Why Modeling the Use of Standard English Is Important for Classroom Teachers
It’s everywhere these days. All you have to do is turn on the television or radio, listen in on conversations at the mall or log onto social media and you’re surrounded by non-standard English. For better or worse, we’ve become increasingly casual as a society, with blogs and social media taking the place of more formal news outlets while texting and email have replaced standard letters. With this evolution has come the increasing evidence (if not prevalence) of other forms of English. Often referred to as non-standard English, in comparison standard English is often referred to as “proper English” or “the queen’s English” (despite the fact that the United states hasn’t been under a monarchy for some time and linguists debate what constitutes proper). Its unaccented variety is also sometimes called General American. I prefer to use the term standard English because it is less evaluative.
Researchers estimate there are somewhere between 24 and 31 dialects in the United States (depending on who you ask and how they are subdivided). Keep in mind that everyone speaks a dialect, although most of us assume the way we talk sounds “normal” and thus must be “right.” Dialects have rules and are predictable and are thus equally valid, at least linguistically. Their acceptability and social status however, is culturally dictated and completely subjective. Some dialects are closer to standard English than others, and of course you can speak standard English with an accent outside of a dialect.
There are pockets of society where non-standard English is not only the norm, but the preference. Rap music would not have the same impact in standard English. Paula Dean just wouldn’t seem as welcoming using standard English. For Miranda Lamberts to sing “This isn’t your mother’s broken heart” just wouldn’t have the same impact as “This ain’t your mama’s broken heart.” You get the point. And yet despite these cases, standard English is perceived as a measure of education in this country. It is the currency which the educated trade in to gain access to competitive jobs, write professionally, give speeches, and make themselves more marketable.
English Learners who come from homes where they are not exposed to standard English may struggle to navigate it when they see it in literature, textbooks, and on standardized tests. They may struggle to write formally, because children write the way that they talk. It is not uncommon for me to hear teachers ask things like “What bus you on today?” and yet, when that same child they were speaking to fails to use correct subject/verb agreement in their writing, how can we blame him? Children write the way they talk and they talk like the people around them do. As educators it is our job to model the kinds of language we seek from our students. From vocabulary to syntax, our everyday speech is patterning the linguistic habits of our students. It’s easy in the day-to-day to fall into bad habits and lose focus on the way in which we speak to students, but being conscious of the language and speech patterns we use with students is one of the most impactful ways to give them linguistic access.
If we want students to speak with increasing linguistic complexity and specificity we must be intentional and systematic in ensuring that we provide the exposure students need to access all types of linguistic materials and scenarios, from literary texts to job interviews, so that our students are equipped to go anywhere, do anything, and be whomever they want.