nach Hause

Graduate Studies

Program of Study

Effective Hypertext Glossing Techniques

Reflections on Classroom Discourse

German School System & Pedagogy Research Paper

EVA: Gifted & EBD

ELAN 7732

  1. Reflections on Classroom Discourse
  2. Language in the Classroom:  Dominance, Ignorance & Miscommunication
  3. The Propagation of Classism through traditional Participation Frameworks
  4. Effective Error Correction in the L2 Classroom, is it really possible?
  5. How you say it is more important than what you say
  6. Reflections on using English, and language in general, as a means to oppress others


I.  Reflections on Classroom Discourse

            This synthesis focuses on two themes developed in the writings of Cazden (2001), Michaels (1981) and Ladson-Billings (2002).  The first theme addresses cultural differences in discourse styles and their repercussions, contextualized in the practice of “sharing time” in first grade.  The second theme considers how low expectations give lower class and minority students “permission to fail” and what teacher’s can do to both be aware and proactive in changing this pattern.

            Michaels (1981) focuses on “sharing time” in an ethnically diverse first grade classroom taught by a white female teacher.  The issues addressed concern the value and attention given to various discourse styles (and consequently speakers).  This activity, sharing, is in actuality a way for children to practice the discourse style both dominant and valued in society (the language of power)—the situated narrative--situated in the sense that time and lexical markers are integral to the story.  In other words, sharing provides “oral preparation for literacy” which in turn affects later access to social and educational opportunities (Michaels, 1981, p. 423). 

In Michaels’ article, the white children follow a more topic-centered narrative style whereas the black children follow a more topic-associating style.  These differences are problematic in, “the [obvious] miscommunication that happens when child and adult are in conflict about the newsworthiness of particular aspects of some event, or the teacher becomes impatient with episodic narratives” (Cazden, 2001, p. 89).  One style (white) is considered more structured and informational and consequently more valuable whereas the other style (black) is considered ill thought-out and random.  However, upon further examination of intonation, pitch and ideas presented, the discourse styles for both white and black students did indeed possess connections, prosodic markers and pauses valued in narratives—but in different fashions (Michaels, 1981, p. 430). 

Those speakers of the non-dominant language expressed frustration at being interrupted and misunderstood by the teacher whereas the teacher was frustrated by the students’ lack of preparation.  So what does this mean?  First of all, it means that minority speakers are made to feel “less than” the majority speakers, they just aren’t good enough, secondly, it means they will have less access to educational and career opportunities (not to mention the adverse affects on self-esteem and confidence). 

Who’s to blame?  No one, per se, is to blame.  Instead of pointing fingers and making value judgments, teachers/educators (people in general) need to be both aware of and more accepting of diverse discourse styles.  Again, different does not imply bad.  Cultural and SES differences have to be taken into consideration, especially in light of input-output theories.  Children reproduce the kinds of speech they hear at home and in their every day lives--language socialization begins from day one of a child’s life and to devalue how someone speaks is to devalue them as a person (Cazden, 2001, pp. 61-62).  So what are some long-term affects of devaluing certain discourse styles?

            In answering the above question, we now examine the second theme involving “permission to fail.”  Ladson-Billings (2002) examines this idea in conjunction with low expectations for minority students.  Since minority students’ discourse styles are devalued from the early beginnings of their formal education, they are, in a sense, alienated and given the right to fail because teaching them is deemed to be too much of a challenge or simply a waste of time.  Consequently, when minorities don’t do well in schools/careers they are thought of as not trying hard enough (Ladson-Billings, 2002, p. 111).  This failure is further compounded by the propagation of the American Dream, in that your success is contingent upon your effort.  But in reality, you can struggle and try your best but still be trapped under glass ceilings reinforced by your race, gender and ethnicity--all of which are reflected in language usage.

            So how can this impending failure be circumvented through education?  Well, teachers have to be both introspective and reflective of their teaching styles.  This is much easier said than done.  This is also the looming question of bridging the gap between theory and practice.  As educators we are aware of the current literature but we need to translate it into our everyday practices.  The case presented in Ladson-Billings involves a young teacher, Carter Forshay, who took his job seriously, accepted it was his responsibility to teach his students how to write and most importantly didn’t give up or give in to student’s frustrations and lack of interest.  Carter adjusted his lessons to make writing seem more approachable and relevant to his students’ lives by incorporating music as a springboard for teaching a writing process (Ladson-Billings, 2002, p. 113).  He understood that “the teacher’s task is to ‘invent the activity that will engage students is using, and therefore learning, the strategies essential to certain writing tasks’” (Cazden, 2001, p. 70).  Not only did he make the curriculum relevant, he made it an interesting group effort that produced results that met his high expectations.  Carter demanded success from his students, and used intelligent scaffolding techniques to encourage and teach his students. He also had various groups of students work together to produce and edit their writing; this type of group work can be very beneficial to those engaged in creative writing (see Cazden, 2001, pp. 75, 111, 131, for a detailed explanation as to why and how this is beneficial).  In summation, teachers should have high, realistic expectations for their students and their students can meet these expectations through teacher interventions such as scaffolding, making the material relevant, and working with the knowledge students bring to the classroom instead of trying to reprogram them.

            Personally, the two themes briefly addressed in this synthesis are important to me.  I have worked in ethnically diverse classrooms and felt frustrated when lessons didn’t go as planned—I hadn’t given that much consideration as to why in terms of discourse styles.  I too, am quick to jump to the conclusion that both the material and what I expect is obvious—so students who don’t follow suit simply didn’t prepare well enough.  Instead, what I need to do is look at the classroom discourse (and my lessons, teaching style, etc.) from various perspectives to see if I can better understand what is happening and how I can make it better.  I have also seen firsthand how low expectations for black (and other minority) students can set up a poisonous classroom environment for everyone involved.  What I need to be aware of is how I treat my students to see what behaviors and language I favor and how this affects the other students.  It isn’t an easy thing to think about and it is rather uncomfortable to examine my own biases.  Teaching isn’t always pretty and I know I can’t change overnight; but I like to think I can grow and improve through self-reflection.  I also hope to become more comfortable experimenting with new methods and ideas when teaching.

Cazden, C. B. (2001).  Classroom discourse:  The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.

Ladson-Billings, G. J. (2002) I ain’t writin’ nuttin':  Permissions to Fail and Demands to Succeed in Urban Classrooms.  In L. Delpit & K. Dowdy (Eds.), The Skin that we Speak.  New York:  The New Press.

Michaels, S. (1981) Sharing time:  Children’s narrative styles and differential access toliteracy.  Language in Society 10, 423-42.


II. Language in the Classroom:  Dominance, Ignorance & Miscommunication

            Research on language learning, from multiple perspectives, is an increasingly popular research topic.  Two main themes addressed in the study of language learning include language socialization (children learn various aspects of language through interactions within their environments—home, community, school, etc.), and indexicality (referents/contexts for words/things found in a person’s world).  I will briefly examine these two areas in relation to their affect on classroom discourse during a literacy event and extrapolate their long term effects on children both during and after they leave school.

            A discussion about language socialization must be grounded in terms of socio-cultural factors affecting language learning and literacy events in a person’s life.  In various places all over the world, language is often (mis)used to dominate certain groups within a society.  At a very early age children learn to code switch between formal and informal manners of speech dependent upon their listener, environment and intent. “We find ‘good speech’ used in writing, reading, school instruction, praying, singing, radio broadcasting and talking to foreigners...’bad speech’ on the other hand, is found in most everyday spoken interactions, ranging from both formal and informal situations” (Duranti & Ochs, 1988, p. 196).  Though the preceding quote is from an article specifically discussing discourse styles in Samoa, I argue that it applies more globally and also that intrinsic worth and consequently, a hierarchical rating are given to types of speech when describing them as either "good" or "bad."  Those with "good" speech have more power than those with "bad" speech.

In some cases, the various discourse styles of home and school are so disparate they may threaten a person’s social identity.  To fully appreciate this, consider how language is used in a Samoan village for educational purposes.  For example, “...when a Samoan child is first exposed to literacy instruction, he or she is taught something more than the alphabet” (Duranti and Ochs, 1988, p. 195).  This statement refers to the type of basal readers and other materials primarily used in literacy instruction; the Samoan alphabet contains three letters borrowed from the Western alphabet (h, k, and r) and the pictures used as examples are of western-styled clothes, dishes and boats (!) instead of objects more relevant to a child’s everyday life.  Also, Samoan educators are often trained in Western pedagogical techniques that aren't reflective of Samoan values such as community accomplishment and group cooperation (Duranti & Ochs, 1988, p. 204). 

Therefore, teaching literacy is also a means of re-socializing children and reshaping their character (Duranti & Ochs, 1988, p. 209).  It is important to keep in mind that for Samoans, notions of literacy are tied to classroom achievement and consequently economic achievement.  The classroom discourse style employed is meant to prepare Samoan children to successfully compete in a Western-style economy.  Literacy equals money, which in turn equals human capital to be exploited by industry.  Furthermore, the use of literacy in this society is usually restricted to financial matters, Bible reading and schoolwork, and as a means to correspond with emigrated family members.  So during the school years and beyond, Samoan children are confronted with a dichotomy of language use.  At home they are one person and at school or in more formal settings, they are another and for many, the literacy lessons taught in school are not relevant to their daily life (Duranti & Ochs, 1988, p. 208).  Again, I believe that this phenomenon is not strictly Samoan in nature, indeed this type of irrelevance abounds in school settings everywhere. 

Consider language learning and language socialization in the following way, “Language learning is cultural learning” (Pease-Alvarez & Vasquez, 1992, p. 82).  Several cultural differences exist in the ways a society chooses to address its children and what is chooses to teach its students and no one way is the right way.  Many societies see children as passive learners that will gain language simply through exposure.  Conversely, many societies actively engage in language learning with their children through the use of motherese or simplified language.  If the discourse style employed in schools does not match the discourse style used at home, the child will experience (at least initially if not always) disharmony between and within the environments.  When value judgments are made and more worth is given to the educational discourse style, children may react in two different ways.  Some are likely to rebel and resist attempts to change their language and as such, their identity (Pease-Alvarez & Vasquez, 1992, p. 91).  On the other hand, some children may become more fluent and comfortable with the educational discourse styles and language to the tragic end that they can no longer communicate effectively with their own family (Pease-Alvarez & Vasquez, 1992, p. 94).  Both of these outcomes are unacceptable and avoidable. 

So what can be done to fuse discourse styles or to at least make them less exclusive?  One suggestion is to make the curriculum more relevant to a child’s life.  This can be accomplished by getting to know the community in which you teach/work and drawing on the resources and expertise already available. Even just drawing on student knowledge can really change the classroom environment by empowering the students. “This in turn can lead to meaningful connections between curriculum and community” (Pease-Alvarez & Vasquez, 1992, p. 95).  While this is easy to say, it is harder to incorporate. 

As teachers we are already very busy people and finding time to go out into the community is difficult at best.  Not that most teachers don't have good intentions, it is rather that they are overwhelmed by and unprepared for all of the differences and challenges within a classroom. ESOL used to primarily refer to Spanish speakers here in Georgia, but now it means so much more.  The variety and ethnicity in any given class is amazing!  When you add in religion, culture, language and the reason for immigration (persecution, refugee, etc.) the picture becomes even more skewed and it seems impossible that any type of learning could be accomplished at all. 

In addition to this, it is both personally and professionally challenging (not to mention uncomfortable) to step further back and look at the "clientele" and politics within a school to see how you fit in.  Given all the issues surrounding teaching (teacher accountability, multi-ethnic and diverse populations, ESOL problems, the "us vs. them" attitude, transience, lack of respect and decent financial compensation), I can understand why people don't want to be teachers and why many of those who are, are frustrated by trying to forge a gap between theory and practice.  Not to say that teaching isn't an exciting and rewarding profession, but that there are so many changes and upheaval on every level that it is a difficult endeavor for everyone involved.  A paradigm shift is never easy or quick; and language education is having some serious growing pains.

In light of the previous discussion of language socialization I will now briefly examine the idea of indexicality in literacy events.  Indexicality refers to the real-world referents or context in which a person understands a word/phrase.  In other words, when a child hears a word, she usually (and often unconsciously) makes a connection to some object or idea tangent to her own life--you may say one thing and the listener may hear and understand another. Therefore studying indexicality will offer insight as to how to avoid such miscommunication or better yet, how to incorporate these new ideas into more effective teaching methods by drawing on student knowledge instead to trying to construct knowledge from the ground up.  Again, relevancy greatly affects motivation for literacy and language learning.  Consider how language learning and literacy are imparted.  One traditional method is through phonics or other abstract methods that require rule memorization and practice as opposed to use of realia  (Rymes, B.  2002, p. 128).  How can you realistically and effectively teach a language without objects or extra-textual clues when after all, everything is indexed?  You can't, really.  

When a child does make a comment about a word or idea being learned, the teacher has the power to either accept or deny the child’s contribution.  If denied, it can be quite damaging in that it reinforces the idea that there is only one correct association, namely the teacher’s (Rymes, B.  2002, p. 130).  The teacher may choose to ignore the remark due to ignorance of the word, because the issue is uncomfortable, or because it does not fit into her lesson plan.  However, this has the undesired effect of disassociating students with the task at hand.  “By repeatedly silencing students’ links to a broader context, [t]he teacher constitutes the reading process itself as unrelated to externally indexed meaning...thus reading itself is constructed as unrelated to the socially meaningful words and experiences of these learners” (Rymes, B.  2002, p. 134). In other words, drawing on students’ knowledge and helping them personalize the information would greatly benefit the learner  (Rymes, B.  2002, p. 142). 

However, I must admit that as a teacher, I have silenced students both intentionally and unintentionally and I haven’t really thought about the consequences.  I have a particularly hard time with error-correction because I do not want to discourage the student, but at the same time, I don’t want the student to learn something incorrectly.  I also know that I get frustrated when something doesn’t go as planned and instead of working through the situation, I sometimes revert to less than stellar teaching practices in order to just get the answer I wanted and move on (Rymes, B.  2002, p. 137).  As a foreign language teacher, I am ultimately teaching L2 communicative competence and the best way to do this is through relevancy to students’ lives—this is not always an easy task and I am by no means experienced enough to always do this effectively.  I too have had many run-ins with students who had a totally different idea about what I way trying to teach.

One thing I encountered in Austria was English learned through movies, cartoons and advertisements that were not really Standard English.  For example, the cartoon character with the T-shirt and way of introducing himself, I are Baboon, the misspelled Chik-Fil-A  "Eat mor chiken" ads, and of course the ever popular, Toys “R” Us ads were frustrating.  I found these to be frustrating and confusing for both myself (how do I explain them?) and for some of my (esp. younger) students (why is it okay on TV but I can't write it or use it?).  Sometimes I would draw parallels with elements in their dialect by saying things like, "that's how you speak with friends/family but you would never write that anywhere" or by occasionally giving students the non-answer, "don't worry about that" which really just dismisses their curiosity and devalues their personal connections and previous experiences (ouch!).

            Overall, language socialization and indexicality need to be taken into consideration especially when working with diverse students.  After all, “it is widely accepted that schools reflect, impart and contribute to the social values and ways of the majority group” (Pease-Alvarez & Vasquez, 1992, p. 99).  One of our many jobs as educators, then, is to combat social injustices, prejudices, and implicit worth embedded in a language itself.  Only then can we wield language wisely in our various classrooms discourse styles.  We have to be aware of the power of our words in both the explicit and implicit curriculum we teach.

Duranti, S. & Ochs, E. (1988).  Literacy instruction in a Samoan village.  In Culture and  language development:  Language Acquisition and language socialization in a Samoan village (pp. 189-209).  Cambridge and New York:  Cambridge University Press.       

Pease-Alvarez, C. & Vasquez, O. (1992).  Language Socialization in ethnic minority communities.  In F. Genesee (Ed.), Educating second language children:  The  whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community (pp. 82-102).  New York:  Cambridge University Press.

Rymes, B. (2002).  Relating word to world:  Indexicality during literacy events. In S. Wortham & B. Rymes (Eds.) Linguistic Anthropology of Education (pp. 121-150). Westport, CT:  Greenwood.


III. The Propagation of Classism through traditional Participation Frameworks:

Take your position

            Participation structures and frameworks reflect more than an exchange of words between people.  The words themselves are a transparent overlay through which the listeners hear your race, age, gender and social class.   Participation structures and frameworks serve a great purpose in our Classist society; they teach people how to code switch and how to interact with each other.  As such, they also show people to which class or group they belong and how they are valued and by whom.  In this synthesis I will look at some key features in articles by Duranti (1997), Goffman (1981), Philips (1972) and Carrasco (1992).  All four articles present and discuss different types of sociolinguistic exchanges and their ramifications contextualized within specific types of participation framework (e.g., professional and educational).  It is important to know who possesses and grants the power to speak—and what can be done to improve the inequity inherent in the currently accepted and used frameworks.

            Duranti writes about the different roles assumed by a speaker (animator, author, and principle) and how these roles affect what is being said and what is being heard (Duranti, 1997, p. 297).  The listener hears what is said through the appropriate veil.  In a conversation between friends, both are active speakers and listeners; in a classroom, the teacher is the main speaker but grants students the opportunity to speak.  Consider a speaker addressing an audience.  The audience is not really a conversation partner but rather a receptacle.  In other words, "...the role of the audience is to appreciate remarks made, not to reply in any direct way" (Goffman, 1981, p. 138).

            As humans we code switch; we (subconsciously) think about what we will say and to whom and under what circumstances.  We switch speech to match the "recipient" according to our perceptions of their education level and social class (Duranti, 1997, p. 299).  Many foreign languages (and English to some extent) even have different grammatical forms and vocabulary that blatantly reflect class differences (e.g., polite and impolite forms of address based on the usages of certain pronouns, verb conjugations and word order).  Participation frameworks are always in favor of the dominant class and in order to successfully "play the game," all involved have to be familiar not only with the language but with the sociolinguistic nuances; "It is through specific and reproducible participation frameworks that authority, hierarchy, and subordination are constituted" (Duranti, 1997, p. 313).  This inherent domination is all but invisible to and accepted by many as being the one and only norm.

            Those who are not from the dominant culture are severely disadvantaged.  Cultures who value more group oriented activities, who believe in more community oriented educations or governments, or who refuse to make a community member lose face by forcing them to speak in public will not do well in our WASP patriarchal society that values individual accomplishment and competition  (Philips, 1972).  This inequity is further propagated in schools that refuse to consider the cultural background of their students; it is like forcing a gigantic cube into a small round hole—it will never work!!!  And instead of examining why this is unsuccessful, we choose to blame the "others" who are lazy and refuse to cooperate.  Not that change will be easy or comfortable; first many people have to be convinced that this is a real problem.  So how do we do this?

            Teachers and teaching styles have to take into consideration the diversity students bring to the classroom and use that as a bridge into the dominant discourse styles.  Not that students must totally assimilate to be successful, but rather they have to be aware of the differences and competent in the dominant participation framework if they are to affect any positive change at all.  The system can only be broken from within and over a long period of time. The change must come from everyone (parents, teachers, students, community, etc.).

            Work is already being done to help teachers and educators learn to recognize and break out of negative participation frameworks.  Carrasco, in her research about the effectiveness of two different teaching styles in a bilingual class, writes, "...the intention of such study [micro ethnology] is to gain an understanding of the ways in which the social roles of the teachers and children (i.e., participation structures) help to create the quality of interaction in instruction" (Carrasco, 1992, p. 395).  The teacher with an understanding of her students' cultural backgrounds was able to teach more effectively and the students were not only able to learn more, but they also were able to enjoy learning.  In general, knowing more about the students can help the teacher personalize instruction and effectively reach many more learners.

Carrasco, R. L., Acosta, C. T., & de la Torre-Spencer, S. (1992). Language use, lesson  engagement, and participation structures:  A microethnic analysis of two language arts lessons in a bilingual first grade classroom.  In Saravia-Shore, M. & Arvizu, S. F. (Eds.), Cross-cultural literacy:  Ethnographies of communication in multi-            ethnic classrooms.  New York: Garland.

Duranti, A. (1997). Participation, From Linguistic Anthropology (pp. 294-314).  Cambridge: Campbridge University Press.

Goffman. I. (1981). Excerpt from Forms of Talk, Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Philips, S. U. (1972).  Participant structures and communicative competence:  Warm   Springs children in community and classroom.  In C. B. Cazden, V. P. John, & D. Hymes (Eds.), Functions of Language in the classroom (pp. 370-394). New York: Teachers College Press.


IV. Effective Error Correction in the L2 Classroom, is it really possible?

            Error correction is currently a hot topic among L2 teachers.  Should it be done at all?  What kind? To what extent? And is it really useful?  After all, errors are reflective of the thought processes present when a person first begins learning an L2 and many L2 learners make mistakes because they are trying new constructions and forms they have yet to learn.  At what point does grammatical error correction become meaningful and/or motivating in spoken and/or written contexts? How does grammatical error correction relate to discourse analysis?  Answers to these questions can be found in the writings of Riggenbach (2002), Celce-Murcia & Olshtain (2000) and Morgan (1998). 

            First let's consider grammatical error correction in spoken language.  Should errors be corrected if they don't hinder meaning? It depends on the context; the more formal a situation (work, presentation) the better the grammar needs to be—this is true in any language.  "Spoken language differs from written language in many important ways; formal rehearsed language is notably different than language used in unrehearsed, informal contexts" (Riggenbach, 2002, p.43). It is also important to note that people don't write like they speak; some languages even have different verb conjugations and cases that are used only for writing and never in speech!   In terms of discourse analysis,  "...nonnative speaker of English using discourse analysis as a means of studying language, the exploration of this topic can be rewarding and enlightening.  Learners can discover for themselves that there is no such thing as "perfect" speech—that is, native speakers make errors, too" (Riggenbach, 1999, p. 42).  The main focus is on making yourself understood; during speech, the speaker can use body language, facial expressions and intonation to convey meaning that may not come out in their writing.

            An interesting method of error correction presented by Celce-Murcia & Olshtain is the analysis of speech produced by a native speaker.  The point of this exercise, besides providing a meaningful context, is to show that native speakers also make mistakes; that they (like all people) speak in fragments, and they use many stalling techniques when speaking (Celce-Murcia & Olshtain, 2000, p. 225).  Considering this exercise in light of Riggenbach (2002, p. 43), reiterates the idea that written and spoken language are quite different and as such, they warrant different means of grammatical error correction.

            Let's now consider grammatical error correction in written texts.  Celce-Murcia & Olshtain (2000) state that L2 learners should take some responsibility for their own learning.  As such, they should be taught to self-correct as early as possible, at first through the use of shorter, controlled segments (e.g., texts, dialogues) and then gradually through longer segments.  For written work they suggest using comparative methods of error correction such as a chart (e.g., columns named grammatical, ungrammatical, correction), teacher recommendations on a sheet attached to student's written work and a comparison of their own work with the same work written by a native speaker (Celce-Murcia & Olshtain, 2000, pp. 218-220).  Ideally, students would be able to improve their speaking ability by improving their writing skills.  While these forms of error correction may be extremely useful and personalized, I argue that they are extremely time-consuming and tedious; how can a classroom teacher possibly have enough time to do all of this?  These methods would work well one on one, but they are too idealistic and unrealistic for all L2 teachers.  Also, providing an authentic situation for error correction can be rather difficult because as L2 teachers we often engineer situations to a certain end, thereby forcing the situation and decontextualizing the grammar.             

            Morgan's article (1998) on teaching politics in an ESL classroom provides a context for grammatical error correction in both written and oral work.  He choose specifically to talk about the Gulf War with his ESL students and prepared them for a discussion with a social studies class.  In preparation for this discussion, Morgan introduced his ideas through the use of written articles which the class dissected and used as springboards for activities—error correction occurred during this time.  During the discussion his ESL students were able to effectively communicate their ideas despite occasional grammar mistakes.

            Overall, the push towards communicative learning in L2 has provided some very useful methods for teaching grammar in a more authentic way (I+1, comprehensible input, etc.) but at times, I find that "meaningful input" is just a thin veil for an attempt to make grammar less elusive; there is a break in the bridge between theory and practice.  So how can we effectively correct L2 grammar errors?  At times, the Socratic Method of teaching grammar through guided questions and dialogue is just too time-consuming and frustrating; many students want to be taught the right answer with a brief explaination.  As an L2 teacher who is not a native speaker of German, I am sometimes hesitant to correct my students but at the same time, I cannot let their mistakes always go unchecked.  I understand the theory behind the types of error correction discussed in the readings and I can see where discourse analysis may, with some time and effort, be an effective means of correcting grammar errors.

Celce-Murcia, M. & Olstain, E. (2000).  Discourse Training for teachers and learners.  In Discourse and context in language teaching:  A guide for language teachers. (pp. 216-233).  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Morgan, B. (1998).  Teaching Politics in an ESL classroom.  In The ESL Classroom:  Teaching, Critical Practice, and community development.  (pp. 23-40 and 135-137). Toronto:  Toronto University Press.

Riggenbach, H. (2002).  Discourse analysis in the language classroom:  Volume 1: The Spoken Language.  Ann Arbor, MI:  The University of Michigan Press.


V. How you say it is more important than what you say

            You can possess a great amount of knowledge and be well dressed, but if you don’t sound intelligent, you won’t be taken seriously.  It is unfortunate just how much weight rests on the way you speak, not just your vocabulary, but your tone and inflection.  People who stutter are often thought foolish, people with a heavy accent or who speak slowly are found unintelligent and those who only speak in dialect are thought lazy.  I know that personally I have (wrongly) made judgments about people’s intelligence and personality based exclusively on the way they speak.  We hear language through a filter of social values and stereotypes (Stubbs, 2002, p. 66).  Attitudes about the language use are the common threads for this week’s readings by Purcell-Gates, Stubbs, Wynne and Sniad. More specifically, I will focus on some of the negative attitudes held about people who do not speak the dominant dialect, or the language of power, and how they are affected by these biases.

            Based on a person’s race, gender, or ethnicity, their language may be perceived as either different or deficient (Purcell-Gates, 2002, p. 129).  A western European living in Athens, GA may be thought of as speaking a different English, whereas a child from Appalachia may be thought to have a language deficiency.  The differences in these labels used to describe language reflect a spectrum that is associated with the speaker’s intelligence and cognitive ability; we make allowances for differences, but we feel the need to correct deficiencies.  People are also very conscious of the social implications of dialect and ways of speaking; however, sounding intelligent is not the same thing as being intelligent (Stubbs, 2002, p. 67).  Dialects also reflect social class of the speaker (Stubbs, 2002, p. 72).  We tend to defer to those who speak with confidence or who are from a higher social class, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them.  (This would be a nice segue into gender differences in language use…). 

We also make the mistake of assuming that people who do not speak the exact same way we do must lack certain knowledge instead of taking into account the notion of passive vocabulary (Stubbs, 2002, p. 77).  A person may have a large vocabulary and understand many different ideas and concepts, but may never have a need to use these things in her everyday life.  We can only judge a person’s knowledge in the arena in which we know them; for example, in school we unfairly judge student’s entire language ability based on classroom interactions, even though we have no idea how they are at home or with friends (Stubbs, 2002, p. 74).  However, a child who has had little to no exposure to literacy previous to school may not understand 1) what literacy really is and 2) why it is important.  These children may have a difficult becoming literate; but it certainly does not mean they are incapable of learning (Purcell-Gates, 2002, p. 128). 

People are aware of the way they speak, especially those people who do not speak the dominant language.  Linguistic differences can be uncomfortable but people must be careful not to make snap judgments about a person based on the way they speak—it is too easy to disrespect different languages if you speak the dominant language/dialect (Wynne, 2002, pp. 210-212).  So how can people learn to respect linguistic differences?  What can teachers do to help students with this?  Well, first of all, teachers could discuss linguicism in class—what is it and what does it mean, how can it be avoided (Purcell-Gates, 2002, p. 140).  Secondly, students should be made aware of the fact that language is political and not scientific (Wynne, 2002, p. 204).  In other words, there is no precise and perfect way to speak.  However, one dialect does belong to the dominant power structure and this needs to be addressed in schools.  Students need to be familiar with this dialect regardless of if they use it or not (Wynne, 2002, p. 211).  Students can either choose to adopt this dialect or be cognizant of it and use it as a tool for professional reasons (Sniad, 2002, p. 302).  Thirdly, teachers need to remember that all students are capable of learning regardless of their linguistic abilities.  Students all start school with different levels of literacy and different types of knowledge.  Though it is difficult, teachers need to be able to meet students where they are and then they can work together to reach a common goal.  Instead of making a child feel ashamed of the way she speaks (which is both rather insulting and alienating), the teacher needs to be more diplomatic and considerate of these differences; they are not deficits. 

So if being aware of different ways people speak and valuing children’s diverse linguistic backgrounds is of the utmost importance to educators, why is it that classroom discourse is only required for a Master’s degree and not teacher certification?

Purcell-Gates, V. (2002).  “…As soon as she opened her mouth!”: Issues of language, literacy, and power.  In L. Delpit & J. K. Dowdy (Eds.), The Skin that we speak.  New York.  The New Press.   

Sniad, T. (2002).  “You have lovely guests”:  An analysis of language ideologies in Hospitality job interview training.  Presentation to the American Association Of Applied Linguistics, Salt Lake City, UT. March, 2002.

Stubbs, M.  (2002).  Some Basic Sociolinguistic Concepts.  In L. Delpit & J. K. Dowdy (Eds.), The Skin that we speak. New York.  The New Press.   

Wynne, J.  (2002).  “We don’t talk right.  You ask him.” In L. Delpit & J. K. Dowdy (Eds.), The Skin that we speak. New York.  The New Press.



VI. Reflections on using English, and language in general, as a means to oppress others

The article entitled, “Sounding American”: The consequences of new reforms on English language learners” brings out some important, if not controversial issues surrounding bilingual education programs in the USA.  I will address attitudes toward bilingual ed. in light of the current political climate, attitudes towards low SES/LEP students and my position on bilingual education as a foreign language teacher.I think many people have the false impression that bilingual education programs were originally created to assist Spanish speakers from immigrant Mexican families.  How many people know there was a Supreme Court Case in the early 1970s that began the national debate AND how many people know it was brought to the courts demanding bilingual education for Chinese speakers?  I am often frustrated by discussions about bilingual education because the diverse history of it is always absent and only negative results are given—and consequently, we are being confronted with the “English-only” movement.  Due to the highly political nature of the English-only movement, it seems that more people would try and get their facts straight; but unfortunately it seems as if the politicians in charge of education feel both empowered to and justified in making broad reforms and policies for the good of their own kind and not the majority of people.  This is done under the clever guise of solidifying the American people through the use of one language, the home language; even more so now in light of September 11th.  Since language is bound so closely to identity, it is not difficult to see the inherent racism in the English-only movement.  “The extent that you insist on maintaining and using your heritage language, even if you are proficient in English, becomes an indicator of allegiance to those around you” (Gutierrez, et. al, 2002, p. 337).  And I’m afraid that the attitudes towards ESL and LEP speakers will only become darker under the current political regime and schism between the classes will only become deeper.

ESL students are not the only ones suffering in our schools.  LEP students, many from low SES brackets, are also at risk; “schooled English” is the preferred English and if you don’t/can’t speak that, then you must be cognitively deficient and in need of remediation.  However, remediation for these “LEP” students usually just 1) makes the student hate school, 2) is boring and often insulting in its repetition and content and 3) is really just a method of producing low-paid skilled workers with no hope for advancement.  At least that is my opinion based on observations I have made in the various schools were I’ve worked.  It’s really sad the way the American Dream is used against people who do work hard but never really make it; instead of blaming overarching political or classist structures they are socialized/taught to blame themselves.  It’s really a clever use of language in a sinister way.            

The last thing I would like to address is my own attitude toward bilingual education as a foreign language teacher.  I was surprised to read, “foreign language educators have never been great supporters of bilingual education, because they see the local language as essentially a different kind of language from those they study and promote—if they see the language of the community as language at all” (Gutierrez, et. al, 2002, p. 337).  I had to stop and think about this for a while, and I can see where this comes from.  The current methodology and pedagogy for teaching a foreign language, at least what I have encountered, is to fully immerse the students in the FL and never ever use English for anything!  Ever!  Doesn’t that seem to contradict what we learn about valuing and using the L1 as a scaffold to learning the L2?  The discrepancy bothers me a great deal; on the one hand I am learning to meet the ESL learner where she is and work from there, but I am told to disregard that for my FL students and to not use their L1 for anything.  Is that because FL learners are supposedly learning an FL of their own volition and ESL learners have no choice?  Isn’t the end the same, aren’t both students trying to become proficient in the L2?  Or is it because the typical FL student is college-bound and therefore cognitively able to handle total immersion whereas the ESL student isn’t?  I know that personally, I am a proponent of bilingual education, but I do think it should focus on content as well as phonological development, “sounding American” may be synonymous with “sounding intelligent” to some, but it is far cry from “being intelligent.”  I think eliminating bilingual education is about as backwards as thinking that English is the most important language in the world.  I agree indeed with the statement, that “[In Washington] …they do not consider anything literacy if it is not in English” (Gutierrez, et. al, 2002, p. 335).  One only has to note the number of bilingual presidents and high-ranking public officials in the US Government to see just how important other languages are.    

Gutierrez, et. al (2002).  “Sounding American”: The Consequences of new reforms on English language learners.  Reading Research Quarterly, 37, 3: 328-243.