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Review of  Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools

Reviewer: Jean L Calkins
Book Title: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
Book Author: Anne Harper Charity Hudley Christine Mallinson
Publisher: Teachers College Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Book Announcement: 22.3870

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AUTHORS: Anne H. Charity Hudley & Christine Mallinson
TITLE: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
SERIES TITLE: Multicultural Education Series
PUBLISHER: Teachers College Press
YEAR: 2011

Jean L. Calkins, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI


The purpose of this book is to inform teachers about the linguistic hurdles and
issues concerning the education of students who speak non-standard dialects and
come from varying cultural backgrounds. The audience intended is teachers
themselves, and throughout the book Charity Hudley and Mallinson do not assume
prior linguistic knowledge. The authors explain in the preface that they aim to
provide the linguistic knowledge necessary to help teachers accomplish four
goals: “to teach all students how to communicate effectively in various social
and academic situations; to distinguish language variations from errors when
assessing students’ listening, speaking, reading, and writing; to help students
address common language-related challenges on standardized tests; and to
appreciate the rich variety in students’ cultural backgrounds, linguistic
heritages, and personal identities” (p. xvii). This is accomplished throughout
the book by providing basic linguistic knowledge about three American dialects:
Standard English, African American English, and Southern English. Standard
English is detailed as a basis for comparison to the other two dialects, and it
is explained in the foreword to this book that Southern English and African
American English interfere with reading, writing, and social perceptions more so
than most other dialects, and thus, they were chosen to be covered in depth.
Details about the features of these dialects, the cultures and environments of
their speakers, educational and diagnostic interference, and classroom
strategies are given throughout the book to provide information as well as ideas
for practical application.

Chapter 1, “Valuable Voices,” begins the book by explaining the need to acquire
linguistic and multicultural knowledge, and elaborates on how knowledge of
language and culture contribute to successful classroom interactions. It is
mentioned that because students have varying backgrounds, they will not all come
to school sharing an equal understanding of language. A teacher who knows this
and is appreciative of students’ unique backgrounds and prepared to teach school
English will be better equipped to bridge this gap. Assuming prior linguistic
and cultural knowledge would be a mistake, as it can often leave many students
confused and left behind. This chapter briefly explains language variation and
the unfair but prevalent stereotypes often associated with non-standard
varieties of English, such as unintelligence or incompetence. The importance of
teaching students Standard English without encouraging them to abandon their
home language varieties is also discussed. The authors seem to express dismay at
the fact that many teachers are not armed with enough knowledge about differing
language varieties, and explain that they intend to provide this knowledge using
clear examples and teaching methods to enhance teacher education. Near the end
of this chapter, the reader is introduced to the two authors in a brief
autobiographical section. Both have experience in the field of linguistics and
in the classroom, lending credence to the rest of the book.

Chapter 2, “What is Standard English?” responds to the title question by
explaining that no single standard variety of English really exists, but that we
can refer to a standardized English, which is the term that the authors prefer
over Standard English. This term refers to the type of English that is valued
and used in the educational system, political system, and other prestigious
realms of communication. The authors discuss again the right for students to
speak their home varieties of English, but also the importance of helping them
meet academic standards by teaching language norms and conventions. They discuss
the classic rules and guidelines provided in grammar books, some of the
shortcomings of these manuals, and how to clarify the dense language of these
guidebooks to students for practical application. The multicultural approach is
then explained, which includes: teaching students about standardized English,
explicit instruction of standardized English features, understanding of
students’ linguistic backgrounds, and fostering positive attitudes toward
language variation. The chapter then details features of school English and how
to teach students about these features. The end of this section details some of
the many advantages of being a speaker of standardized English rather than of
other varieties, such as being familiar with the language in which newspapers
and magazine are written, feeling confident that that he/she will not be mocked
for his/her speech, and knowing that testing materials are likely written in
his/her linguistic style.

Chapter 3, “Southern English: A Regional and Cultural Variety,” explains that
even though speakers of this language variety make up the largest accent group
in the United States, their dialect is still, “one of the most denigrated and
stigmatized language varieties” (p. 37). In an attempt to dispel the negative
attitudes that are addressed, the authors begin by defining the South as a
region and its influences before engaging in a discussion of Southern values and
beliefs, including strong value placed on oratory performance, less value placed
on educational institutions, and strong emphasis on learning how to perform
physical labor. Integrating the cultural aspects that they describe, the authors
then discuss many of the features of Southern English, including those
pertaining to sound, grammar, pitch, tone, rhythm, volume, conversation, and
vocabulary. These differences between Southern English and standardized English
are used to discuss the educational implications involved, as well as a few
recommended strategies for teachers to bridge this gap. One helpful strategy
included in this chapter pertains to fostering language awareness. The authors
recommend that students keep a language diary to record how they speak and write
for later comparison to standardized English. This will allow them to detect
differences between that dialect and their own speech, making them more likely
to be aware of these differences while actively speaking.

Chapter 4, “African American English: An Ethnic and Cultural Variety,” is
written in essentially the same format as the previous chapter, beginning with a
discussion on African American English’s history and influences, and progressing
toward a reflection on attitudes. The chapter touches on many common beliefs
about this dialect, such as the notions that it is “unprofessional, sloppy, or
incorrect” (p. 72), before illustrating the value of African American culture.
Most African American students value their culture and language because it is
also that of their friends and family members. They also appreciate their
differences, and many resent the idea of “acting White” (p. 76) rather than
being themselves. The chapter then describes the features of this dialect, as
was done for Southern English (sound, grammar, pitch, tone, rhythm, volume,
conversation, and vocabulary). This chapter also details the educational
implications for these students and their instruction. Teachers need to make
these students aware of differences between their dialect and standardized
English so that these speakers can experience success in testing situations
calling for standardized English, and later in adulthood when seeking employment
or housing. Teachers must also remember that some aspects of language, like
alphabet to speech patterns, may be more difficult for African American English
speakers because this dialect differs from standardized English phonologically.

Chapter 5, “Assessment and Application,” discusses linguistic issues related to
a variety of assessments, and the biases inherent in many of them. This chapter
is not specific to African American English or Southern English necessarily, but
does draw upon features of these dialects to provide concrete examples of ways
in which certain tests can be unfair to speakers of non-standard dialects. Much
of this chapter is centered on cultural differences rather than purely
linguistic ones. The authors elaborate on the fact that students with a low
socioeconomic status are at a disadvantage because of the culture of
standardized tests, which are generally geared toward White, middle-class
examinees. One example that the authors provide is the fact that some
assessments use vocabulary terms which have one standard meaning in standardized
English, but a completely different meaning in other dialects, such as the word
“squash.” A child may lose a point on this test item if he/she is confused by
which meaning is being used. They also discuss the fact that one commonly used
literacy test asked students to read and respond to a passage about yoga. This
type of exercise is mainly popular in White, middle-class homes, so students
from this background have the advantage of prior knowledge. Aside from the
facets of language in these assessments, the chapter also elaborates on other
types of assessments, like those including pictures and emotion identification.


This work succeeds in its goals of providing teachers with general linguistic
information about prevalent U.S. dialects, and informing them about the
educational implications and problems posed by language variation. The authors
describe the dialects reviewed in a clear and concise way, targeting multiple
facets of language. They also provide concrete examples of how linguistic
differences can affect educational success, to which most teachers can easily
relate. They give strategies throughout the book which encourage teachers armed
with this linguistic information to discuss language variation with their
students in practical ways. Not only does the book clarify general
misconceptions, but it also discusses the values and cultures associated with
each dialect, promoting sensitivity and awareness of home languages. In this
way, the text draws not only on linguistic information, but also on
multicultural education strategies.

The book is clearly designed for teachers with no prior linguistic knowledge,
which makes it easy to understand sans prior knowledge, but this can also be
viewed as a fundamental flaw. In their quest for readability, and likely
brevity, Charity Hudley and Mallinson have diluted the linguistic information
presented and oversimplified it. They briefly touch upon major linguistic
concepts, but do not elaborate in depth. Most key linguistic differences are
discussed in only one or two paragraphs, such as final phoneme deletion (a term
which is not actually mentioned), and multiple negation. Admittedly, this is
probably more comprehensible to those new to linguistics, but these shortcuts
deprive the reader of a deeper understanding. A slightly longer text could have
provided the same basic information in a more thorough fashion.

Another minor shortcoming is the organization of the chapters, especially the
places in which the authors choose to include educational strategies pertaining
to the information presented. These classroom application pieces appear in gray
boxes interspersed throughout the book called, “Strategies for Educators.”
Though these are helpful pieces, they are vague, and it is distracting and often
confusing for these boxes to be awkwardly placed here and there throughout the
chapters. A section at the end of each chapter might have been a better location
for this advice, and the authors could have said more about how exactly teachers
could explain key concepts and terms rather than just suggesting they be

Jean L. Calkins received her Bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 2010 in Elementary Education with an English Major, and will complete her Master’s degree in Linguistics in 2012. She is currently working as an educational consultant for a private learning company, and finishing her Master’s paper by conducting interviews with teachers in the Metro Detroit area to determine the knowledge and beliefs these educators have about African American Vernacular English as used in the classroom. She intends to continue using Linguistics to inform and improve the field of Education and to receive a PhD in Educational Linguistics.

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ISBN: 0807751480
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Pages: 192
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