Code-Switching: The First Step to Improving Public Schools

Photo via Language Diversity

The Problem: Achievement Gap and Dialect Prejudice

A long buried issue that has gone unaddressed in America’s public schools since desegregation in the 1950’s is what is known as the achievement gap, the “disparity in academic performance” between white students and minority students. Although in recent years, evidence has shown the gap has begun to shrink, the issue is still a problem in many urban inner city areas. National censuses have shown that student minorities tend to perform below the average white student in nearly all subjects for many years, and according to linguists, the language of the school is the key.

Dialect prejudice may be the invisible barrier keeping minority children from succeeding in our schools. Dr. Rebecca Wheeler, an English professor and the director of the Linguistics minor at Christopher Newport University, defines dialect prejudice as “…a form of racial and ethnic prejudice triggered by a minority group’s language.”  Essentially, the idea that any language variety is “incorrect” or “broken,” or that there is one “correct” way of speaking a language is dialect prejudice.

This is problematic when you have students from dialectically diverse backgrounds entering schools where they are expected to completely disregard their home language for Standard English. This is particularly prevalent in black communities where variants of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) are spoken. Derrin Nelson, an African American student at CNU, shares her experience with dialect prejudice: “I’ve heard stuff like that before, growing up… you’re learning grammar in school where they tell you, ‘Oh that’s not a grammatically correct sentence.’ And as a kid I was like, ‘Why not?’ Because at home, I could say, ‘I stay at the kitchen,’ but if I wrote that in a paper, they wouldn’t understand what I mean.”

Video via YouTube

There may be an answer to this dilemma in code-switching, according to this 2009 study. “In urban school systems, we use the term code switching to refer to students choosing their language to fit the setting– be it a vernacular or a community language in the home, with their friends, in casual settings, or in written contexts of dialogue….versus choosing the more formal, standard written English that is expected by the tests and the business establishment,” Dr. Wheeler explains, “So code switching in an urban environment invites students to choose the language variety to fit the setting.”

The Premise

The research for this study was compiled through observing sessions in a 7th grade English classroom at Barrington Middle School in Detroit. The researcher would spend time in class with the students, and conducted interviews with the teacher, Mr. Lehrer, and two African American students called Kiki and Monet. In the classroom, Mr. Lehrer experimented with students’ success at improving Standard English writing skills.

First, he structured writing exercises where African American students could express themselves in poetry or narrative using AAVE features, and by teaching his class that nonstandard ways of writing and speaking are legitimate through literature featuring characters speaking in dialects.

Then, Lehrer had his students practice writing formal essays using Standard English, but told students to write drafts of their papers to submit to him for critique without grade penalties. He encouraged his class to write the first draft in their home dialect if they wished before going back and switching the final draft to Standard.

Lehrer used this format throughout the school year, but there was a marked improvement in his class’ Standard English writing skills by the end of the study, as well as a change in attitude of some of his students to writing in Standard English.

Diverse Kids in Classroom
Photo via Peak Learning

The Findings

Lehrer’s use of low-stakes writing assignments to celebrate his classroom’s dialect diversity improved his students’ attitudes towards learning Standard English writing, given that beforehand, Kiki and Monet were resistant to changing their writing from AAVE features to Standard English features. Using the home language as “scaffolding,” or as a foundation for Standard writing (instead of the “you’re language is wrong” approach) makes students more receptive to learning and applying Standard writing in their schoolwork.

According to Dr. Wheeler, “A change of attitude on the student’s part is familiar because… no one is recognizing the linguistic richness that they possess! But in the context of remedying that… as a classroom moves into culturally relevant pedagogy, then that lets the students see, ‘Oh, my identity is being honored. Well, from that background, I’m a little more receptive to adding this other form.’ It’s a well-known trajectory.”

Why It Matters

Code-switching is an important tool in the classroom to combat dialect prejudice and to close the achievement gap. Study after study has shown that prescriptivist approaches, which teach the way that English “ought” to be, do not help students learn and in fact, quell their spirit for learning. Respecting and uplifting students is the key to facilitate learning in our public schools, and code-switching techniques show dialectically diverse classrooms that language is a gateway to expressing yourself, and there is no “wrong way” to express yourself while simultaneously helping these students use Standard English and recognize what settings AAVE versus Standard are appropriate for.

“It is so important for little black kids to know that their culture, their identity, is not wrong or broken. Using AAVE is not something they should feel ashamed of,” Nelson comments. “Using Standard should not come at the price of forgetting AAVE.”

Photo via TheBlackHomeschool





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