Academic journal article English Journal

To Correct or Not Correct: Confronting Decisions about African American Students' Use of Language Varieties in the English Classroom

Academic journal article English Journal

To Correct or Not Correct: Confronting Decisions about African American Students' Use of Language Varieties in the English Classroom

Article excerpt

"Well-now when I think about language in terms of them it's literally speaking in proper grammar . . ."

"But you know when we're just chatting I'm just like let your freak vibe fly."

These are real words from real teachers spoken during interviews from a qualitative study on the influence of language, culture, and power on how teachers plan instruction for high-achieving African American (HA-A) students. Findings from this study raise real questions and present implications for how teachers think about language and culture and use their instructional power to direct and control how students use language in the classroom. Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford characterize language as a product and a tool (138). Students' use of language in the classroom is a product demonstrating content knowledge and a tool for communication with their peers and teachers. Those students who use language varieties other than what is known as "correct English" or Standard English often find themselves caught in the crosshairs of teachers' beliefs about language and their use of power to control their speech. This is particularly significant with many African American students who use what has become known as Black American English (BAE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has been the subject of much interest, research, and controversy (Smitherman). The racial underpinnings associated with the use of BAE/AAVE have created a challenge for students and teachers, often revealing hidden cultural and racial biases leading students to question their identity and place within the classroom. Teachers' belief systems about language create the decisions to allow students to move freely between language varieties or whether they are forced to adhere to what is believed to be fixed rules for speech and written expression.

English Varieties

To more fully grasp the intersection between teachers' beliefs about English and the decisions they make for students necessitates a brief outline of how American English came to be and dominate the current lexical landscape. American English or what is often characterized as Standard American English (SAE) has come to be viewed as the dominant form of language expected to be spoken at school, most certainly in English classrooms. Elementary-aged students are taught the rules of speech and written expression. When students bring different varieties of English to the classroom, particularly BAE/ AAVE, teachers have a decision to make. Do they demonstrate a willingness to understand the connections between language, culture, and identity allowing students to "let their freak vibe fly"? Do they demonstrate linguistic "purism" and require students to speak "proper grammar"? Do they offer students an opportunity to make connections between the ways BAE and SAE correlate and offer students pathways toward deeper understanding of how these two varieties of English shape their understanding of content? The decisions teachers make represent their beliefs, and their use of instructional power influences how these beliefs direct students' behavior.

The English language has always varied. Unfortunately, teachers often possess little to no knowledge about the origins of American English as its own form of a language variety. This lack of knowledge has created the false idea that American English is a pure form of speech and writing. As America became a nation, a varied form of British English was developed and used to establish a national identity (Devereaux). Language became an essential tool as America established itself as a nation separate from Great Britain. Shirley B. Heath explained that founder John Adams proposed "the United States consider seriously the social and linguistic consequences of spreading English around the World" (221). In spreading English around the world, Adams believed it was necessary to determine a model of American English (AE) that would establish it as identifiable to America and it should be prescribed. …

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