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Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools

reviewed by Noah E. Borrero - May 02, 2011

coverTitle: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools
Author(s): Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751480, Pages: 192, Year: 2010
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After reading and discussing Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools with a class of pre-service teacher candidates, I asked them to write briefly about how they thought this book may impact their classroom practice. One candidate wrote, “It has already (yesterday) had an impact on my practice…” She went on to write about a discussion she participated in with two of her middle school students who were working their way through a verbal conflict. This pre-service teacher described how she was able to listen better to the students talk to each other and she particularly noticed their use of the “multiple negative” for added emphasis in the conversation. She went on to write about how she felt that she had a better understanding of the situation and the emotions of her students via this new knowledge of the language they were using.

The “multiple negative” is one linguistic feature of African American English that Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson highlight in this book. The account shared by the pre-service teacher above shows that some of the material in this text has the ability to make an immediate impact on classroom practitioners. This impact is not made through a novel theoretical approach or the presentation of classroom-based empirical evidence, but rather through the authors’ clear, articulate focus—language is contextually bound, and educators need to understand the complexities and importance of multiple language varieties. Given this focus, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools is a helpful resource for classroom teachers—especially those with limited psycho-linguistic training—and other educators who work with linguistically diverse youth.

Central to the book’s success is its approachability. The authors provide the necessary theoretical, historical, and linguistic foundations to situate language variation in the academy, but they are able to do so in a way that does not overwhelm the novice. For example, in the first chapter, aptly titled “Valuable Voices,” they position their approach to language variation within a larger vision of multicultural education. Here they cite scholars such as Geneva Gay and make the point that understanding and respecting “diversity in education, based on ethnicity, social class, language, non-Western national origins, economic status, cultures, and interests, is no longer a luxury or a matter of choice—it is a necessity for the survival of society” (Gay, 1994, p. 8). Further, the authors describe their own linguistic and educational backgrounds—embedding their own personal narratives in the text. This chapter sets the foundation and invites readers (especially teachers) to think about their own and their students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds in new ways.

Chapters Two, Three, and Four provide the structural integrity of the book and present three different varieties of English—Standard English, African American English, and Southern English. In Chapter Two, “What is Standard English,” the authors make an admirable attempt at distinguishing “standard” and “standardized” English by discussing issues of privilege and the sociocultural nature of language: “If any language or language variety has a prestigious label, it is only because that type of language is spoken by socially, economically, and politically powerful people and is not due to any independent linguistic qualities” (p. 12). They use this premise to discuss how to teach “language standards” and to describe features of what they call “school English.” For example, they provide a table of common relational terms (p. 27) that are prominent in classroom discourse. It is important that issues of class, race, and power are raised in this chapter, yet, the depth with which they are investigated and the acknowledgement of the degree to which they frame all discussions of academic language and achievement in schools needs to be enhanced.

Chapters Three and Four provide important background information about Southern and African American English, respectively, and each chapter then moves into specific, rule-governed examples of these language varieties. In addition to specific grammatical features (like the “multiple negative” mentioned above), the authors discuss issues of sound; pitch, tone, rhythm, and volume; conversation; and vocabulary. The examples in these sections are very helpful, once again, because they are accessible—they do not involve significant linguistic analysis, but are rather presented for readers to notice their systematic nature. Also helpful is the fact that each of these chapters includes a section entitled “The Take-Away Message” which specifically highlights key issues for teachers and students who speak this language variety.

Chapter Five, “Assessment and Application,” provides an appropriate conclusion to the book because the authors forcefully portray what is at stake for students who speak non-standardized varieties of English in our schools. Assessment of standard English dominates our national discourse of academic achievement, and the authors make the key point that teachers need to disrupt this discourse in the classroom by shifting their focus away from the idea that students’ English is “wrong,” by understanding that their English is “different.”

This realization requires teachers to understand features of multiple language varieties, and this text is the perfect place to start. The authors clearly target teachers in this book, and there are structural features of the text that make it a useful resource for any teacher’s personal library. For example, throughout the text are shaded “strategies for educators” boxes that connect highlighted linguistic features with classroom practice. Strategies include lesson plans, discussions to have with students, texts to use, and student testimonials. These boxes stand out as key places for teachers to turn for ideas about how to take their understanding of language variety to the next level and impact their practice. Additionally, the specific examples of Southern and African American English are useful sections of the book that teachers can continually refer to for assistance in their own classrooms.

Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools is an important contribution because it holds the potential to make a positive impact in classrooms where youth who speak a non-dominant variety of English are marginalized (Rickford & Rickford, 2000). This impact results from the fact that the authors situate themselves and their work in a broader focus on humanizing, asset-based pedagogy. The pre-service teacher whose practice was immediately impacted by this book was able to better understand grammatical features of the language her students were using, but more importantly, she was, perhaps, able to begin to see the cultural strengths that youth bring with them to school and respect them as a part of their learning as students and her learning as a teacher—something that all of us who care about teaching need to do. If language can be seen as a portal into youths’ larger cultural realities and strengths, it holds tremendous potential as a way to build relationships and enhance their opportunities for success at school. This book embodies this potential and its message should be a part of teacher education and broader education reform for all of us.


Gay, G. (1994). A synthesis of scholarship in multicultural education (Urban Education Monograph Series). Seattle: NCREL Urban Education Program.

Rickford, J.R., & Rickford, R.J. (2000) Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: Wiley.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 02, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16399, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:53:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Noah Borrero
    University of San Francisco
    E-mail Author
    NOAH E. BORRERO is assistant professor and director of the Urban Education and Social Justice Program in the Teacher Education Department at the University of San Francisco. His research interests include school-community connections, academic identities, and urban education. He is author of Closing the Achievement Gap: How to Pinpoint Student Strengths to Differentiate Instruction and Help Your Striving Readers Succeed (2009, Scholastic), and recent publications include "School as a context for 'othering' youth and promoting cultural assets" (Teachers College Record, 2012) and "Ecological language learning among ethnic minority youth" (Educational Researcher, 2010).
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