Learning from Student Language

Last fall, one of Chanea Bond’s ninth grade students told her that he was going to “SOB” next semester. She was confused. A quick Google search didn’t yield a definition that made sense to Bond. So, she asked her student to clarify. The answer? He was going to ‘stand on business,’ a slang term used to express a person’s promise to take care of their responsibilities. This semester, Bond, who teaches in North Texas, created a lesson plan around the phrase “standing on business” to teach about connotation and prepositional phrases. By involving language that students use every day to learn new concepts in the classroom, “I position them as the experts in that language,” she said.

Bond’s response to her students’ language contrasts with the restrictive approach that’s recently been a recent hot topic among educators on social media. Last month, a list of “prohibited language” from an anonymous educator was shared and reshared on X, sparking comments and criticisms. Many of the terms and phrases on the list are rooted in African American Vernacular English or AAVE, popularized by Gen Z on TikTok and other digital platforms. Instead of prohibiting language, Bond and Matthew R. Kay, an English teacher in Philadelphia, use inclusive and culturally responsive practices to connect with and learn from students – in both formal lesson plans and casual conversations.

According to Wright, whose research often focuses on African American language communities, AAVE is “the largest pool of innovation in our country and in the English language” and “it’s also the most studied variety of English,” she said. It’s important for teachers to recognize that and learn how to notice differences without assigning stereotypes or negative ideologies to certain behavior or language use in the classroom. For example, she pointed to the common use of the word “bruh” by students in a classroom as an entry point for thinking about the linguistic value in culturally specific student speech. “You can say the same thing in many different ways and places,” she said. “It’s absolutely part of writing and learning.” According to Wright, a student being told that “their sentences aren’t good enough,” or that they can’t communicate effectively with language that is culturally specific is “incredibly harmful.” This type of cultural devaluation from the education system can lead to what Wright calls linguistic trauma.

In her first year of teaching, Bond noticed that there were many words and phrases that her students used that she didn’t understand. “I legitimately could not have a conversation with some of my students,” she said. Bond decided to position herself as a learner first in her classroom. “I never want [students] to feel any sort of shame or disregard for the language that they speak,” she said. “One of my biggest goals in English education, and specifically in writing, is to center my students as writers of their own stories.”

When teachers notice themselves having a negative reaction to slang, it can be a chance to pause and reflect on why. If the concern is about academic rigor or appropriateness for the assignment, Wright encouraged educators to “embrace the variation.” She added: “If your main concern is preparing students to write excellent essays you can do that without discouraging them.”

Asking for a simple explanation can go a long way. This is something that both Bond and Kay have done when confused about language in their classrooms. According to Kay, students are often generous when sharing the meaning behind the language that they use. Bond also said that asking for an explanation to a suspected inappropriate word or phrase will organically filter out the use of that word or phrase in the classroom. Educators can also use context clues if they are unsure of the meaning of a phrase or word, according to Kay.

Speaking to students in ways that they will identify with and understand lets Bond’s students know that they are active participants in language comprehension and acquisition. “I’m always, always, always, borrowing their language to communicate with them,” she said. According to Bond, if an educator isn’t engaging with students as a member of their community, they’re not just doing a disservice to students, but to themselves. By observing and participating in the language that students use, teachers can watch language “evolve in real time.”

Similarly, Kay doesn’t see a point in policing the language that his students use. Instead he wants “kids to understand how language works and evolves and the role the language plays in our lives and our cultures.” Kay reflects this both in his everyday interactions with students and by structuring assignments to allow students to explore their own languages.

While he makes sure to show interest in what his students are saying, Kay also engages in playful banter when he recognizes a term from his generation being used incorrectly by his students. “I’m 40 years old, and I’m from Philly and from some of the same neighborhoods that the kids are from. And I’ll teach them. I’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re using that word wrong,” he said. According to Kay, scholars recognize the evolution of language. “Shutting scholarship down and banning the mechanism [of language acquisition]” is not a solutions-oriented approach, he said. While Wright acknowledged that educators have the freedom to determine what is and isn’t allowed in their learning environments, “those boundaries can’t cut across someone’s identity,” she said.

Wright said she supports the use of comparative language exercises in the classroom, where students are asked to find equivalents for a slang word they might use, like the word “bruh,” and explain those equivalencies and why they matter. Rather than assigning this task as a punitive measure to prohibit certain language in the classroom, the educator and students can engage in shared language and learn from the diversity of language around them.

This year, Kay introduced the use of footnotes to his students if they use a phrase or word in their memoirs that their audience might not understand or recognize. “It’s all about the audience. There’s nothing wrong with that language, but will your audience understand it?” Kay said. Kay, who used to teach drama, recommended improv activities like having students act as translators to their peers’ selected use of a slang or dialectal term. The “translators” are asked to say the phrase or term for a different audience, which Kay said his students enjoy doing. Bond does a similar exercise in her classroom. She uses skits, where students act out words or phrases, to learn new vocabulary. It’s important that students are internalizing the words in a context that makes sense to their lives.

This post originally appeared here.

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