Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Making Sense of Language Variation in the Classroom

A newly published book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, takes on a topic that has long confounded American schoolteachers: how should standard English be taught while respecting the diverse variants of English spoken by students? The authors, Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson, provide fresh insights into this question, providing practical solutions that teachers can apply in the classroom. We talked to Anne and Christine about what inspired them to write the book.

VT: How did the book come together? Was this something that had been in the works for a while?

Anne: My background was in theoretical linguistics and sociolinguistics. There was so much great information there, but very little of it was getting to classroom teachers in a way that they could understand. They had heard of concepts, and everyone had heard about the Ebonics debate and that kind of thing, but when I started to ask them, "Tell me a little bit about the language varieties that you know," there was very little that teachers could say specifically in many places. And it wasn't out of lack of interest, we found out, but because the materials weren't language-specific.

And so I got into that as a graduate student and never left that as something that we really need to focus on. As you go out and work in the schools for a while, you realize that the sociological aspects are critical. You can't ignore them, so that's how I teamed up with Christine.

Christine: My PhD is in sociology, although I have a master's degree in sociolinguistics. What really interested me was how language and language variation connect to educational opportunities, job opportunities, and people's beliefs about other groups of people throughout our society. So, for example, students who speak a stigmatized dialect or language variety may have difficulty succeeding in school, not because of anything intrinsic to them, but because their language isn't valued. Or maybe standardized tests are written in a way that is more difficult for them, given their language background. As a sociologist, I was really interested in that piece of the puzzle, which I think is crucial for teachers to connect for them how language variation matters in the real world and in a real educational context. This can have real consequences and outcomes for the students that they're teaching.

VT: When you were surveying what was out there when you were writing the book, what did you find in textbook treatment of language variation?

Anne: We found wonderful conceptual pieces about why all different languages and language varieties should be appreciated and valued, but we did a lot of work looking for things that really address materials that teachers had to use, that are mandated by their school districts or the state. We saw a lot of beautiful work looking at kids' perspectives about their own language, some about teacher perspectives, but not much intermeshing with classrooms.

VT: What advice would you give textbook editors about the way that they're teaching English, in terms of grammar and vocabulary?

Anne: Right now the instructional materials that we see assume, for the most part, that speakers are familiar with principles of standardized English, if they are a native English speaker. When you go out and you look at ELL, there's better materials for speakers if they know the native language is Spanish or another language. But for English speakers, there's an assumption that we're all starting with a standardized background.

When I was working on my dissertation, I looked at kids in kindergarten, first and second grade. Their phonics lessons are written in a way that assumes that certain things rhyme for those particular kids. Even for early readers, the phonics materials are trying to draw on children's oral language to help them acquire the written form. And you could not see any kind of allocation for students whose speaking patterns were not the standard.

Christine: Growing up in the South, I grew up with mergers of vowels. Things like pin and pen would sound the same. I remember in fifth grade, where we had grammar instruction, there was one exercise that talked about how in some places, people would use let and leave interchangeably – "let the door open" versus "leave the door open." That was the only example that we got in our grammar instruction.

I remember thinking to myself, there's a whole lot more going on in the way that we talk. And I remember being very confused by the example that was presented because that's not a feature of the variety that I grew up speaking, whereas something like the pin-pen merger would have been. So we really want to see textbooks give specific examples of ways that language variation may differ in patterned ways from the standard. There needs to be a discussion of the fact that language variation is normal, natural, not deficient. It's not a denigrated form of English. It's just language difference, not language deficit. I think that perspective needs to be woven into grammar textbooks right alongside the discussion of why we value and why we need standard English, as well.

VT: From your research, do you find that teachers embrace those messages, or do they resent this?

Christine: We've been working a lot with teachers and what we have found is an overwhelmingly positive spirit in addressing language variation. The teachers are well aware that the language that their students use is not always exactly mirroring the standard language that they're trying to teach in school, and they understand that these language differences are something that they want to know something more about. We have gotten an overwhelmingly enthusiastic, curious response from teachers who say, "You know, I knew there was something going on about language that I really needed more information on." 

Anne: One thing that struck us is that you get older teachers, even people from the South, people who are African Americans, saying, "Why weren't we taught this 20, 30 years ago when we started?" Another thing that shocked us is that principals, too, are calling us, thinking about these issues as part of their leadership in their schools.

Next week, in part two of our interview with Anne and Christine, we'll hear about specific success stories that they have experienced working with teachers and students on issues of linguistic diversity. We'll also be featuring an excerpt from their book later this week.

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