Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Making Sense of Language Variation in the Classroom, Part 2

Last week, we published the first part of our interview with Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson about their new book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. We also presented an excerpt describing a student's approach to learning vocabulary through rap. Now we hear more from Anne and Christine about their experiences working with teachers and students on issues of linguistic diversity.

VT: The book is aimed at giving teachers real strategies they can use in the classroom to incorporate, as you call it, the bidialectal approach to teaching standardized English. You say that if teachers can recognize certain patterns in the students' speech and writing, then it can actually help them learn standardized English. Can you give a specific example of that, where a teacher is recognizing a pattern and that recognition of the pattern helps them understand how to teach something better?

Christine: We've worked with hundreds of educators at this point. One of the groups that we're working with is a group in Baltimore that approached Anne and me and asked for some workshops to be given to the teachers that worked with this organization. The organization is geared toward serving 500 lower-income African American sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who come for a summer enrichment program every summer. Of the teachers that work with this program, half of them are from public schools and half of them are from private schools.

A lot of times the teachers will not really know how to address language variation that they see in these students' writing. So these teachers were really interested in what we had to show them about language variation. One thing that we did over the summer was to take a look at the written essays that were produced by the sixth and seventh graders. We went through with the teachers and pointed out specific features that we saw. In our workshops, we talked about ways that teachers can understand where those language patterns are coming from, and strategies that they can use to show the students what pattern they are operating with from their home language. Then students can see what pattern teachers are looking for them to adhere to in a standard essay.

We also discussed written situations where students are free to use their home language. We gave teachers three main strategies. The first was knowledge about language variation. The second was knowledge of how to transition students to understanding the standard English pattern. And the third was helping them gain knowledge about their own language variation patterns, so they could have greater confidence in understanding when to make the choices to use their home language or standard English.

Anne: With a lot of these features, these are things that teachers are going to be correcting in students' language anyway. So, take an example for the middle grades. Things that come up a lot are the use of the s's. You've got possessive s: "John's book," third-person singular s, "He runs fast," and then plural s. Teachers know certain kids leave those off when they're writing and also when they're speaking. We can help show that these are systematic — we can predict when these s's are going to be absent. We help teachers think about when they're editing and when they're teaching the importance of having these grammatical endings, emphasizing those s's that we expect to be absent, and helping students think about this as their editing pattern. We've actually helped the teachers and the students have greater confidence when addressing these different patterns.

VT: So sometimes it's just a matter of guiding the teachers into what they need to focus most on with students. Other times, it seems like you're recommending a translational approach, where you're explicitly contrasting standardized school English with the patterns of other non-standardized dialects that the students may be speaking.

Anne: I don't know if I think of it as much as translation as knowing the difference. Now, of course those are connected, but we've found with a lot of cases that they'll say, "I'm trying to do the standard," but they won't realize what those features or what those grammatical patterns are. Thinking about it just from my own background, I don't really think of it much as translation. I'm going to use these patterns in different situations, and sometimes they're going to overlap, but I've got to be able to say which is which. That's been my framework.

VT: Is that what the teaching often comes down to — a situational understanding of appropriateness? Is that the most useful frame for the teachers to be using, to talk about which variety is appropriate for which social situation, for instance, which variety is appropriate for job interviews?

Anne: I think that's the frame that the teachers will often come with, even if they can't name a variety. It's important for them to be able to actively say what is the job language and what's not, without it just being a negative kind of model. So, "We don't talk like that here. We don't talk like that in this situation. Here's what you're saying in this instance. Here's what you need to say in the job situation."

Christine: One thing that we are adding to the conversation is the fact that in some situations, the students' home language is going to be the more appropriate one. In Southern schools, the requirement or often the expectation is that they say "Ma'am" and "Sir." That's not typically a feature of so-called standard English, and it might not be a feature of a job, or it might be. What we bring to the table is an understanding for teachers that sometimes standard English is valued and sometimes other language varieties are just as valued, given different situations.

VT: One interesting part of the book is when you talk about strategies that teachers can use with students – drawing on hip-hop, for instance, as a particular register of African American English with a performance style and poetic structure. Could you talk about Damien's rap, as you describe it in the book?

Christine: Damien was one of those students who is so linguistically creative and yet when his tutor was asking him about preparing for the SAT, he felt very intimidated by the test. He took it the first time and did not do very well when he was in 11th grade. After that, the tutors and I focused on unique ways of helping him learn vocabulary, and then also focusing additionally on grammar.

One of the ways where he really let his creativity shine was in the SAT word exercise where the tutor asked him to select different SAT words, and then write in a way that was comfortable for him, and weaving the SAT words into a rap. He produced a phenomenal rap that uses nine very difficult SAT words, all used accurately, in context. And the rap, itself, tells a story about himself.

Since that time, he took the SAT again. His score was much higher. He got into college and he's now at a university in Baltimore doing very well. So, there's not a one-to-one direct correlation, but I think exercises like that can give students the confidence to know that it's not that the words, themselves, have to be intimidating. Sometimes it's the context in which they're learned and making learning fun that can really help them succeed.

VT: Do you have any advice for teachers who read your book and are inspired by your ideas but still might not have much in the way of materials to work from?

Anne: Along with the book, I was working with a team of educators and linguists on a series of textbooks for struggling readers in the fourth-grade to eighth-grade range. It's called Portals to Reading, published by Houghton Mifflin. So there are some materials that are coming out bit by bit, but we do recognize that a lot of this is going to take the creativity and the ingenuity of the teachers themselves.

We have a couple of research grants where we're starting to go out and see how teachers are adapting the material that's in the book and starting to collect resources across grade levels as teachers read the material and adapt to their own knowledge. So if teachers are looking for materials, they should check with us to see what we've already collected.

Christine: We have a list on our website at http://charityhudleymallinson.com/resources/ with resources for educators — different websites that might be interesting, blogs, video clips that can be used in the classroom, and other supplementary materials.

Anne: We're getting more materials up on the Web, and then following up with that in book form. We're working on exercises by grade level and by interest that will give people even more practical examples that they can use. And we run workshops for teachers year-round where they work on integrating this information into their material. It's amazing – teachers have this culture already that they're willing to share. So we're trying to help facilitate that sharing of materials and information in different areas.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

The first part of our interview with Anne and Christine.
How one student used rap to learn SAT vocabulary items.
Sociolinguist Lauren Hall-Lew talks about what inspires her work.