A Time and a Place: Research Shows That Students Achieve More When Schools Recognize and Respect Languages Other Than "Standard Written English." So, Why Have Educators Been Slow in Adopting Corresponding Practices? (Focus: Reading/language Arts)

By Ezarik, Melissa | District Administration, May 2002 | Go to article overview

A Time and a Place: Research Shows That Students Achieve More When Schools Recognize and Respect Languages Other Than "Standard Written English." So, Why Have Educators Been Slow in Adopting Corresponding Practices? (Focus: Reading/language Arts)


Ezarik, Melissa, District Administration


"We ain't where we supposed to be." When a teacher walking through the hallway at Newson Park Elementary School of Newport News (Va.) City Public Schools overheard these words, she pulled the third-grade culprit out of line and told him that "ain't" is not a word.

"But it is," Rachel Swords, the student's teacher, said later. "It's how this child speaks." Her class, a diverse group, discussed the incident and decided that the other teacher meant the student hadn't used a word from formal language. With this in mind, the student might have responded, "Oh, I'm sorry. You want me to speak formally."

Swords and a handful of other educators teach code-switching, a technique grounded in the belief that children need to discover the differences between formal and informal language so they can choose the pattern that fits the situation. For example, addressing a classmate on the playground is different from addressing the school principal. Or, an administrator presenting to a group of teachers uses different speech than when chatting with a friend on the phone.

As simple as this sounds, the implications--such as validating words like "ain't"--take most educators, administrators and the general public to an uncomfortable place. When Swords tried talking to the teacher who had embarrassed her student, the response was, "Oh Rachel, you and your mumbo jumbo." Swords says, "But, I guarantee when the kid answers next time, that will take her back a bit."

Code-switching is just one way educators can practice what linguists have believed about language for at least 40 years. It "comes in many different structures, many different flavors," reflecting time, place, audience and communicative purpose, says Rebecca Wheeler, an assistant professor of English at Christopher Newport University. Her course in language varieties introduced Swords to language variation. Will this view of language ever become mainstream in the education community?

THE CONTROVERSY

Because Americans tend to look down on certain language variations--such as African-American Vernacular English or Appalachian English--the analysis of language variation and its accompanying practices are met with controversy.

"I get hate mail because of things that I've written that are on our Web site," says Carolyn Adger, director of the Center for Applied Linguistics' Language and Society Division. "We have had this belief in our society that standard English is the only English that counts.... The hard view is that the other dialects should be stamped out. The softer view is that they should be ignored."

Kirk Hazen, director of the West Virginia Dialect Project at West Virginia University, says administrators sometimes veto his one-day student talks. "Some ... have basically told me that they don't want lessons on slang in the classroom," he explains.

"The only case where language is wrong is where [it] is inappropriate to the context," since the audience may miss the message, says Carol D. Lee, an associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, former teacher and founder of two schools. "Most English teachers don't have this knowledge base about language. Most district leaders don't, and certainly, most politicians don't. But linguists are clear on this."

FACING THE FACTS

Also clear to linguists is that research supports their views. "Right about 100 percent" of students in Wheeler's teacher education classes come in thinking "that anyone who speaks a variety other than standard English is ignorant, lazy [and] lacking in intelligence." After discussing research about dialects in schools and communities--and after identifying grammatical patterns in various languages--students realize that each is a role-governed system. "As they discover these language patterns, the respect for the speakers goes up," Wheeler says. …

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