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We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know

December 3, 2010

In their recently published book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson add to what we know. This book is for educators, scholars and individuals concerned with the success of all children.

Charity Hudley and Mallinson help us to better understand the range of dialects (or varieties of English) that students bring to the classroom and how to embrace and manage these differences.

This is a book for anyone who has ever worked with or interacted with school children and has recognized a mismatch between how some children actually speak and how they are “supposed to speak” in school.

The authors devote an entire chapter to discussion of ‘Standard English.’ They explain what language standards are, where the notion of a language standard comes from, and and why it is necessary to teach our children ‘School English’ in order to contribute to their success in their academic work, and later on, in their careers. They explain that for our educators to be successful in educating our children, they should know and understand more about  the home dialects that children bring with them to school.

Charity Hudley and Mallinson give us an overview of two varieties of English– Southern English and African American English– which are often times stigmatized in the educational system. The reader is given an overview of the features found in these dialects, in terms of sound, grammar, pitch, intonation and vocabulary, for example. The descriptions of these features are written in a way that is accessible to everyone, eschewing phonetic symbols in favor of more well-known English spelling. After sensitizing the public to language variation within American English, the authors discuss ways in which educators can modify their teaching practices to best serve students from diverse linguistic backgrounds.

For a book that combines decades of research on linguistics and education, it’s refreshingly slim and easy-to-read. Throughout the book, the authors offer the reader, especially educational practioners, strategies for managing language diversity in the classroom. Additionally, there is a take-home message at the end of each chapter to summarize the most important points.

This book not only provides the reader with a better understanding of linguistic diversity in the classroom, but also attempts to provide tools that can be used to help young students succeed without their home language being devalued.

To learn more about the work of Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson check out our  previous post highlighting these committed scholars.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Carla Mallinson permalink
    December 5, 2010 10:49 am

    What a great review.

  2. Casey W. permalink
    April 8, 2011 8:29 pm

    I would like to comment on the title of the piece (thank you for the review, might try to pick it up). Having been in and out of schools for years, I hear these words a lot, that is, “We can’t teach what we don’t know.” This statement is bothersome for a few reasons, but probably foremost in that it assumes that the teacher is done learning and infers that no one teaches but the teacher. Although teaching is a very (wish I could use italics here on that very) time and mind consuming, the moment a teacher decides that they are too busy to learn anything new is the day that a teacher begins down a treacherous path. However, many teachers (a few I was lucky to benefit from in my education) find a way around this dilemma by empowering their students as teachers in their classroom. Not only is this an engaging and powerful experience for the student, but the teacher as well (I can personally testify to this as a teacher).

  3. A.Lebeis permalink
    April 20, 2011 8:09 pm

    I agree, great review. Sounds like a much needed book. I recently read a fascinating essay–Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”– on the subject of bilingual education. Rodriguez offers a poignant account of the evolution of his relationship with his immediate family and the public world of “los gringos” as English, the language he associates with the public sphere, becomes his new dominant language. Rodriguez argues that “Behind this scheme (bilingual education) gleams a bright promise for the alien child: one can become a public person while still remaining a private person…If the barrio or ghetto child can retain his separateness even while being publicly educated, then it is almost possible to believe that no private cost need be paid for success.” Rodriguez disagrees with bilingual educators who hold that children lose a degree of individuality upon assimilation into public society, insisting instead that people individualize themselves in two ways, that while assimilation entails a diminished sense of private individuality, it is essential in creating a public identity. Rodriquez recalls that “Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality.”

  4. Pavita permalink
    April 21, 2011 3:35 pm

    This sounds like a great book – I hope to check it out sometime. I think the authors address some important issues, one being the validity of African American English as a language and/or dialect, one that should be viewed on the same level as Standard American English. Personally, I find African American English beautiful, especially since it is grounded in the belief that spoken word is empowering to the black spirit. Another important issue the authors address is our educational system’s attitudes towards AAE, and how this impacts our AAE-speaking students. Historically, we have judged black people on their skin color and other physical features, including how they dress. Today these types of judgements are considered inappropriate, but it is still considered acceptable to judge black people on the language they use. This past summer, I worked at Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative, where I found that there is a huge discrepency between the performance of white and black students. This is in large part due to the fact that in the educational system, we use black students’ language to impose our ideologies about their abilities. This is extremely problematic to AAE-speaking students’ wellbeing and academic functioning. In addition, in restricting AAE-speaking students of their language, we rob them of their identity and their history, and of their first amendment right to freedom of speech. The message of Hudley and Mallinson is important because it forces us to rethink our ideologies. In fact, I was forced to rethink my own. Usually, I am a prescriptivist, and if I were a teacher, I don’t know how I would deal with the use of black English in formal writing. But Hudley and Mallinson’s message gave me much on which to reflect. Together with the course on Ethnic Minorities I am currently taking, Hudley and Mallinson challenge my views on prescriptivism.

  5. Brianna Sullivan permalink
    April 25, 2011 8:43 am

    This book sounds like a great concept to help settle some serious issues that exist within our education system. I think that many teachers are unaware of how much a dialectal difference between themselves and their students really influences the students’ ability to understand concepts.
    My only issue with this book is that it only addresses Southern English and AAE. There are many other dialects (Spanish etc.) that exist within our country as well. Who is to say that they should not be addressed as well? My suggestion is that the book be tailored to address the prevalent languages of certain areas of the country. There should be a book for the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, Southwest, and West and each should include the dialects that are practiced within those regions. I think that this customization will increase the usefulness of this book even further. All in all, the book is a fantastic idea and a great way to help improve the education systems of this country.

  6. Hannah Carlan permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:35 pm

    As an elementary school teacher myself, I think that this book is an excellent step toward the integration of an (abridged) study of linguistics in public schools. So often, I am affronted by comments made by other teachers at my school (as well as having heard these comments throughout my entire educational career) in which students are told that they are wrong for speaking the way they do. There can be nothing more saddening than watching a child be chastised for being a speaker of a stigmatized dialect of English. The general public is so utterly unaware of what seems to me (granted, after much schooling) to be so blatantly obvious: that every person speaks the exact way that he or she SHOULD speak, and that dialects like AAE and Southern English (my native language) are just as much a part of the fabric of the English language as anything. I will never forget my first year of college, after having been tortured non-stop by my peers who found my accent hilarious, I taught myself to speak what I thought was “standard English.” Now, realizing that I have completely stripped myself of my dialect (not only phonologically, but lexically and grammatically as well), I find myself trying to recover my original way of speaking. This I find to be a symbol of rebellion, and now that I am terminologically equipped to combat ignorance about my language, I am completely comfortable switching into Southern English whenever I feel it is a more expressive or more apt way of communicating my feelings. In short, I am elated that a book (that is readable) has been written and is being introduced into the school system. I hope that after a few years, something like this will be mandated and over time the stigma against AAE and Southern English will dissipate.

  7. Kate W. permalink
    April 27, 2011 10:26 am

    I think this is a great idea for a book, and enforces the idea that we need to be able to talk with students, not just at them. Understanding all aspects of students cultures is an important link in forming relationships with not only the children, but their families and their community. AAE and other dialects need to be recognized in schools as complex linguistic systems, and should be respected as such in the classroom to help improve school success for all children in an environment where they can be themselves.

  8. Sereetta A. permalink
    April 28, 2011 1:08 pm

    I’m excited to learn about this book! So often teachers are taught about accepting and honoring students culture and language but rarely are teachers taught how to build upon students home experiences and how not to devalue students experiences and culture. If this book was used at my school as a professional development book review I believe not only would teachers feel supported, students and parents would become more comfortable and possibly become participants in the school community in a new way. Now I ask myself what can I do to make this book known and accessible to fellow teachers and administrators? I totally agree with Casey teachers, parents, administrators are never done with learning but in order to truly learn you have to have great tools weather that is this book or lived experiences. Either way I want to get my hands on this book and share what I learn with as many as my colleagues and administrators.

  9. Ruth Brillman permalink
    April 30, 2011 11:55 am

    I’m thrilled to see a book like this–one written for the larger community instead of only academics–published and reviewed so thoughtfully. While language ideologies are spread and acquired throughout childhood as a whole, I believe that much of the stigmatization of non-standard dialects can be traced back to the classroom, whether in the form of teachers who chastise their students directly for non-standard speech, or other adults (bosses, babysitters, principals, neighbors, etc) who have internalized the falsified notions that there are correct and incorrect ways of speaking. This book is a good step in correcting the institutionalized misconceptions that Standard English is the only English, and all alternatives are simply “broken” attempts at producing the norm.

    I hope that this books aids in bringing about the changes we’d all like to see. And I also hope that the messages espoused in this book can be extended outside of its intended audience. Examples would be the promotions of a linguistics-like class/curriculum added to the school system (where the topics of, for example, language and accent ideologies are taught) or a similar book distributed to other individuals in a position of power who might not understand the complex interaction between standard and non-standard Englishes (such as employers).

    • Miranda Cohen permalink
      May 1, 2011 2:34 pm

      Just as all the comments above have said, I think that this book is both an exciting and an important one. It seems that its target audience is teachers who have students who speak Southern American English and African American English, but I agree with Ruth that this target audience can and should be widened. In order to really change language ideologies, I think that every student in America (white, black, northern and southern to name those linguistic varieties highlighted in the book) should understand what makes up these American dialects/languages, even if they are not attending linguistically diverse schools.

      I remember reading Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school English. The class was predominantly white, and predominantly White “Standard” English speaking. There was almost no attention paid to the languages used in the novel, especially in dialogue, excepting a general statement that parts are written in “dialect”, and that this had been controversial. Wouldn’t this have been a perfect opportunity to confront language ideologies! And wouldn’t we all have enjoyed the book more, and better appreciated the complexities of characters,themes, motifs etc if we had understood even a little bit more about the grammar of African American English!

  10. Suzanne permalink
    May 2, 2011 10:58 pm

    Not having read the actual text, it’s difficult to say fully what my opinions would be. But, from the description it sounds as if it is exactly what we need in the educational system. As much as we would love to believe that standard language ideologies are being broken down, the fact is that speakers of “low prestige” dialects are judged and discriminated against. Personally, I am in favor of encouraging the variety of English dialects, but not at the cost of social mobility for the speakers of stigmatized dialects. This text recognizes the validity of these dialects as systematic varieties of English and maps their features in an organized, academic fashion while at the same time insisting on the importance of standard English proficiency. This is the view taken in the German world. Dialects as distant from each other as Swiss German and Bavarian are alive and well, while speakers of the different dialects are all taught to converse in hoch Deutsch. While much work still needs to be done to propagate the idea that non-standard dialects (basically ANY speaker’s dialect) are not inferior or a sign of ignorance, it is essential for the standard to be a tool, learned for the sake of communicating in a non-prejudicial atmosphere.

  11. M. Carlucci permalink
    May 3, 2011 3:44 pm

    This post really spoke to me, probably because of the education I received growing up and the emphasis that was placed on learning the strict grammar rules of Standard English. I attended a private Catholic school for ten years, where strict grammar instruction was given the same amount of time and attention as reading literature and writing. There was a great deal of pressure placed on us to master the rules and irregularities of Standard English. We were never really exposed to other dialects of English, let alone encouraged to embrace them as “valid” and rich. I can see now what a flawed approach that is. Thus, it is refreshing to see a book like Understanding Language Variation in U.S. Schools receive such positive attention. I think this really speaks to the idea that language is about more than memorizing lists of words and sets of rules. Language is essentially about being able to express ourselves and interact with other people, and Standard English is certainly not the only dialect of English that accomplishes that. This book shows that language is a living entity that is not confined to grammar textbooks, and that we, as well as the educators of our country, need to embrace that.

  12. Christopher Pesch permalink
    May 4, 2011 9:53 am

    The book sounds like it takes a more inclusive, unprejudiced approach to the idea of English dialects, which is refreshing in context of our current educational system. It rides a very fine line between encouraging learning about different dialects and recognizing the importance of learning Standard English to become a fully mobile member of society. It seems that it emphasizes the existence of these home dialects and how educational techniques, perhaps a contrastive approach, seeks to better equip teachers in dealing with the linguistic diversity in the classroom and arm students with Standard English without stifling or stigmatizing the existence of these home styles. All in all, seems like a very interesting book that can be useful in many settings.

  13. Jesse Stayton permalink
    May 4, 2011 3:48 pm

    As someone who has grown up speaking a “non-standard” variety of English (New York English), a book like this really seems like a step in the right direction in terms of dialectal advocacy, as well as dialectal awareness in schools. Language ideologies do exist, and the stereotypes must be broken down. I have friends and several family members who live in the South, and they’ve mentioned on numerous occasions how they’ve felt that their dialect certainly “slows them down” in many aspects of their lives, school being one of them. This book, if distributed to teachers and administrators, seems like it would create a positive linguistic environment for these speakers, and would allow them to perform equally against speakers of “standard” English. Speakers of African American English would especially benefit from this text. AAE is probably one of the most marginalized dialects of English, and a lot of work must be done in order to educate others. As a linguist, I sort of feel like I am “privileged” to be aware of dialectal differences that exist withing English, and to know that no dialect is any better or worse than another. They are merely regional/cultural varieties of one national language. However, I also realize that most Americans don’t have this knowledge, which is why this book is so important. Furthermore, as was stated in one of our lectures, it’s crucial that linguistics, or something like it, be taught in schools, and from an early age. This way, we can combat the stereotypes that exist against the various dialect and forms of English.

  14. C Douglas permalink
    May 5, 2011 9:32 pm

    I think it’s important to teach children the distinctions between different dialects. Children should understand that different dialects aren’t better or worse than standard English, only more or less prestigious given societal norms. Different dialects are important in helping us to understand cultural differences and show how language evolves over time. African-American and other minority English dialects in particular are important to learn in school, otherwise children grow up with an inferiority complex that “their” English is somehow incorrect or invalid.

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