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Review of Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
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 explained.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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.