Panel Discusses Code-Switching at Askwith ForumBy Jill Anderson
There are a growing number of grammar problems in American classrooms that affect not only a student’s ability in math and English but also may contribute to the achievement gap according to the authors of Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. The November 20 Askwith Lecture Forum, sponsored by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University and Time Warner, Inc, provided insight on strategies using students’ existing knowledge of every day English to improve their formal English skills.
The panel noted that many American teachers would correct a student who writes an incorrect phrase such as, “without no TV.” However, the correction does little to improve the student’s English. “Ironically, the one thing that does not work [to improve a student’s English] is correcting vernacular features,” said coauthor Rebecca Wheeler, a professor at Christopher Newport University. Wheeler, along with HGSE Professor Catherine Snow and Code-Switching coauthor and Title I teacher Rachel Swords, discussed how teaching English differently can help improve African American students’ abilities and reduce the achievement gap.
When Wheeler began researching grammar issues in urban classrooms, she noticed similar problems with subject-verb agreement, possessives, plurality, and double negatives among African American students from third grade to community college. The students’ struggles with grammar affected their performances on standardized tests and ultimately led to them being penalized by American policies like No Child Left Behind, she said.
When she realized that correction wasn’t helping African American students, she began using three response strategies that incorporated scientific method, code-switching, and contrastive analysis. The latter specifically built on the student’s existing knowledge of language, often considered slang, to build a new knowledge of English by examining structural differences. By teaching African American students that their English wasn’t wrong, but rather not always appropriate in a situation, Wheeler began to see changes in their grammar.
For Swords, one of Wheeler’s former students, the struggle with correcting students’ grammar and seeing little improvement drew her to search for a new teaching method. “I fully believed in being a correctionist,” Swords said. “I constantly pointed out errors in hopes that they would be corrected and learned.” When she asked the students how they felt when she corrected them, she realized that many students felt stupid, angry, and confused. “Something had to change and it had to be me,” she said.
Although Swords signed up for Wheeler’s class, she admitted that initially she wasn’t confident that a different technique would work, but figured it was worth trying. As part of Wheeler’s instruction, Swords began teaching her students grammar by using contrastive analysis between “formal” and “informal” English. According to Swords, students grasped the new method right away since they understood the meaning of “formal” and “informal.” The new technique led to discussions about when you’d use formal English over informal.
Today 100 percent of her students are passing math and reading, she said. In addition, the majority of teachers at her school have started to use the code-switching technique and have experienced similar success. “Students are recognizing patterns to the point that they are correcting their teachers,” she said.
Snow applauded the work, but admitted that there were many challenges to adopting such a technique in the classroom. “It requires all of us to be socio-linguists,” Snow said, noting that teachers need to understand enough about language and the varieties of language in order to fully engage in contrastive analysis and code-switching. Snow, who referred to Wheeler’s techniques as good “pedagogical practices,” urged educational researchers to find out more about why correcting isn’t an effective technique in teaching. “I think this is a basic question that we need to answer before we take this technique,” she said.