Aug. 22, 2006
11:14 amby syntacticgymnastics Filed under: Teaching
Is there a better way to teach Standard English grammar to students who speak African American English (AAE) or other English varieties?
As I prepare for my second year of teaching in NYC public high schools, I have been pondering this question. Last year, I became quite frustrated with teaching grammar in my regular ELA class. I saw that my students desperately needed to learn Standard English for their upcoming Regents exam, yet I was frustrated with both their resistance and seeming inability to grasp the concepts. My students kept making the same mistakes over and over again, as if they didn’t even realize they were making them. I started noticing the same patterns over and over in many of my student’s writing – particularly problems with subject-verb agreement, plurals, and possession. I would dutifully point these errors out in their papers, and sometimes even mention them in class, to no avail. Many wanted to learn, but it just didn’t seem to come to them the way it did for me, and I couldn’t understand why my corrections didn’t seem to help. In fact, the more I corrected, the more they resisted.
Teaching grammar explicitly has gone out of fashion. No more diagramming sentences, rote memorization, or decontextualized exercises. However, simply correcting student papers, offering support during the writing process, and teaching the occasional mini-lesson (the way I’d been taught to teach in grad school ala Constance Weaver and her book, Teaching Grammar in Context) is clearly not enough or maybe just not the right framework from which to teach my population of students. After all, my students are not going to learn Standard English by osmosis, and it’s unfair to penalize them for what I’m not really teaching.
According to Code-switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms by Rebecca S. Wheeler and Rachel Swords, my students are not chronically making errors in grammar or speaking “lazy” English. Rather, they are following the patterns of their language variety or dialect. What if I taught them from a similar framework as I would teach Standard English to English Language Learners? What if I use their dialect, their existing knowledge, as a “springboard” to Standard English (SE)? Many of my students have been speaking a dialect of English their whole lives, so it’s clearly not the same thing as learning a second language, but there are many parallels. Wheeler and Swords tell us we can expect to see a “grammatical echo” of the first language in the student’s expression of another language or of another dialect (Wheeler and Swords 9). We see grammatical echoes whether the student’s home language is Thai, Spanish, or Hindi; whether their home dialect is South Asian English, South African English, or African American English (AAE). Wheeler and Swords urge us to first, collect observations and data on our students’ home dialects, and then use “contrastive analysis”, rather than the traditional “correctionist approach,” which has clearly failed with students of color (Wheeler and Swords 61).
Contrastive analysis teaches students to code-switch from one variety to another, depending on what is appropriate and effective for the situation (Wheeler and Swords 57). They use the example of a student who says, “Mama jeep need gas.” Rather than correct the student’s “error”, a contrastive approach would, in one lesson, look at the differences between the rules of possession according to AAE and the rules according to SE. In a subsequent lesson, students would look at differences in subject-verb agreement. These rules and examples would be listed side by side on a chart that would remain up for students’ reference. Sometimes students will be required to write in SE, for example in formal writing, and at other times students may choose to write in dialect. The idea is that students will be conscious of the choices they are making and understand what situations call for speaking and writing in SE.
Lisa J. Green, who wrote African American English: A Linguistic Introduction, agrees. She also advises teachers to teach grammar explicitly, and that teachers “offer direct instruction in pointing out and teaching the correspondences between AAE and mainstream English” (Green 236). Furthermore, she advises teachers to become familiar with students’ dialect patterns because “teachers who know something about the children’s native linguistic system are less likely to misclassify their grammatical linguistic patterns as mainstream English errors or disorders and are more likely to understand them as differences” (Green 240). Additionally, she asks us to think about literary giants such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison, all of whom exhibit not only a mastery of SE but also of AAE and are able to move between them for a powerful literary effect. Our students can strive for the same mastery of language, but only if we teach them in a way that respects AAE and makes the similarities and differences explicit.
Code-switching is not about getting rid of Standard English. On the contrary, code-switching recognizes the absolute necessity of speaking and writing Standard English in our society. In Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit argues that students benefit from being taught explicitly the rules and “codes of power” of the middle class, including speaking and writing Standard English. She says, “If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring that power easier” (Delpit 25). She goes on to argue that “if such explicitness is not provided to students, what it feels like to people who are old enough to judge is that there are secrets being kept, that time is being wasted, that the teacher is abdicating his or her duty to teach” (Delpit 31). If my students just aren’t learning it the way I’m teaching it, don’t I have an obligation to find a better way? To help them bridge the gaps, so they do understand? Speaking and writing Standard English is so crucial for their success in college and the professional world, so crucial for their access to real power in society, that I consider it one of my primary obligations to find a way to teach it so they will learn. Code-switching, quite simply, seems to be a more effective way to teach Standard English to students of color.
There is more at stake than simple pedagogical debates about the teaching of grammar. It is about our prejudices and our expectations of certain students.
Whether Black or White, a teacher is likely to consider a child speaking African American English as slower, less able, and less intelligent that the child who speaks Standard English. We call this dialect prejudice. Nieto (2000) explains that as teacher expectations are reduced, so the child’s classroom performance diminishes. We have found that as teachers understand more about the integrity of vernacular dialects and the structure and regularity of student language, they step away from dialect prejudice in the classroom. Teachers come to see students as fully intelligent, capable, and worthy. Their expectations for student performance rise, bringing to the classroom a self-fulfilling prophecy for success as their students work to master Standard English. (Wheeler and Swords 14)
It seems clear that teaching grammar through a “correctionist lens”, without acknowledging that vernacular dialects like African American English have their own rules and grammar, is not only unhelpful and bound to fail, but in fact detrimental to students’ school experiences and eventual success. However, respecting students’ cultures and language varieties, building and adding to their knowledge, and providing access to the “codes of power,” can be tremendously empowering for students. With this approach, hopefully my students will be better prepared for their bright futures.
The writer is a second year teacher in New York City. She writes about this subject and others at her blog, Syntactic Gymnastics. The views expressed here are her own, and meant to foster dialogue.
• Aug 22, 2006 at 12:45 pm
As an ELA teacher myself and a “minority” (black Hispanic), I repectfully disagree with the concept of dialect linguistics. I think these are issues of class that transcend race and even ethncicity. A person of color from a solid middle-class background will have similar speech patterns as compared with “white” middle-class kids. Since our system has a relatively smaller white student body, the students who remain are those in solid middle-class neighborhoods or specialized schools. In other words, we’re not getting a comparable demographic sampling that highlights the effects of class rather than race. Many of our kids are descendents of the southern black migration to urban centers during the 40’s throughout the 70’s. If we were teaching in Alabama or Mississippi, we would be dealing with the same issues across all ethnicities.
On the practical side, I no longer believe in the “mini-lesson” to get our kids on track with grammar. I certainly was not given a “mini-lesson” and a “workshop model” lesson in language acquisition. I was given traditional formal grammar instruction at PS 106. It worked for me considering I was exposed to this so-called dialect in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
I think we must return to formal language instruction. Our kids are not dense; they just don’t have the foundation to process what you’re trying to offer them. At my school, we’re incorporating formal grammar instruction as part of the curriculum. Without a solid foundation, it’s like asking kids to do algebra without knowing arithmetic.
2 phyllis c. murray
• Aug 22, 2006 at 5:49 pm
The Writer’s Voice in Today’s Multi-cultural/Multi-ethnic Classrooms
By Phyllis C. Murray
“Standard English is that set of grammatical and lexical forms which is typically used in speech and writing by educated native speakers. It includes the use of colloquial and slang vocabulary, as well as swearwords and taboo expressions. There are no set rules or vocabulary for “Standard English” because, unlike languages such as French, Spanish or Dutch, English does not have a governing body i.e. Academie francaise. Peter Tudgill,PhD. UK
Knowing that we adapt our use of English to specific environments, it is not surprising that our language changes whenever we are relaxing at home with parents/family, or in a classroom, board room, or university. And our regional accents or dialect are often reflected as we speak. Class may also be added as another variable which influences our speech patterns. All of the aforementioned become the language we must capture as we write as we find our voice.
Writers adapt their writing styles for many reasons…as well. When Sandra Cisneros writes that she has “returned for those who have no out,” her message is very clear. She is aware of the correct English grammatical patterns. However, she chose to use the words which matched the context of the story. The story dictated how language would be altered to create the mood and picture conveyed.
It is interesting to note that Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) could not find a market for his verses in “Standard” English.
“I am tired, so tired of dialect,” He said. ” I send out graceful little poems, suited for any of the magazines, but they are returned to me by editors who say, Dunbar, but we do not care for the language compositions.” Today Dunbar is remembered because of the poetry which was written in dialect. For example:
LITTLE lady at de do’,
W’y you stan’ dey knockin’?
Nevah seen you ac’ befo’
In er way so shockin’.
Don’ you know de sin it is
Fu’ to git my temper riz
W’en I’s got de rheumatiz
An’ my jints is lockin’?
Conversely, in the 1770s Phillis Wheatley wrote:
TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train
Phillis Wheatley died penniless in 1784.
Therefore, we soon realize that creating new pieces of literature in the classroom is an arduous task. And prior to launching the writing process, I have found it necessary to saute the students in some of the best literature possible. Although the list of books is long and wide, I rely on the magic of Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” to facilitate this journey.
Quite often the word from another culture is the only word that works in a particular context. Before using the word “temerity” to describe a situation, I changed it to “audacity.” However, I could have used “chutzpah” or any one of the following synonyms: HARDIHOOD, EFFRONTERY, NERVE, CHEEK, or GALL. Frank McCourt, like many of today’s gifted writers, has also brilliantly infused his cultural heritage into the language of “Angela’s Ashes.”
Today the English language is becoming more and more inclusive. And as Hip Hop vocabulary words become infused in the media, dictionaries, and universities, a new genre is emerging. Thus, I have encouraged my students to use words from any known lexicon. However, they must use italics to distinguish these words from the words that are not found in our English Dictionary. This phenomenon is also witnessed in Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street.”
When my students took an imaginary trip to their ancestral home, their essays were filled with words and phrases which described the foods, greetings, and land of their ancestors. This fifth grade class had students from 15 different nations. And although many had never stepped foot on foreign soil, they used the information their parents had imparted to them over the years, to guide them on their vicarious journey. Their stories validated the land and language of their ancestors. It was truly amazing to watch the lesson unfold with revelations from Yemen, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Nigeria.
As educators, we are reminded by Haim Ginott that it is our approach that creates the climate in the classroom. It is our daily word that makes the weather in our classroom. And if the environment in our classroom is safe, many good things will happen.
Our students are writing to be read. Thus, they are very vulnerable. They are truly putting their life on the line as… Lucy Calkins reminds us.
Teachers have the power to nurture emergent writers. They also have the ability to nurture dreams as well as validate the work of their students.
“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros is a beginning. Like so many pieces of great literature, “Mango Street” shows how the author can weave the language of two cultures to produce a masterpiece. And as students write in the genre of the author, they will find their voice in a remembrance of things past and present which will become their gift to the future.
Write on!Phyllis C. MurrayDistrict 8 Region 2Jackie Bennett Aug 23, 2006 at 6:57 am
When African American students write or say “Mama jeep is out of gas” or “The Earth revolve around the sun,” many teachers—labeling this usage poor English or bad grammar—assume that their students have problems with possession or don’t know how to make subjects and verbs agree.
Forty years of linguistic research, however, demonstrates that the student is not making errors in Standard English—the child is writing or speaking correctly in the language patterns of the home and of the community. Building on the linguistic knowledge that children bring to school becomes the focus of this book, which advocates the use of “code-switching” to enable students to add another linguistic code—Standard English—to their linguistic toolbox.
Rather than drill the idea of “Standard English” into students by labeling their home language as “wrong,” the authors recommend teaching students to recognize the grammatical differences between home speech and school speech so that they are then able to choose the language style most appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose.
University researcher Rebecca Wheeler and urban elementary teacher Rachel Swords offer a practical, hands-on guide to code-switching, providing teachers with step-by-step instructions and numerous code-switching charts that can be reproduced for classroom use. The success of Wheeler’s presentations in urban school districts and the positive results that Swords has observed in her own classroom speak to the effectiveness of the research and of this approach. While the book focuses on language use in the elementary classroom, the procedures and materials introduced can be easily adapted for middle and high school students.
“Speakers of [African American English] and other vernaculars have continued to be misunderstood, misdiagnosed, underrespected, and underassisted in their efforts to add Standard English to their linguistic repertoire. And they’ve also been limited in their school success and occupational mobility. This book will, I think, help to dismantle these barriers, enabling teachers to ‘reach out to the students of urban America’ in ways they weren’t able to do before.”
—John R. Rickford, Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University
197 pp. 2006. Grades K–8. ISBN 0-8141-0702-8.