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Essential Knowledge About Language and Race

May 25, 2022

Essential Knowledge About Language and Race


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This blog post is the third of three in Lifting Every Voice: Valuing Black Language and Culture in Classrooms, a Reading Opens the World series. It is adapted from an American Educator article of the same name. Read the first and second posts. 

Register for the three Share My Lesson webinars the authors of this piece are giving.

Educators and students who come from different racial, ethnic, regional, and cultural backgrounds may feel unaware of, uncertain about, confused by, or even resistant to understanding each other’s linguistic and cultural practices. Serious cultural and academic misunderstandings may arise between educators who use standardized English and students who use African American English—particularly when each person assumes that they understand and are understood by the other.

For these reasons, it is critical for educators to understand the language patterns that students bring with them into the classroom to best help all students attain academic success. African American English is a complete linguistic system, and educators must have information about its specific features and understand how these features manifest in educational settings. [Note: read the full article for some common characteristics of African American English and their educational implications]. 

Knowledge of how and why specific language variations appear in students’ oral reading and writing is invaluable when teaching and assessing students who speak African American English because features of this variety will often appear in students’ speech, oral reading, and written work. It is critical, however, that educators avoid shaming students for their language variation or disproportionately penalizing them for the presence of language variants in their speech, oral reading, and written work.

When pointing out places where students’ use of grammar diverges from the norms and conventions of standardized English, it is important to consider whether these grammatical “errors” might actually be rooted in students’ use of a language pattern characteristic of African American English. If so, it is important to explain both linguistic patterns to the student. This entails guiding the student to recognize where and how their usage is influenced by African American English and, while acknowledging and appreciating this language variation, also comparing and contrasting it to standardized English.1  

The sounds of English involve intonation, pitch, rhythm, stress, and volume, or what linguists refer to as prosody, and they can vary between African American and standardized English. For example, in standardized English, the absence of a rise at the end of a question can be used to signal disengagement, disinterest, and disrespect. This is not the case in African American English, as speakers of this variety may equally produce questions with rising, flat, or falling intonation patterns. 

Intonation matters in school and everyday interactions because it is directly tied to comprehension. It is also often implicitly tied to notions of politeness, friendliness, and enthusiasm that are embedded in school culture—and that are closely aligned to the cultural practices of a majority white and female educator population in the United States.

The lack of melodic variation in the voices of Black students, especially male students, is often misinterpreted in a negative light and may be infused with perceptions of emotions that students do not mean to convey. As a result, students who use African American English may be improperly evaluated academically, socially, and emotionally. 

It is important to be sensitive to variations in how students converse with each other and with educators. If the conversational norms of standardized English are expected, these conventions may need to be explicitly taught.

Students gain confidence and can enjoy academic and social success when they know standardized English and when they and their educators value the language patterns that the students bring with them to school. How educators react to language variation sends an important message to students about safety and acceptance; positive messages of inclusion help students view learning as an accessible and engaging process. Language differences can add to other school stressors; thus, the classroom must be a safe place to take risks and speak up, so that students are willing to have their voices be heard.2

Educators who are familiar with African American English as a linguistic system and who take a strengths-based perspective are also able to provide students with opportunities to draw upon the linguistic resources of their homes and communities in their academic work. Research reveals that this inclusive strategy is educationally effective,3 and it offers the validation that students need to feel that they can show up as their whole selves in classrooms and schools.

As a way to actively understand and incorporate language variation in the classroom, we have created the Share My Lesson webinar "The Sound of Inclusiuon: Using Poetry to Teach Language Variation". This interactive workshop will bring out the poetry in your students and in you! We will use poetry study to build from the ground up with students and integrate the academic, social, and emotional aspects of learning language. We focus on sharing ideas about the concepts of dialect, language varieties and translanguaging. 

About the Authors

  • Anne H. Charity Hudley is a professor of education at Stanford University, where she focuses on the relationship between language variation and educational practices. She is a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 
  • Christine Mallinson is the founding director of the Center for Social Science Scholarship, a professor of language, literacy, and culture, and an affiliate professor of gender, women’s, and sexuality studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 
  • Rachel Samuels is an elementary student support specialist in Williamsburg, Virginia. She was the 2019 Virginia Reading Teacher of the Year. 
  • Kimberly Bigelow is an assistant principal of literacy in Washington, DC; she has 15 years of experience as an elementary teacher and instructional coach. She is an AFT PD National Trainer.


  1. A. Charity Hudley and C. Mallinson, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011).
  2. A. Ball, “Empowering Pedagogies That Enhance the Learning of Multicultural Students,” Teachers College Record 102, no. 6 (2000): 1006-34; and C. Lee, “Every Good-Bye Aint’t Gone: Analyzing the Cultural Underpinnings of Classroom Talk,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 19, no. 3 (2006): 305-27.
  3. Foster, “‘It’s Cookin’ Now’”; C. Kynard, “Stank 2.0 and the Counter-Poetics of Black Language in College Classrooms,” Teacher-Scholar-Activist, October 9, 2017; S. Perryman-Clark, Afrocentric Teacher-Research: Rethinking Appropriateness and Inclusion (New York: Peter Lang, 2013); and E. Richardson, “Critique on the Problematic of Implementing Afrocentricity into Traditional Curriculum: ‘The Powers That Be,’’’ Journal of Black Studies 31, no. 2 (2000): 196-213.
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