and subsequently devalue them, they "convey messages that negatively impact their classroom performance and result in lowered aspirations and achievement levels," says LeMoine. Based on this belief, L.A. developed the Academic English Mastery Program 11 years ago to address the needs of students who speak African-American Vernacular English, Mexican-American "Chicano" English, "Hawaiian Pidgin" English and Native American English.

The district selects schools with high percentages of these students for the K-12 program, which infuses information on the origin and historical development of standard and non-standard languages into the curriculum. Students are taught contrastive analysis, and daily instruction includes 30 to 45 minutes of mainstream English language development.

Visuals are used to explain concepts, and students create personal thesauruses of conceptually coded words to help in vocabulary-building.

School-Wide: Fenger Academy High School, Chicago

Symbolism, irony, satire and other literary devices can be a challenge for students, especially historically underachieving students. Lee at Northwestern developed a cultural modeling framework and brought it to Fenger Academy. The curriculum focuses on modeling figurative literary concepts based on African-American English norms.

Lee recognized that a form of ritual insult used in the African-American community frequently generates literary devices. "These students in their community language practices already have a knowledge of how to tackle these literary problems," Lee says. "It's just not conscious."

The senior-year curriculum, for example, starts off with a discussion of rap lyrics from music and films, then moves into books by Toni Morrison and other African-American writers. Students tackle short stories by Amy Tan next, and finally they progress to works by William Faulkner or Dante Alighieri, which are now much more accessible to them.

"We were very excited about Carol's notion that African-American students bring some skills to the table, particularly in the area of figurative language. ... They might not know the terminology, but they use these [literary devices] in their everyday language" says Principal Janice Ollarvia.

Teachers had to get used to the idea of supporting informal classroom conversations during literary debates, where the students engage in multi-party overlapping talk and tend to be loud and dramatic, says Lee. Through discussions of taped classes, the teachers honed their teaching techniques and agreed that the curriculum gave students a sense of competence as problem-solvers.

Classroom Level: Rachel Swords, Newsome Park Elementary School, Newport News, Va.

Swords used to spend a lot of time correcting her students' language as they spoke. But now she realizes that everyone switches back and forth between formal and informal language. She might say to her family, "Y'all, we were fixin' to go to the store," but she would never say that to her students.

So, in November of this school year, Swords asked her students how they felt when she would correct their language. They said they didn't always understand what she was asking for when she would stop to question their speech. They admitted that it made them feel stupid and reluctant to ask questions. Swords vowed to change, and that's when she introduced contrastive analysis techniques.

While she couldn't find any ready-made lesson plans for elementary students, Swords started making charts of written/formal language vs. spoken/ informal language and explaining that neither is "right" or "wrong," as long as the language fits the situation. "I tell them that they're expected to write in formal language," she says, adding that they're encouraged to edit their writing to check for formal structures. "The kids caught on really well with this," and saw writing in a new, positive way.

The students also took this respect for differences to greater heights. A child who was formerly teased because of a stutter is now much more accepted by classmates. And he has "improved so much in reading and writing that it's just amazing," Swords adds.

Swords raves about her new methods "to anybody who will listen." Recently, two other teachers from her district observed the classroom. But to her knowledge, no one has adopted the methods, perhaps due to a lack of administrator support. "I don't know if I would do this if I were not tenured," she admits.

In the future, Swords knows her students will again be exposed to a corrective approach to language-but she is trying to prepare them for this reality. Once the students' state test results are in, she hopes her methods will garner more interest.

"What we're doing now [in our school for underachieving students] isn't working, says Swords. "How much is it going to hurt to try something different?"

INTENSIVE PROGRAM: Ocracoke School, Ocracoke Island, N.C.

If something is "catawampus," it's off-square or tilted-but the only place you're likely to hear this word is on Ocracoke Island. The island's K-12 school, which has just 75 students, has been recognized statewide for excellence. It's one of several sites studied by Wolfram's North Carolina Language and Life Project. An activity where students determine the meaning of 20 words used locally is part of the week-long curriculum Wolfram has brought to Ocracoke for the past several years.

Wolfram collaborated with Hazen and another researcher to develop the curriculum, which covers the Ocracoke and other American dialects-what they are, how they compare and how they're evolving. Principal Larry Thompson says, "The funny thing about it is that our children spoke the brogue and to them it was not any different." Then a tourist would ask, "Will you speak Ocracoke for me?"

Gail Hamilton, who has taught language arts, social studies and health to grades four to eight, was thrilled to work with Wolfram on the project. His work explained the grammatical rules of the dialect, which Hamilton's mother and other island natives speak. "To have somebody validate it was wonderful," she says.

Students are asked to interview local residents of various age groups to study the differences within Ocracoke language. "We actually immerse them in patterns, and they sort of figure out how it works," Wolfram says. The curriculum also deals with language prejudice and fairness.

After learning about language patterns on Ocracoke and in places such as New England, the Midwest, the deep South and inner cities, the students recognize that their own dialect is not incorrect. "Students who feel affirmed in their own dialect are more willing to take the risks and learn standard English than those who think the way they speak is bad English," Wolfram says.

Travel Companions

Partnerships between linguists and schools have tended to be uncommon, but experts agree this is changing. "Now linguists are committing themselves to sharing this crucial information and approach with public education in America," Wheeler says. Besides Swords, Wheeler has been working with a local district, which is preparing a grant proposal on language varieties.

One indication that linguist-educator partnerships are becoming a trend is that the Linguistic Society of America has formed the Language in the School Curriculum committee, which Hazen currently chairs, to create curricular guidelines and form clearinghouses to match schools with linguists.

Adger says districts can benefit from these partnerships by creating "dynamic ... and culturally relevant classrooms where the students ... own their own process on the trek to gaining the skills necessary to succeed in our broader society." However, alliances between researchers and schools aren't "always an easy marriage, because linguists have been in kind of a remote field."

Wolfram's goal is to give every child in his state the opportunity to learn about language variation. "They learn about their state history, they learn about multicultural dimensions of society, but there is very little teaching about variation in language and how that's part of the social-historical fabric and cultural motif."

To Hamilton, Wolfram's curriculum couldn't be more relevant to students. She says, "Self-esteem, self-pride, tolerance and differences-all of these are things we need now."

Melissa Ezarik,, is features editor.