This section of the Instructors’ Guide describes African American English styles and patterns used in college writing and how to respond to them in ways that encourage students to make strategic linguistic choices and honor students’ right to their own language.
Many African American students are invested in making their writing engaging to a specific audience. Teaching and expecting all students to organize their papers with the same linear organizational patterns, academic argument styles, formal word choices, and standardized sentence structures can leave many students thinking that academic writing is boring. As academics and writing instructors, we know that this is not the case.
The following sections provide further examples of responses to specific African American English organizational styles, word choices, grammar patterns, and spelling variation. You can also get started right away by implementing these three feedback practices:
- Ask questions about students’ choices instead of directly correcting: Ask questions that encourage students to make strategic choices with their language. Questions invite more critical thinking than corrections. Examples:
- “What does your use of ‘I’ do to your argument? How might it strengthen it for some audiences? How might it weaken it for some audiences?”
- “What are some reasons you might want to use contractions in this paper? What are some reasons you might not?”
- Find more examples in numbers 3 and 7 of NCTE blogger Traci Gardner’s Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts
- Highlight your subjectivity as a reader and acknowledge other possible or intended audiences: Make clear to your students that you’re responding to their work based on your own background, lived experiences, knowledge, and professional training, and acknowledge that other audiences might read the student’s writing differently. This commenting strategy makes room for students to learn to write to diverse audiences with diverse language backgrounds. Examples:
- “I had to read this sentence a few times to understand it. You might consider rewording it. On the other hand, your target audience may be more familiar with this sentence structure.”
- “Do you think your intended audience will know this phrase? I had to look it up, so consider whether other readers may or may not need to do that.”
- Find more examples in numbers 5 and 6 of NCTE blogger Traci Gardner’s Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts and in Catherine Savini’s 10 Ways to Tackle Linguistic Bias in Our Classrooms
- Replace ambiguous terms with explicit descriptions: Describe students’ writing and the writing you expect in detailed terms that make sense to your students. Vague, uninformative terms that you can replace include clear organization, confusing sentence structure, and inappropriate word choice. Although these and similar terms probably mean something specific to you, many students will not know what exactly makes their organization clear, their sentence structure confusing, or their word choice inappropriate. Explicit descriptions can help students understand your use of these terms. Explicit descriptions can also help you avoid labels that inaccurately evaluate African American English as confusing or incorrect. Examples:
- “I’ve highlighted some examples of multiple negation (double negatives) in your paper. I can see that this pattern is part of the writerly voice you are cultivating.”
- “This grammar pattern is an appositive pronoun. Grammar checkers tend to correct it, but it is a legitimate grammar form used in varieties such as African American English. Using different grammar patterns like appositive pronouns suits your message of the power of words.”
As you implement these feedback practices, recognize that students have different motivators for learning to write using particular language varieties. Some students may want to improve their writing in standardized English because they know they will face linguistic discrimination if they don’t. Meanwhile, some students may wish to maintain African American English writing styles to sustain their language and culture and to write to their intended audiences. African American students are generally aware that they will face racism regardless of the extent to which they use academic writing conventions. Individual students will make different choices about when, how, and how often to use each of their language varieties.
Below are sample papers illustrating the above recommended culturally sustaining practices:
For contrast, the same papers are presented below with more traditional feedback that is more discriminatory against African American English and less conducive to students’ writing development:
Next Page: Organizational Styles