printability and standardization

Rebecca S. Wheeler rwheeler at
Mon Jan 12 16:23:28 UTC 2004

Dear Christina, et. al

Christina Paulston wrote:

>Dear Maggie,
>    I have read all the people you mention - although not the particular
>piece by Silverstein whom I stay away from if I can help it ( his ideas are
>brilliant; his writing is dreadful).
>    When I say you can tell Af-Am that AAVE is a wonderful dialect, in many
>ways more expressive (he talking~ he be talking) than standard English, it
>might "take" with some, but not your ordinary working class, LMC - they
>simply don't believe it. With good reason, I might add. (For social reasons)
>Only linguists would believe it. Why do I say that. I have tried many, many
>times - I have supervised any numbers of lge attitude studies and it is
>always the same. Dislike and distrust.

My experience with language attitudes is somewhat different. I teach
both university students, in our Teacher Education program, and I have
been retained by my local school district to work with failing
elementary and middle schools (preponderantly African American student
body, low income, urban area) to teach school teachers how to use the
vernacular language to teach Standard English. My work implements
linguistic approaches to language varieties (nonstandard varieties
specifically) and draws upon the research based techniques of
Contrastive Analysis and codeswitching, to help teachers teach kids to
codeswitch from the vernacular to the Standard as fits the setting and
communicative purpose (thus paralleling very closely John Rickford's work).

Of course, at the outset of working with any new group, the preponderant
attitude is dislike and distrust. Somehow, I seem to have found a way to
get around, and even dispell that over the course of working with a
group. Perhaps a key in my work is that I align myself with my
audience's intent that students speak so-called Standard English. As a
university professor, that's one part of my goal, fostering Standard
English ability. Then I point out that traditional techniques have not
worked in fostering Standard English mastery. Now, while the persistence
of vernacular features in African American students' writing and speech
is a great deal more complex than just a matter of grammar and
linguistic structure (See Ogbu's work), it is nonetheless true that the
usual correction methods don't work (See Wolfram, Adger, Christian 1999;
and Rickford). I then tell my audiences (University students, public
school teachers, community college teachers, administrators) that
Linguistics offers a technique that does work in fostering student
command of Standard English -- Codeswitching and Contrastive Analysis.
Then comes the kicker... For this approach to work, the practitioner has
to take a leap of faith, letting go of assumptions of error inside
vernacular language, in order to even be able to see the patterns. For
it's when the teacher sees the patterns that they can contrast the
structure of "home language" to "school language" and more readily come
to command the additional linguistic code, Standard English.  I anchor
all this work in helping kids perform better (in usage/mechanics) on the
statewide standardized writing tests

At any rate, I have been pretty successful in defusing people's anger
and resistance toward vernacular varieties. Perhaps it's that I've been
doing this long enough that I'm ok with the intitial flames and fury and
venting and can just sit calmly and comfortably through it. Perhaps it's
because we talk about how we all vary all of our self presentation by
situation (the examples are entertaining)... anyway.

Some of my work on codeswitching in the schools is reported in the
following article

Wheeler, Rebecca S. and Rachel Swords (2004). "Codeswitching: Tools of
language and culture transform the dialectally diverse classroom." To
appear in the July 2004 issue of Language Arts of the NCTE.

This article is also available on my website at
(click on "closing the achievement gap" and then look for the
Codeswitching article).

Rachel Swords is a 3rd grade urban teacher implementing Codeswitching
with her students.

>    But if you want to read something really great, find Samy Alim's
>dissertation, defended last spring at Stanford, John Baugh's student.
Yes, I'm looking forward to seeing Alim's work when it comes out in the
Dialect Society.


Rebecca Wheeler

Rebecca S. Wheeler, PhD
Department of English
Christopher Newport University
1 University Place
Newport News, VA 23606

Phone: 	757-594-8891
Fax:		757-594-8870
Email:		rwheeler at


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