From: Jean Calkins <aw4031wayne.edu>
Subject: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-2498.html
AUTHORS: Anne H. Charity Hudley & Christine MallinsonTITLE: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. SchoolsSERIES TITLE: Multicultural Education SeriesPUBLISHER: Teachers College PressYEAR: 2011
Jean L. Calkins, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
The purpose of this book is to inform teachers about the linguistic hurdles andissues concerning the education of students who speak non-standard dialects andcome from varying cultural backgrounds. The audience intended is teachersthemselves, and throughout the book Charity Hudley and Mallinson do not assumeprior linguistic knowledge. The authors explain in the preface that they aim toprovide the linguistic knowledge necessary to help teachers accomplish fourgoals: "to teach all students how to communicate effectively in various socialand academic situations; to distinguish language variations from errors whenassessing students' listening, speaking, reading, and writing; to help studentsaddress common language-related challenges on standardized tests; and toappreciate the rich variety in students' cultural backgrounds, linguisticheritages, and personal identities" (p. xvii). This is accomplished throughoutthe book by providing basic linguistic knowledge about three American dialects:Standard English, African American English, and Southern English. StandardEnglish is detailed as a basis for comparison to the other two dialects, and itis explained in the foreword to this book that Southern English and AfricanAmerican English interfere with reading, writing, and social perceptions more sothan most other dialects, and thus, they were chosen to be covered in depth.Details about the features of these dialects, the cultures and environments oftheir speakers, educational and diagnostic interference, and classroomstrategies are given throughout the book to provide information as well as ideasfor practical application.
Chapter 1, "Valuable Voices," begins the book by explaining the need to acquirelinguistic and multicultural knowledge, and elaborates on how knowledge oflanguage and culture contribute to successful classroom interactions. It ismentioned that because students have varying backgrounds, they will not all cometo school sharing an equal understanding of language. A teacher who knows thisand is appreciative of students' unique backgrounds and prepared to teach schoolEnglish will be better equipped to bridge this gap. Assuming prior linguisticand cultural knowledge would be a mistake, as it can often leave many studentsconfused and left behind. This chapter briefly explains language variation andthe unfair but prevalent stereotypes often associated with non-standardvarieties of English, such as unintelligence or incompetence. The importance ofteaching students Standard English without encouraging them to abandon theirhome language varieties is also discussed. The authors seem to express dismay atthe fact that many teachers are not armed with enough knowledge about differinglanguage varieties, and explain that they intend to provide this knowledge usingclear examples and teaching methods to enhance teacher education. Near the endof this chapter, the reader is introduced to the two authors in a briefautobiographical section. Both have experience in the field of linguistics andin the classroom, lending credence to the rest of the book.
Chapter 2, "What is Standard English?" responds to the title question byexplaining that no single standard variety of English really exists, but that wecan refer to a standardized English, which is the term that the authors preferover Standard English. This term refers to the type of English that is valuedand used in the educational system, political system, and other prestigiousrealms of communication. The authors discuss again the right for students tospeak their home varieties of English, but also the importance of helping themmeet academic standards by teaching language norms and conventions. They discussthe classic rules and guidelines provided in grammar books, some of theshortcomings of these manuals, and how to clarify the dense language of theseguidebooks to students for practical application. The multicultural approach isthen explained, which includes: teaching students about standardized English,explicit instruction of standardized English features, understanding ofstudents' linguistic backgrounds, and fostering positive attitudes towardlanguage variation. The chapter then details features of school English and howto teach students about these features. The end of this section details some ofthe many advantages of being a speaker of standardized English rather than ofother varieties, such as being familiar with the language in which newspapersand magazines are written, feeling confident about not being mocked for a certainspeech style, and being familiar with the linguistic style of testing materials.
Chapter 3, "Southern English: A Regional and Cultural Variety," explains thateven though speakers of this language variety make up the largest accent groupin the United States, their dialect is still, "one of the most denigrated andstigmatized language varieties" (p. 37). In an attempt to dispel the negativeattitudes that are addressed, the authors begin by defining the South as aregion and its influences before engaging in a discussion of Southern values andbeliefs, including strong value placed on oratory performance, less value placedon educational institutions, and strong emphasis on learning how to performphysical labor. Integrating the cultural aspects that they describe, the authorsthen discuss many of the features of Southern English, including thosepertaining to sound, grammar, pitch, tone, rhythm, volume, conversation, andvocabulary. These differences between Southern English and standardized Englishare used to discuss the educational implications involved, as well as a fewrecommended strategies for teachers to bridge this gap. One helpful strategyincluded in this chapter pertains to fostering language awareness. The authorsrecommend that students keep a language diary to record how they speak and writefor later comparison to standardized English. This will allow them to detectdifferences between that dialect and their own speech, making them more likelyto be aware of these differences while actively speaking.
Chapter 4, "African American English: An Ethnic and Cultural Variety," iswritten in essentially the same format as the previous chapter, beginning with adiscussion on African American English's history and influences, and progressingtoward a reflection on attitudes. The chapter touches on many common beliefsabout this dialect, such as the notions that it is "unprofessional, sloppy, orincorrect" (p. 72), before illustrating the value of African American culture.Most African American students value their culture and language because it isalso that of their friends and family members. They also appreciate theirdifferences, and many resent the idea of "acting White" (p. 76) rather thanbeing themselves. The chapter then describes the features of this dialect, aswas done for Southern English (sound, grammar, pitch, tone, rhythm, volume,conversation, and vocabulary). This chapter also details the educationalimplications for these students and their instruction. Teachers need to makethese students aware of differences between their dialect and standardizedEnglish so that these speakers can experience success in testing situationscalling for standardized English, and later in adulthood when seeking employmentor housing. Teachers must also remember that some aspects of language, likealphabet to speech patterns, may be more difficult for African American Englishspeakers because this dialect differs from standardized English phonologically.
Chapter 5, "Assessment and Application," discusses linguistic issues related toa variety of assessments, and the biases inherent in many of them. This chapteris not specific to African American English or Southern English necessarily, butdoes draw upon features of these dialects to provide concrete examples of waysin which certain tests can be unfair to speakers of non-standard dialects. Muchof this chapter is centered on cultural differences rather than purelylinguistic ones. The authors elaborate on the fact that students with a lowsocioeconomic status are at a disadvantage because of the culture ofstandardized tests, which are generally geared toward White, middle-classexaminees. One example that the authors provide is the fact that someassessments use vocabulary terms which have one standard meaning in standardizedEnglish, 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 bywhich meaning is being used. They also discuss the fact that one commonly usedliteracy test asked students to read and respond to a passage about yoga. Thistype of exercise is mainly popular in White, middle-class homes, so studentsfrom this background have the advantage of prior knowledge. Aside from thefacets of language in these assessments, the chapter also elaborates on othertypes of assessments, like those including pictures and emotion identification.
This work succeeds in its goals of providing teachers with general linguisticinformation about prevalent U.S. dialects, and informing them about theeducational implications and problems posed by language variation. The authorsdescribe the dialects reviewed in a clear and concise way, targeting multiplefacets of language. They also provide concrete examples of how linguisticdifferences can affect educational success, to which most teachers can easilyrelate. They give strategies throughout the book which encourage teachers armedwith this linguistic information to discuss language variation with theirstudents in practical ways. Not only does the book clarify generalmisconceptions, but it also discusses the values and cultures associated witheach dialect, promoting sensitivity and awareness of home languages. In thisway, the text draws not only on linguistic information, but also onmulticultural 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 beviewed as a fundamental flaw. In their quest for readability, and likelybrevity, Charity Hudley and Mallinson have diluted the linguistic informationpresented and oversimplified it. They briefly touch upon major linguisticconcepts, but do not elaborate in depth. Most key linguistic differences arediscussed in only one or two paragraphs, such as final phoneme deletion (a termwhich is not actually mentioned), and multiple negation. Admittedly, this isprobably more comprehensible to those new to linguistics, but these shortcutsdeprive the reader of a deeper understanding. A slightly longer text could haveprovided the same basic information in a more thorough fashion.
Another minor shortcoming is the organization of the chapters, especially theplaces in which the authors choose to include educational strategies pertainingto the information presented. These classroom application pieces appear in grayboxes interspersed throughout the book called, "Strategies for Educators."Though these are helpful pieces, they are vague, and it is distracting and oftenconfusing for these boxes to be awkwardly placed here and there throughout thechapters. A section at the end of each chapter might have been a better locationfor this advice, and the authors could have said more about how exactly teacherscould explain key concepts and terms rather than just suggesting they beexplained.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jean L. Calkins received her Bachelor's degree from Wayne State Universityin 2010 in Elementary Education with an English Major, and will completeher Master's degree in Linguistics in 2012. She is currently working as aneducational consultant for a private learning company, and finishing herMaster's paper by conducting interviews with teachers in the Metro Detroitarea to determine the knowledge and beliefs these educators have aboutAfrican American Vernacular English as used in the classroom. She intendsto continue using Linguistics to inform and improve the field of Educationand to receive a PhD in Educational Linguistics.
Page Updated: 05-Oct-2011