Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?
Many of our students are new to academia and its ways of speaking and writing. We who have been in it for years are enculturated and the speaking and writing conventions we follow may be invisible to us. But academic discourse may be mysterious and strange to our students. We may also worry that their way of speaking and writing may disadvantage them in academic and professional endeavors. How can we help our students communicate in ways that are valued in the academic world and in some career fields while respecting their own ways of speaking and writing?
Take a SIP of This: Valuing multiple Englishes
We all come from communities that are defined by their values, traditions, and customs, including ways of speaking. Different communities value different ways of speaking and ways of speaking that are different can be less valued or even considered to be “wrong.” Language is part of culture, which is part of identity; when a particular way of speaking or writing is labeled “nonstandard English,” the identity of the person who speaks that English is being identified as “wrong” or “less than.” The fact is that we all speak a dialect—there is no “pure” form of English. Likewise, we all have an accent—we just don’t recognize our own accents as such.
Scholar Leah Zuidema identifies several commonly held beliefs about English that are inaccurate, including these two:
- Some dialects and languages don’t have grammatical rules.
- Standard English is better than other varieties.
In fact, all dialects and languages have grammatical rules, and the English we may call “Standard English” is no more clear or sophisticated than any other variety. Instead of sending the message to students that their dialects or varieties of English aren’t “correct,” which isn’t linguistically accurate, we can empower them to learn to speak and write academic discourse.
Here are some things you can do to help your students learn to speak and write academic discourse:
- Explain the rules of academic discourse to students, even the rules that you think are obvious. Those within the culture often follow the rules without being consciously aware of them. Delpit (1988) argues that making the rules of the culture of power explicit helps those who are not part of that culture acquire power. Making the rules of academic discourse explicit to students, rather than expecting them to already know the rules, empowers them and gives them access to the language of power. Help them understand the rules of the language you want them to use in your class.
- Help students understand that academic English or the English valued in your discipline has particular conventions. These conventions can be learned, and depending on time of exposure and other factors, may be learned quickly or may take many semesters. Remember that it may take students who are new to academic discourse many semesters to become enculturated.
- Recognize that teaching our students of color to speak and write in academic discourse will not protect them from racism. Unfortunately, our views on language are impacted by implicit biases that we all have. When Reeves (2014) asked lawyers to evaluate a written document, they scored the document higher when they thought it was written by a white lawyer and lower when they thought it was written by a black lawyer. These findings support the idea that we make judgments about language based, at least in part, on who is doing the speaking or writing.
- Understand that it is not linguistically accurate to label any dialect as “bad English” or “wrong.” Language scholars do not find any dialect to be better than any other dialect.
- Demonstrate respect for other dialects rather than putting them down or referring to them as “nonstandard.” Remember that language is part of culture and culture is part of identity. When we call a language nonstandard or wrong, we are calling a person’s identity deficient.
- Before making students’ language usage a factor in grading, consider how much the language usage matters for that particular assignment. For some assignments, language usage may be crucial, but for others, such as journaling or answering homework questions, content mastery or reflection may be more important and the language variety a student uses may not matter as much. Let students know when their language usage will matter in grading and when it won’t.
- Consider making explicit instruction about how people speak and write in your discipline part of every class. This can be as simple as opening a discussion of an article with an explanation of how academics tend to use colons in their titles.
Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Valuing multiple Englishes
- The National Council of Teachers of English statement on Students’ Right to Their Own Language
- The National Council of Teachers of English statement on Supporting Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Learners in English Education (this is applicable to all students, despite the title’s focus on English education)
- MSU Denver’s Writing Center, Tutoring Center, and Immigrant Services
- For a fun take on language change, check out John McWhorter’s TED Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”