“English is like the colonial settler of language (unsurprisingly) in that it constantly takes from all other languages, claims the stolen parts as its own, and then has the audacity to say certain dialects aren’t “correct.”
Sarah Khan 2019
Yikes! Likening grammar to colonialism connects it directly to white supremacy, which does not sit comfortably with me at all! It’s wrong to imagine that there is a single correct way to speak. Grammar rules have changed over time, they vary from place to place, and the way we speak depends on context. Everyone’s conversational grammar is different from their written grammar, and we talk differently with our parents, friends, and colleagues. Grammar rules are a human invention, and they are always changing. Did you know that ‘ain’t’ used to be associated with high class British people, such as Winston Churchill? Now, it’s sneered at by those very same people. As an English woman, I speak different English to my family in England than I do with my American friends and colleagues. Neither is more ‘right’ (although my mum has a different perspective on this!), but wires often get crossed when I forget to code switch. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has its own distinct grammatical and syntactical rules, and plays an important role as a symbol of resistance to racism. At the same time, it is constantly being assimilated and appropriated by white culture. ESL students are often dismissed in deficit terms in schools, when in fact bilingualism is correlated with cognitive flexibility and it literally means the ability to do double what monolingual students can do! This is complicated stuff. Categorizing ‘nonstandard’ English grammar as inferior is dehumanizing, and correcting someone’s grammar or spelling in the middle of a discussion is derailing; a pernicious and subtle form of tone policing.
"Language works best when it brings as many people into communication with each other. If we know, by using certain language, we're disinviting certain people from that conversation, language isn't doing its job."
Grammar policing is not just about racism and language purity. All the biases and marginalization that we see across the social, political, and economic spectrum are embedded in our language, and rules about how and when people should speak. ‘Feminine’ forms of verbal expression, such as use of qualifiers, upspeak, and ‘like’ are frowned upon as social weakness, and women (and sometimes gay men) are often advised to stop sugarcoating things and get assertive! This doesn’t apply to Black women, apparently, whose expression is more likely to be criticized and controlled because it is considered too loud or aggressive. Similarly, restricting pronoun use to a ‘he/she’ binary erases the identity and lived experience of nonbinary and transgender students. The instructional choices we make as language arts teachers have consequences, and they can serve to either uplift or harm our students. Grammar instruction, like language, is a political act.
As a teacher, my goal is to create an inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum, and to empower my students to believe that their voices matter. And I want rigor, and great test scores, and all those other teachery things that signify success in the classroom. Yes, I know 'teachery' isn’t a real word. I’m making a point. Acquiring more prestigious language is a powerful tool, and being able to use ‘correct’ (ie: Standard English) grammar offers access to white (male) dominated arenas such as board rooms, court rooms, and politics. Using precise grammar in the right context is a power tool! I want my students to own that tool, without violating or erasing their identities in the process. And of course, I also want them to develop into culturally competent critical thinkers.
Here are some ideas I have for how I plan to achieve that while continuing to offer a robust grammar curriculum:
- Rename grammar class as ‘Standard English’ grammar class. Explain that there are other English grammar rules, but the standard rules are the ones we need to know for standardized tests and writing academic papers
- Teach and learn about how grammar has changed over time. Maybe it's just me, but this is actually pretty interesting, and it connects nicely with a structured word inquiry approach to vocabulary. Check out this graph of the use of kneeled and knelt over time, and this one hinting at a rise in activism and a reduction in rebellion.
- Reject a deficit perspective. When I come across nonstandard grammar usage, I won't rush to correct it. Instead, I'll ask the author why they made that choice. Even if the grammar choice turns out not to have been a conscious choice at all, this approach confers agency and respects linguistically diverse students.
- Speak up when I hear tone policing or dominant linguistic narratives being used as a form of control. I want to model for my students that meaning matters most, and that we all have a role in confronting the grammar police. Correcting someone’s grammar when you understand them perfectly is a method of flexing your power and privilege, and that does not have a place in an inclusive classroom.
- I'll incorporate the stories of linguistically and culturally diverse communities into all aspects of the curriculum, and stop limiting grammar to grammar class. I can notice the grammar choices that authors make, especially authors of color, and examine the different patterns of oral speech that we encounter, without qualifying or apologizing for them. If an accent is hard for me to understand, I'll make that part of the conversation and own the difficulty instead of blaming the speaker. Staying silent about linguistic differences implies that there is something shameful or impoverished about them.
- I can amplify ‘own voices’ by including a variety of voices into my classroom curriculum and community, using quotes, short videos, and visitors to expose students to linguistic and cultural diversity, and ensure that stories are told in people's own words.
- I can uplift oral and presentational traditions. Storytelling traditions are highly valued in many cultures, and they require unique and specific language skills. We can enjoy them and compare them, thinking about how different syntactic and structural choices add to the story?
- The language we use to build relationships, find compromise, or show connection is different to the language we might use to win an argument or make a point in the most efficient way possible. This is a feature of our flexible grammar system! I can model how to code switch tone and language, whether we are writing an email to the principal, persuading peers to vote for something, or telling a story at the dinner table. Upspeak and qualifiers are great for making connections and building partnerships. Precision and clarity are better for debating or making a point. I'll make sure students who can switch between multiple codes know their worth!
- Whenever we start a new writing unit, we'll begin with purpose, asking ‘what language might suit this particular audience and purpose?’ and listen to the students’ ideas. I can show them that grammar is something that they can make choices about, and that their choices can have a powerful impact on their readers.
- Whether we are reading textbooks or enjoying a read aloud, the words people use to describe others and events are based in implicit cultural biases, so I'll make an examination of those biases an integral part of each reading day. I'll teach my students to ask:
- Whose voices are being valued and devalued in this text?
- How are they being valued or devalued?
- Whose voices are being silenced?
- I'll teach my students editing skills, and also teach them to know when editing is not required. We should not question or correct other people’s grammar when:
- Their words are used in quotes or dialogue
- When we have not been invited to
- When we understand what they mean anyway
- I'll start with what a student is doing well. What standard English grammatical rules are they using correctly?
- I can name and notice grammar choices that amplify a student's meaning and message. "You added an adverb here, which helped me picture what you were describing." "You chose to write this in the present tense, which makes your story suspenseful and immediate!"
- I can scaffold and personalize grammar learning by picking specific aspects of grammar to work on with each student or small group, and focus on that for feedback, rather than highlighting every grammar error