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Dameon's Rap: A Creative Approach to Vocabulary Learning

Earlier this week, we interviewed Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson about their new book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. One intriguing section of the book discusses how students from culturally diverse backgrounds can be assisted in developing academic vocabulary. Here we present an excerpt describing how one creative student approached learning SAT vocabulary via rap.



When it comes to preparing students to succeed on high-stakes tests including the SAT, educators may adopt specific pedagogical strategies for increasing students' academic vocabularies. Having students make flashcards is not the only way for educators to increase students' academic vocabularies. Such exercises may be beneficial in some ways but may become monotonous or boring to students over time, and these techniques may have little value or relevance to students' lives outside of test preparation. Instead, students may be challenged to learn academic vocabulary items, including so-called SAT words, through more creative methods. At one tutoring center in Baltimore, Maryland, an African American male high school student named Dameon (a pseudonym) who was preparing for the SAT chose the following nine words from a list of SAT vocabulary items: flippant, fiasco, fictitious, fledgling, fidelity, festive, frigid, frenzied, and furtive. The tutor asked Dameon to look up each word in a dictionary and write a short definition for each. Then the tutor asked Dameon to practice the definitions either by making flashcards or by writing a poem or rap, in any writing style that felt comfortable to him, that incorporated each vocabulary word in a way that made sense and revealed the meaning of the word in context. Dameon wrote the following rap.

Dese dudes out dere trippin, thinking I'm flippant,
But I'm dead serious, and dey mad fictitious.
Da boy got integrity and outstanding fidelity,
Not a single felony, da feds can't mess wit me.
Most rappers timid, my flow is so frigid,
Datz intensively cold for you dudes dat's illiterate.
U gotta commend me, cuz I leave the crowd frenzied
While dese furtive rappers still tryna befriend me.
Don't think I'm getting beat and not get avenging,
Dese boys take a loss cuz dey all so fledgling.
Da boy flow is heavy, can't weigh it in mass though,
Dese dudes give up quick and dey suffer a fiasco.
I wasn't too festive when I settled for less
Now that I'm on top I can settle as best.

As can be seen, Dameon produced a rap that is personally relevant, is coherent in its content, and accurately employs each of the nine vocabulary items. Context clues in the rap reveal that Dameon has a clear understanding of each word, and in one line he even included a definition for the listener ("...my flow is so frigid/Datz intensively cold for you dudes dat's illiterate"). The rap contains numerous features of African American English, such as the absence of helping or linking forms of be ("Most rappers timid" for "Most rappers are timid") and the absence of possessive -s ("Da boy flow" for "Da boy's flow"). Dameon also represents some nonstandardized pronunciations with nonstandardized spellings (e.g., the use of d for the th sound, as in "Dese boys" for "These boys"), which lend a specific linguistic style to the rap.

From beginning to end, the assignment took Dameon only 45 minutes, and composing the rap itself took him less than half an hour. On most written assignments, Dameon tends to work much more slowly, but on this task, Dameon may have felt the freedom to compose his rap more quickly because he did not have to simultaneously focus on creative expression and on adhering to the spelling and grammar conventions of standardized English. Dameon enthusiastically agreed to have his rap published in this book, stating that he wanted other students to benefit from this technique for learning difficult vocabulary items. Weeks later, Dameon showed a continued facility with these words, employing them in other situations without having been prompted.

At the tutoring center, students are also engaged in writing poetry and fiction in ways that encourage them to develop their academic vocabulary while also writing in ways that feel comfortable to them. Similar techniques as well as follow-up exercises may be used: After students have written raps, poems, or fiction in a writing style that feels comfortable to them, educators may ask students to rewrite those texts in ways that adhere to the conventions of standardized English. These types of exercises help students develop their linguistic versatility. They may also help students improve their performance on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Hill (2009) found that when hip-hop was incorporated into a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, high school literature classroom, student attendance and test performance rose. Other scholars (e.g., Alim, Ibrahim, & Pennycook, 2008; Ball & Lardner, 2005) have described the global impact of hip-hop culture in pedagogy as well.

Used with permission from the publisher. From Charity Hudley & Mallinson, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, New York: Teachers College Press, © 2011 by Teachers College, Columbia University.  All rights reserved. To order copies visit www.tcpress.com or call (800) 575-6566.


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Friday January 21st 2011, 3:43 PM
Comment by: Carolyn .
The article has merit and shows that kids can learn a variety of ways.
I do take exception to the author's statement that "The rap contains numerous features of African American English". There is no such thing as African American English! I am considered African American, and I do not use what the author has labeled "African American English". I have been in numerous parts of the US and I have heard a variety of people use broken or non standard English. It has not been labeled Italian American English, Polish American English, Spanish American English, Asian American English or Native American English. The author should have called it RAP or Hip-Hop jargon. Calling it African American English labels a group of people and stereotypes ALL of us. Many people speak this way that are not African Americans, and, many races have young people who express themselves using RAP and Hip-Hop jargon:
"such as the absence of helping or linking forms of be ("Most rappers timid" for "Most rappers are timid") and the absence of possessive -s ("Da boy flow" for "Da boy's flow"). Dameon also represents some nonstandardized pronunciations with nonstandardized spellings (e.g., the use of d for the th sound, as in "Dese boys" for "These boys"), which lend a specific linguistic style to the rap."
I work in corporate America where there are few African Americans, and the majority of my colleagues and upper management consistently use some form of non standard English when they write or speak. Ironically, they come to me to proof and edit their work!

I read the interview with the authors of the book. The fact that one of the authors is African American is even more disturbing.
Friday January 21st 2011, 8:48 PM
Comment by: Daniel B.
A great post. I've recently read the authors' book and it is amazing, a truly mind-blowing book that is both well-informed and nuanced. It's a crucial resource for all educators who wish to help students who have been too often neglected. Also interesting was Dr. Charity-Hudley's interview on the "With Good Reason" program on Virginia Public Radio, along with Stanford Professor John Rickford. For those interested in the podcast, it's at: http://withgoodreasonradio.org/2011/01/hearing-past-the-accent/ .
Saturday January 22nd 2011, 1:06 AM
Comment by: Renee P. (Richmond, VA)
As a teacher, it is encouraging that researchers are finally providing information and practical instructional strategies to help all of the students in our classrooms reach success. I too have read the authors' book, and it provides greater context for the discussion of African American English.

My hope for the future is that students will grow up with educators who are more sensitive to the unique features of language. These issues must be talked about more in education schools. Increased teacher awareness will allow for a more inclusive and effective classroom experience that will increase students' success rates (including mastering standard English). We need to erase the idea that the use of African American English features corresponds with lack of intelligence, or just rap/hip hop for that matter. The earlier poster commented, "Calling it African American English labels a group of people and stereotypes ALL of us." However, I think the point the authors make is that African American English is complex and different, not substandard--just different from standard.

The idea that those who use African American English are substandard thinkers is a stereotype that some people have bought into, including some African Americans. When teachers walk into their classrooms with incorrect assumptions based on language, they sell those stereotypes to their students lesson after lesson, year after year. If educators don't learn to understand language differences, we just perpetuate such stereotypes and nothing will change.
Saturday January 22nd 2011, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Daniel B.
As an African-American student who uses Standard English on a daily basis, I understand some people's frustration with the label which this language variety has been given. And I agree that calling this type of language "African-American English" when it seems to be little more than an ungrammatical manifestation of proper English, and thus associating a group of people with lax educational prowess, could perpetuate stereotypes. However, in defense of the language, I have to stress that this is a recognized language variety that is governed by grammatical rules (i.e. habitual be, absence of the possessive s) and it exhibits patterned changes that make it unique from standard English. Many children grow up and acquire this language variety as a first language variety, so when they speak, it is not them speaking ungrammatical English, but grammatical African-American English. The problem, and this is why stereotypes will be drawn, is that in our society this is not a valued language variety. It is essentially not used in government, not usually valued in schools, not often spoken by those in the media, and so it is devalued and its legitimacy is questioned.

To address the label, calling it African-American English doesn't mean that all and only African-Americans speak it any more than one could claim that French or Spanish or Greek is only and entirely spoken by people of French, Spanish, or Greek descent. It just happens to be the case that this variety is spoken predominantly by African-Americans. Even though this language variety is used a lot in rap and hip-hop music, it does not originate from rap and hip-hop music and it is not exclusive to those domains. Indeed consider, how could this 'jargon' ever have been introduced if someone was not already speaking it? That's right- people were speaking it first, and many people speak it without the influence of rap or hip-hop music. Perhaps there does need to be some other label for it -some refer to it as ebonics- but changing the name will not change the fact that it exists.

Readers might also be interested in looking up some information on Chicano-English, just to see another type of variety that has been labeled in a similar way, and I agree with continuing to question the labels that people assign to things. It is an important thing to do and that is how we create change.
Sunday May 29th 2011, 1:27 PM
Comment by: Weo P.
A good way of educating hip hop lovers while they go with their lives, I think it seems like a healthy way of learning new words, which is exemplified in the rap verse example they put out.

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