Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Slang and the Achievement Gap

Last week, Visual Thesaurus contributor and New York public school teacher Shannon Reed shared some experiences about the richness of student slang that she had encountered. Here is a counterpoint to Shannon's piece, from a new member of the VT sales staff, Elissa Seto. Before joining the VT team Elissa taught science at an urban middle school in the South Bronx. While a fan of slang, Elissa is also concerned about how student reliance on nonstandard speech may be symptomatic of what educators call the achievement gap.

"Yo, Ms. Seto, you're beastin' over homework!"
"What do you mean, Tiffany?"
"You know, you're wiling out on me just for homework."
"So you're saying that you think I'm overreacting because you didn't do your homework?"

Every so often, I learn a new vocabulary word from my students.  These words can't be found in the Visual Thesaurus — it's Bronx slanguage.  If you type in beast in the Visual Thesaurus you'll only find red circles for nouns.  However, my students would draw a green circle onto our Smart Board and insist that there is indeed a definition for beast in the verb form.   The definition would be something along the lines of, "Overreact to something; blow something out of proportion: 'Ms. Seto was beasting over the student's missing homework assignment.'"  The connecting synonym would be wile out, also in the verb form.

Perhaps I was blowing the situation out of proportion in her perspective, but the homework was a pre-laboratory assignment.  In my science lab, students were not allowed to perform an experiment until the pre-lab was finished.  As a 6th grade science teacher in a Bronx middle school, most of my students never had a science lab, let alone have a teacher just for science.  I needed to ingrain good habits in them from the beginning and confrontations like this are common in the beginning of the year.

However, what I found even more alarming than Tiffany's lack of homework was Tiffany's lack of vocabulary.  I almost asked her to use her words, a phrase that parents often say to their young children who are starting to learn how to communicate verbally.  Tiffany is not a young child; she's a 12-year-old girl who can't find a way to express herself to her teacher without using slang.  Some people may brush this off as just a teenage phase of wanting to use cool words, but I believe her overuse of slang is indicative of something greater.  Tiffany is a sixth grader who, like many of her peers, reads and writes on a third-grade level.

I taught science for three years at a unique middle school.  My school was located in a section of the South Bronx that often saw acts of violence and was plagued with poverty.  During that period of time, scary things would happen outside of the school building.  A teacher from my school was mugged on his way to the subway after school.  Teachers' cars were frequently vandalized or even stolen.  The most horrifying thing to happen was when an off-duty police officer was beaten to death at a fast food restaurant just a few blocks up the street from my school.   

The effect of such an environment is clearly based on the achievement gap between minority students and white students that exists in the United States.  For example, in New York City alone, 74% of black eighth graders scored below the average score of white eighth graders on the state English exam.  In general, less than half of the city's students perform on grade level and that number is further reduced in schools with students who receive reduced-price or free lunches. At my school, almost 100% of the students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunches. 

Regardless of the environmental factors and statistics, the faculty and staff strive to make our school a safe haven in the neighborhood and a beacon of academic excellence.  My principal made our school a technology rich environment that has become so strong, teachers and administrators from all over the city would visit and observe classrooms to gain best practices.  I had high expectations for my students.  I taught them with the expectation that I was preparing them for high school and they would go to college.  One of my constant struggles as a teacher was how to bridge the gap between academic and casual language.   In a casual conversation with my students, it's not uncommon to hear me say, "Sorry, my bad."  In fact, it's pretty common for me to say that in conversation with friends.

However, as a teacher, what do I do when my students struggle for non-slang words in both their casual conversation and in their academic writing?

Plenty of people use slang on a regular basis, but there may be serious consequences for some.  Those who are highly literate are not likely to be affected by their slang, because they know when it is appropriate to be used.  However, those who struggle with reading and writing, such as most of my students, may experience some negative effects of slang.  Rather than learning new words that build their vocabulary in a meaningful and academically significant way, my students are often focused on learning new words that can only be understood in the contexts of MySpace and text messages.    My students' writing styles sometimes read like an email to a friend.  It was not uncommon for me to read short answer responses filled with slang.   However, the problem was not just slang, but slang that was mixed with poor grammar and sentence fragments. 

Some may argue that slang is another part of literacy and honestly, I would rather read an essay or email from my student that is full of Bronx localisms than read nothing of theirs at all. Additionally, my students are proud to be from the Bronx.  In some ways, changing the style of their language would be to take away some of their culture and borough pride. 

I don't want my students to stop using slang completely, but what's going to happen to Tiffany when she goes on a job interview in five years or wants to apply to college? 

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Monday December 15th 2008, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
What a grand insight to the problems of educators.
How can a 'standard' (Government basis for rating schools) evaluation testing format be developed when daily language and school room language have such disparity?
Monday December 15th 2008, 9:44 AM
Comment by: steve S. (brooklyn, NY)
I like "beastin'" as a verb, it's poetic. But I agree, without a command of standard English these kids don't stand a chance in the mainstream job market.

However, for a science teacher you seem to make a pretty unscientific causal connection between lunch programs and academic achievement. You may be right, but you don't make the point.

By the way, your tense ambiguity made it impossible for me to know if you still teach, at the same school, at another school, or did so for three yrs.
Monday December 15th 2008, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
My response to the use of slang in anything written was that unless it was conversational in context, standard English should be used. The distinction was never 'your words' vs. 'mine', but standard (what the boss will expect) and non-standard. Then, there were employers aplenty who would back up that stance.

What frightens me, is people getting into positions of influence still using localized slang - not because it isn't beautiful or expressive, because much of it is, but because its meaning is not clear across boundaries. It is limited to age and space.

I hope that Tiffany finds someone who can explain this to her so that she finds success and fulfillment, whether she reaches college or not.
Monday December 15th 2008, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Tom P. (Bowling Green, KY)
Language happens. I am reminded of many examples of a scop's linguistic trickery in telling of deeds and heroes in "feorlen rice". It is a short jump, for me, to the creative and inventive minds of speakers of any age to create variances of common sounds/words within their group to convey a set thoughts as social markers making them unique and exclusive/inclusive. All the grammarians in the world can't stop stopped the evolution of a living language. If they could, our current speech may sound like this:
He cwæ?, so?lice sum (1) man haefde twegen suna.
?a cwæ? se gingra to his fæder;
“Fæder, syle me minne dæl (2) mine æhte ?e me to gebyre?.”
?a dælde (3) he him his æhte.
?a æfter feawa dagum ealle his ?ing gegaderude se gingra sunu.
and ferde wræclice on feorlen rice (4).
and forspilde (5) ?ar his æhta lybbende on his gælsan; (6)
?a he hig hæfde ealle amyrrede ?a weard mycel hunger on ?am rice
andhe weard wædla;...............
Monday December 15th 2008, 9:11 PM
Comment by: Angelique C.
Yes, language happens. But there's a huge difference between the Chaucers, Homers, and Shakespeares of the world and a 6th grader in New York City who is unable to verbally accept responsibility for not completing her homework. One is up late at night scratching out the creation of heroes and anti-heroes, while the other falls asleep in front of a television.

Homer used his brain to create alliterative verse so that he might give thousands of lines of oral poetry to the Anglo-Saxon race; Chaucer used his brain in order to translate Italian and French poetry before moving on to the invention of rhyme royal; and Shakespeare surely used his when divining the hearts and thoughts of men through his immortal characters. The little Tiffany on the couch? How much is she using her mind? Is she able, do you think, to contemplate the "exclusive" implications of her contemporary Bronx dialect in between commercials for Doritos and car insurance?

I think we're mixing apples and oranges here.

As for the article, I think Ms. Seto should continue drawing that hard line in her classroom, separating street language and professional language. She also might want to share examples of contemporary non-fiction texts that are jam packed with meaning. Having the students read aloud and then paraphrase from these would be helpful: they see the language, hear the language, and finally translate the language into their informal speech. Doing this two or three times a week with small excerpts could be very helpful.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 12:00 AM
Comment by: Joseph M.
Today more than ever before we are (middle school teachers) expected to teach English to students who are devoid of English as both a cultural as well as a demographic consequence. My students speak English only once a day; and that is in my class. They are insulated from the American tongue by an enabling infrastructure of such size that it is a challenge to bring the students to the same level of English proficiency as all of those students who have spoken English since birth. Most people outside of the education industry don't realize that language is connected to many things, such as social interaction, movies, CD's, DVD's, video games, sports, travel, history, and science to the extent that the student understands "themselves" as a non-English entity. The "extended" community often places little value on education, due to parental indifference born of poverty and 3rd world influences. Teaching English to these kids, especially in mixed-classes it truly a challenge for any teacher.
Tuesday December 16th 2008, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Alastair B.
Enjoyed the article.

An 'FYI' from the UK..... with regards to beast (v.) and beasting (n.) - its origins are not in the Bronx, or at least if they are, it's quite an etymological coincidence. 'Beast' is a term used in the British armed forces to denote inflicting a particularly strenuous session of physical training on young soldiers, usually as punishment for poor effort / a minor misdemeanour. A beasting, furthermore, is the name for such a session.

Does this usage also occur in the US military?
Wednesday December 17th 2008, 2:56 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Just for clarification, I taught at the same school for three years in the South Bronx and I currently work for Visual Thesaurus. I often speak of my students in the present tense, because I still keep in touch with many of them and they still refer to me as their science teacher. Though I no longer teach at that school, I still consider it “my school.”

As for this comment, "However, for a science teacher you seem to make a pretty unscientific causal connection between lunch programs and academic achievement. You may be right, but you don't make the point."

I'm not claiming that the free/reduced price lunch programs causing low academic achievement, but there is a correlation between the socioeconomic status of a student and his/her academic achievement. Free/reduced price lunch programs are often used as an indicator of a school’s socioeconomic demography. There are many factors that lead to low student achievement, and socioeconomic background is one of them. Unfortunately, those who attend public schools in poor neighborhoods and then pursue higher education tend to be the exception and not the norm.

Friday December 19th 2008, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Susan S. (Cockeysville, MD)
Part of the problem is the students parents speak in the same slang. The students learn from the time they start to talk from the people around them, thus making it almost impossible for them to change. For these people speaking correct english is the same as learning a new language; education starts in the home.
Tuesday December 23rd 2008, 7:01 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Although I have some experience in American public schools, I've taught most of my career outside of the US. I'm currently at a school in Brazil which offers diplomas in two languages: English and Portuguese. With this background, it seems obvious to me that the slang situation should be treated the way we treat utterances in the non-target language. We don't pass a judgment on the use of one or another language, except in terms of whether it is the target language for that class. If it is, it is appropriate; if it isn't the student is admonished to use the target language. I'm charged with teaching English, not Portuguese. I speak Portuguese, I like Portuguese, but I don't accept it in my class room. Similarly, my Brazilian colleagues don't accept English in their classrooms. We are attempting to create expert users of both languages. I think this should be the model followed in the school in the Bronx. The students are already expert users of the local slang;they don't need to be taught it. There is a brilliance and a necessity to being able to use appropriately multiple registers of language, let alone multiple languages. Inability to use multiple registers or multiple languages certainly limits student potential. I should hope schools are not about limiting student potential.
Friday December 26th 2008, 7:33 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
"Part of the problem is the students parents speak in the same slang. The students learn from the time they start to talk from the people around them, thus making it almost impossible for them to change. For these people speaking correct english is the same as learning a new language; education starts in the home."

I have to agree that education starts in the home. It is also dangerous to take this line or reasoning to it's full conclusion - not every student can achieve. That simply is not the case.

There are many examples of high-performing urban schools that work with students who face extreme challenges out side of school, but are able to achieve at levels equal to or higher than their more affluent counterparts. KIPP Infinity earned the highest grade on the Chancellor's progress report this past year. The school is located in the middle of a large housing project in Harlem.

Once we start down the path of 'well, some student's can't achieve because of their background,' we are giving into the biases and prejudices of the past. We are consigning some students to a life of constrained choices and unequal opportunities. The fact is that all students can achieve under the right circumstances.
Wednesday January 7th 2009, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Elisa B. (Addison, TX)
Once a high school English teacher in inner city Dallas, I appreciate the author's comments and encourage her to start a "slang awareness" campaign of sorts. The Brazilian teacher instructs that a teacher should teach in the target language - but what it this among the Bronx citizens, but the language of their home? What we find across America (and Great Britain and any other multi-tiered economic society) is the cumulative influence of years of immigration, socialization and education on various neighborhoods. In the recent film "Akeelah and the Bee," a well-meaning professor demands that his intelligent young student drop her slang when studying with him. It has mixed effects on her self-respect and social identity. I suggest instead that Ms. Seto start a side project with her students, perhaps in conjunction with an English and/or media teacher at the school - a slang computer lexicon unique to the students. Have the kids start listening to themselves, recognize their so-called "non-native" (slang) use of words and have a teacher help them chart "native" (teacher-friendly) alternatives. The students will learn group research and observation techniques, some computing and writing skills, and words to succeed in the greater social workplace.
Wednesday February 11th 2009, 11:33 PM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
once upon a time....sounds like a story doesn't it; I came across a beautiful English TV series called, if my memory serves me well (sounds like something from a rock n roll song)'The English Language'. It mapped the development of English from a small area north of France somewhere, across the channel to England. It meandered around the various towns and valleys changing as things do, as people spoke with eachother. Some nice chappie decided to make a dictionary with words such as colour, harbour and the kings and queens who brought their french roots got excited and added their little changes, much preferring as one does the sound of their majority tongue.
of course as the world turned and people found living where they were problematic, they shifted taking with then the mother/father language. Now can you imagine the consteration when one fine day a father of good American language made the decision that color was the word. Did it become a harbor?
If the young lady decides, as many people do to stay close to home and make a wonderful life for themselves, then maybe this young woman will have little or no problem dealing with the consequence of her language. In England or Australia or some other far away antipodean spot to communicate she would quickly adapt to get her dues. When she "aks (asks or as I might arsks phonetically, as close as I can get my Kiwi accent) a young Maori student in gisborne some question - I aks you the way to the town? they will unuderstand the word. Another Kiwi may not.
I guess my point must be something like this "the message is the massage", and another quote from your country man although it may not be totally accurate, so forgive me..."School is the advertising agency which makes you believe you need the society as it is".
When I was young it was man, babes, chicks and all so groovy now... I speak to my students so that I contact them and then talk to my boss in boss-speak. Thats the way we got from the English Dominion to the American Empire. great!!!
Tuesday January 31st 2012, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Nahiyan A. (Bangladesh)
I love using idioms & phrases in my speech, as it adds color to the language. However, I would not particularly want to call them slangs.
Tuesday October 7th 2014, 10:47 AM
Comment by: ax N. (LA)
i speak a different language than English. i am half Greek and half roman. i also live in the hood.
Friday March 3rd 2017, 7:41 PM
Comment by: Betty B. (FL)
Street talk has been around for years. When America was first settled the people were coming from all over the world. Those who chose to, gratefully accepted and supported education in public schools. I have always held school teachers in high esteem. They are my heroes.
Tuesday August 22nd 2017, 10:10 PM
Comment by: Tre (Seattle, WA)
The question this author poses reminds me of a radio interview with then-King County Executive Ron Sims (who later became United States Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development) reflecting of inter-urban dialects and 'proper English': "I tell students that I know how to talk in the pool room, and I know how to talk in the board room."

We have the concept of being "bi-lingual". Maybe we could develop the concept of being "bi-dialict". Rural, urban, and ethnic dialects give us a sense of place and community. Standardized English and generally accepted national broadcast dialect allow us to communicate with a wider audience and can open doors to education and careers. Yet we still see evidence of two dialects existing in the same space, such as the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. And we step outside of modern standardized American English dialect every time we read Shakespeare or see his plays.

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