Howdy from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I am honored to be a contributor to ELL Connect to share my experiences teaching speakers of Appalachian English (AE). The middle school where I teach is nestled in a mountain community, and the families of the students I serve have lived in the area for generations. Perhaps it seems strange that I am writing about a group of English speakers who have been in this country for generations on a blog focused on English learners; however, ELs and dialectal speakers share a common issue: how to hold to their heritage language while using Standard English. Both Dolores Perez and Robert Rivera-Amezola have written about the importance of a student’s heritage language in previous blog posts, and this is true not only for ELs but for dialectal English speakers as well.
Rural Appalachians are an “invisible minority” whose language and culture is often considered inferior to mainstream language and culture. This linguistic prejudice is revealed in jokes about “rednecks” and is portrayed in sitcoms and advertisements that create the perception that AE speakers are not intelligent because of their speech patterns. Of course, this is not the case, but due to the emphasis on standardized testing in our public schools, AE speakers are given subtle and not-so-subtle messages that their speech patterns are inferior to Standard English.
In a previous blog post, Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez urged teachers of ELs to be prepared to advocate for their students as Common Core standards are adopted This is also true for teachers of students who speak non-standard dialectal English. The Appalachian region of the United States includes Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. Out of those 13 states, all have adopted Common Core standards except for Virginia, but Virginia’s newly revised English College and Career Readiness Standards are based largely on the Common Core.
This is significant because the Common Core Standards imply that key features of AE are, in fact, errors in writing according to the Common Core Language Progressive Skills Chart . When an AE speaker writes We was mudboggin’, she would not meet standard L.5.1d. Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in verb tense. Noncord of subjects and verbs is a feature of AE; for example: In the country, some things that you can do is ride; it be peaceful; you want be disturb. Appalachian English has a rhythmic, melodic quality and students’ use of this language ties them to their mountain heritage.
But imagine how inferior an AE speaker might feel when working through this Common Core Standard: L.6.1e. Recognize variations from Standard English in their own and others’ writing and speaking, and identify and use strategies to improve expression in conventional language. I key in on improve expression in conventional language and believe the phrasing of that standard implies that non-standard dialect is inferior and should therefore be improved. This is one of the not-so-subtle messages that an AE speaker must give up their heritage language in order to be successful in school. Perhaps the standard is encouraging teaching code switching, which is an excellent strategy for students to learn to go between their home language and Standard English; however, my hunch is that as states create curriculum to correspond to the Common Core Standards, the emphasis will be on using “correct” English, rather than on teaching code switching.
I look forward to sharing my thoughts on how dialectal speakers are experiencing school in this time of high-stakes testing and changing standards, and I welcome your insights and discussion.
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