English Language Development of Standard and Academic English


Ebonics, Ebonics, Ebonics! So much controversy and so little rational discussion surrounded the attempts by the Oakland School District to address the gap in African American achievement. Rather than go through history, I’m going to explain why using both specific ELD methods and a culturally positive approach are a good idea, and share some examples of how to do this.


Why is this important? Even those who are hostile, or disagree with the idea of Ebonics generally agree that the lack of acquisition of academic English is one of the main reasons that many African Americans are not doing well in school or as well as white peers. For this discussion, I will use the terms African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to discuss the home language of many African Americans, and the more general term, non-standard English to encompass English variants from African Americans, whites, and those from an immigrant background who have non-standard versions of English as a home language.

The assertion that AAVE has its own qualities of language, is not just a political opinion, but supported by linguist and other expert in the field. For instance,  this resolution in the aftermath of the Ebonics debate by the American Linguistics Society was passed unanimously. This post does not argue for teaching Ebonics, but instead, for teaching those who have AAVE and other non-standard English variants as a home language, both standard and academic English explicitly,  with sensitivity to their  home culture.

Cultural Context

Much of the thinking in this area comes from the work of Gloria Ladson Billings, a former president of the AERA (American Educational Research Association). Her worked focuses on seeing childrens’ home culture in a positive, rather than a negative light. If students are lacking some academic or cultural competency, they will need to be taught that skill, but teachers should also seek to create ties to students home culture, and to value the culture competencies they have developed there. This article, Ladson-Billings: But That’s Just Good Teaching, from the Teaching Tolerance site, is a good introduction to this theory in a very accessible form. Why is this important? If you are telling students to largely leave their culture at the classroom door, and only allow mainstream culture in the classroom, you are forcing them to choose between cultures, and some will turn their back on school. This is not an all or nothing proposition. It doesn’t mean that any and all behavior is attributed to their home culture, and allowed. Like most of your teaching, it will involve you making decisions and adjusting instruction based on what is best for your students.

What are some elements of this? One of the trainings I attended over the summer was put on by the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CRTL). My own background on this issues goes back to my early teacher trainings, so this will include some ideas from that organization, and some from my own experiences. For those of you new to this blog, my experience has solely been in high minority, low-income, high language learner population schools, and I’ve been teaching for over 10 years. Here is a list from the Center for CRTL of what a culturally responsive classroom should have, and the Ladson Billings article gives examples from teacher classrooms.

How have I done this in the classroom and computer lab? One thing I try to do is to locate diverse images. To supplement the stock photos from Microsoft, I particularly like the Flickr user CARF, which is from a non-profit in Sao Paulo, Brazil working with children at risk. They have many beautiful and happy photos of kids, not just pictures of children in third world squalor. Because it’s Brazil, they are ethnically diverse. When I have students talk about their culture, I have them dig deeper than just the food they ate, but how and where meals take place. How long does it last? Who is included?  It’s all about digging down into the context and reason for the cultural behavior, so they and you, get the big picture. Most of my classes have had a least three sizable ethnic groups in them. This means that not only are they explaining their culture to you, and to other classmates in that group, but to classmates from other backgrounds. This is really key for building community and understanding of each other in your classroom.

A lot of the methods from Center for CRTL are around participation and discussion. The hows and whys will be very familiar to any good ELD/EFL teacher. They want teachers to eschew calling on raised hands, for methods that will involve more students more actively.

  • Call and response (to bring the class back to the teacher or transition to another activity)
  • Shout it out (for short answers)
  • Think, Pair, Share
  • Pick at stick to randomly select students
  • Train (students call on other students to respond)
  • Put your heads together (table group discussion)
  • Circle the sage (a student expert shares)

Most of those are going to sound pretty familiar. The general idea is to get away from hand-raising and picking because it leaves kids out. It also creates opportunities for oral language practice, and an outlet for the kids to express themselves. Even though my fellow Sacramento teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, has never done this particular training, he uses a lot of these participation methods in his high school classes, as I observed when I visited his Theory of Knowledge class last year.

Development of Standard and Academic English

The last section was more about classroom climate, and management so that students are in a better frame of mind and on track for learning.  There are also teaching strategies to help more directly with language development. They are:

  • Vocabulary development through the use of students’ personal thesauri and dictionaries;
  • Building background knowledge about unfamiliar situations and vocabulary by activating prior experiences and knowledge;
  • Explicitly teaching  students to recognize differences in home language English, and standard and academic English, and the rules for both;
  • Activities such as games, and readers theater to help students recognize when it is situationally appropriate to use standard English, academic English, and their home language;
  • And finally, teaching students how to use this knowledge to “code-switch” and use the correct language for the situation.

Vocabulary Development: The Center for CRTL sees vocabulary development as key because non-standard English speakers usually have a basic level English word for what you’re trying to teach, but they need to learn the higher level vocabulary to move up in knowledge and attainment. For example, students will know the standard English term “money” and may have a home term, like “cheddar”,  but in school they also need to learn “currency”. The thesaurus is the child’s own, and they create their own taxonomy, by choosing which term among the synonyms will be the “guide” word. It could be the home language term, it could be a standard English term, but they choose.

Building Background: Defining academic and technical terms  stresses using students background knowledge as part of the definition. I have also used background knowledge with students to build comprehension in a similar way, and here is an example. Recently, I had a discussion with a co-worker, who is also from an Eastern European Jewish background, which is part of my heritage. We discussed a story in our anthology about a family of Jews escaping from Czarist Russia during the pogroms. She thought is was a great story to teach our kids (who are not Jewish). I thought it could be a great story, but only if taught well because it’s long, and pretty dense. She had made the story work by tying it to her own family’s story of escape at that time. My tactic was to to do that, but take it  one step further, and have my students, many of whom come from either refugee or undocumented immigrant families, think about how it related to their experience. Before reading the story, I asked them to reflect on whether they or family members ever had to leave a country or a home under duress. Here (NightJourney) is an organizer that I used with that story. The questions on the left column are done before reading, and are about the students’ experiences. The right column is done after the story is read, so they can compare their experiences to the story. Even though there were students who did not have that sort of experience in their lives, just having classmates share brings those situations that much closer, and makes the story more meaningful.

Recognizing Home and Academic English: As this is going on, students are taught to recognize the features of their home language, and the rules for standard and academic English. At the lower level, it would emphasize things like the use of  “ain’t” and other non-standard vocabulary. At the higher end, it would involve  pointing out that double negatives (as in Spanish and many other languages) add emphasis in non-standard English, but in standard English they cancel each other out, and are not used. This works best when done in conjunction with your language arts, or other instruction, but it should not be random, but planned out. As students begin to learn to recognize the differences, they do activities, like Jeopardy games to identify whether a word or statement is standard or non-standard usage and why, or readers theater, where different scenes show different English being used, and you discuss why that is done with students. The best example I’ve seen of the later is an activity where students acted out scenes from the life of Ida B. Wells where she met with President Lincoln, and then went home to discuss it with her husband. The first conversation used academic English, the second AAVE, and students discussed why it was appropriate to use them in each context and not the other way around.

Code Switching: This is the beginning of teaching “code switching” which is an essential skill for entry into professional life in the United States. It may look like you are teaching “Ebonics” but you are simply providing enough structure in their understanding of their home language, to transfer them to standard English usage. The other alternative is to demand standard English from students at all times. In addition to alienating students, this will not be an “efficient” or “effective” way to get them using standard and academic English, which is our goal. They will understand it better in comparison to home language rather than in isolation.

In general, there is not a strict line in the sand about when you demand they switch to standard usage. For example, over the years, I have had a rule that students use standard English in their writing, unless, it is an autobiographical narrative or poetry. Shouldn’t all writing in school be in standard English? Autobiography is personal, and needs to be in the student’s language. If you demand that they write about themselves in a language that is not personal you are killing something. Imagine The Color Purple, or any of Roddy Doyle’s work in standard academic English. By removing their language, you may be killing a literary voice. The student may learn to write great memos, but the world will lose something. On the other hand, if they don’t learn academic English, don’t learn how to write an expository report, and can’t write a memo, that’s not a good either. Ideally, you want them to keep their voice, and learn how to navigate mainstream culture with words.

After the fact addition: I came across this post by Jose Vilson that covers a lot of this issues on a macro-level quite nicely and in a more literary style.

4 Comments to

“English Language Development of Standard and Academic English”

  1. September 30th, 2010 at 4:59 am      Reply Alex Case Says:

    A long way from my own teaching situation, but very thought provoking. I wonder whether you think having an L2 only classroom also involves leaving your culture at the door in a negative way, and if so if that would be less of a problem with adults

    • September 30th, 2010 at 2:25 pm      Reply alicemercer Says:

      Hmm, I think age doesn’t matter as much as the “perceived” value of the language.

      One of the reasons I went into teaching was because of my experience helping to support fund raising for a library-based adult literacy program in Oakland, CA. Many of the students were AAVE speakers. As part of their studies, they wrote autobiographies, that were used as reading material for the other program participants. I would choose one of these to feature in the Friends of the Library newsletter to help with fundraising. One poem in particular was really great. It was talking about people the learner had met while riding the bus in Oakland and Berkeley, comparing them to different playing cards. I wasn’t aware that he was using AAVE, at the time (mostly because it was such a great poem). Someone in the public saw the poem and wrote a letter complaining about how we were “lowering” the language by allow such poor grammar, etc. in our newsletter. I think that this is still an issue for adult learners who don’t have a strong grasp of standard English.

      On the other hand, I wonder who has to make a bigger cultural adjustment in an English class in Japan, whatever the age of the students. Is it the teacher, who is in a foreign country, or the students, who are learning a new language, or both but in different ways? Maybe you’re in a better position to answer that question. It would be interesting to know.

  2. October 3rd, 2010 at 4:31 am      Reply Alex Case Says:

    I like your idea of me being the one culturally at sea in Japan or Korea (where I seem to be yoyoing between). Will need to ponder on that a little more, especially as I can hardly remember when Asia was unfamiliar…

    I was thinking more of Spanish speakers (especially) in classroom in the US. Should they be allowed to throw in some Spanish/ Spanglish in their creative writing early on?

  3. October 3rd, 2010 at 9:35 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

    You know thinking about this, I’ve had to make my own culture adjustments when I’m the only white person in the room. The Vilson post I tacked on talked about this (http://thejosevilson.com/2010/09/20/greg-michie-and-why-hes-a-white-teacher-who-gets-it-whereas-you-may-not/). As teachers, I think it’s less about how we adjust, but our attitudes towards our students cultures. I’m guessing most folks going to the trouble of crossing the Pacific have a pretty good base attitude towards Asian cultures they work in?

    Anyway, your point was about L2 or students whose home language in another language, not an English variant, so I’ll get back to that. There are two models for teaching L2 students in the states, bi-lingual and immersion. California (where Larry Ferlazzo and I live and work) does immersion, with no instruction in student’s home language or L1. The reality is with Beginner level ESL students, they still end up using Spanish. I have the same rules about self-expression for students (autobiography, etc.) The biggest problem is that students are not being taught in Spanish, so they often cannot spell, and have a very limited vocabulary in their home language.
    For students who are largely English speaking (say 2nd generation in the U.S.), but use a mix of Spanish and English terms, Spanglish is seen as a pejorative (it’s funny, but Tanglish, a Tagalog/English variant doesn’t seem to have that same label). Some folks use the term Pocho (although that has a negative background since its meaning is rotten, like fruit too long off the tree). It’s been embraced though, and has always had a non-pejorative meaning in some parts (like near the border in San Diego).
    Whatever Spanish they come to school with, I want them to feel good about their culture and home language.


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