National Writing Project

Honoring Dialect and Increasing Student Performance in Standard English

By: Paul Epstein, Lynette Herring-Harris
Date: September 15, 2011

Summary: With support from the Rural Sites Network, teachers at the Appalachian Writing Project are studying Appalachian dialect and the ability to code-switch in student writing.


Words like "kinfolk" and "haint" may be unrecognizable in some parts of the country, but they are part of standard talk for many people of the Appalachian region, a section of our nation that stretches from the southern tip of New York to the northeast corner of Mississippi.

Residents of this predominantly rural region often share grammatical patterns and a vocabulary that is widely known as Appalachian English. Many who speak it say they are proud of their cultural heritage, yet they are aware of the stigma surrounding their home speech or "speech of comfort."

Look no further than television, film, and print media to see the instances of Appalachian speech associated with the backwoods hillbilly: a stupid, drunken, intolerant fool with poor hygiene and little knowledge of the outside world.

Mainstream America's intolerance of language varieties extends to the classroom, where dialect is pitted against Standard English. The classroom creates a dichotomy of good and bad, poor and proper, and correct and incorrect with home voices always falling short of the standard. But research shows that nothing could be further from the linguistic truth.

Questions Arising From Place and Dialect

So how can teachers help students appreciate the culture and heritage behind dialects and language, especially when that language doesn't adhere to the rules of Standard English? In the heart of the southern Appalachians in southwestern Virginia, teacher-consultants at the Appalachian Writing Project at the University of Virginia's College at Wise have been inquiring into just that question.

They wondered if student writing might improve if instruction was rooted in the dialect of their place.

Amy Clark, Appalachian Writing Project director and a native speaker of Appalachian English, understands Appalachian dialect and its impact on student performance better than most. Clark studies the role of language in society, and her research shows that standardized testing in public schools and teachers with little to no linguistic understanding of dialect place rural Appalachian students at an educational disadvantage.

"I am personally aware of the internalization process that takes place among native speakers," Clark explains. "When we encounter linguistic prejudice, some of us dismiss it while others adopt the stereotypes attached to our dialect. Those speakers will even go as far as to call their own speech patterns 'bad' or 'incorrect,' particularly when speaking to someone they perceive as well-educated."

"This has an adverse impact on students learning to write," she continues. "Some teachers tend to copy pedagogical instruction that mirrors the way they were taught. For many, this is a correctionist or formalist approach to teaching writing that has been around for years and places standard grammatical and mechanical forms at the forefront of writing instruction. The result is diminished writing among our local students due to a fear of judgment."

Students who grow up speaking the dialect are at a distinct disadvantage when asked "to make a counterintuitive choice on tests that identify their dialect features as incorrect," Clark says. This is due to the fact that Appalachian English has nonstandard or informal subject/verb agreement and pronoun forms and commonly employs the use of double negatives.

Liz Phillips, a middle school English teacher who attended the Appalachian Writing Project's 2004 Summer Institute, knew that her students held back in their writing. She worried about the effect her students' use of Appalachian English would have on their ability to succeed in high school, college, future jobs, and of course, on the state writing assessments given in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades.

While Appalachian English is traditionally studied as a cultural artifact of a region, Clark and Phillips wondered if student writing might improve if instruction was rooted in the dialect of their place. In typical Writing Project fashion, the two teachers asked their Writing Project colleagues to join them in a focused inquiry into the rules and structures of their students' local dialects. Two questions guided the emerging work.

  • Is the central Appalachian dialect prevalent in student writing and classroom discussion?
  • What are the most common dialectal patterns that appear in writing and speech that might be misperceived by teachers as "lazy" or "ignorant"?

Collaboratively, these teacher-researchers compiled the rules and structures of their local dialect as a tool for transitioning young writers into Standard English.

Seeking Local Answers

To support this work, Clark applied for and received a Rural Sites Network minigrant. The grant supported a team of four AWP teacher consultants from two middle schools, one high school, and one college as they participated in a longer study in which they would code features of the local dialects and develop strategies of teaching using contrastive analysis.

The systematic study of the pair of languages with a view to identifying their structural differences and similarities would inform their writing instruction. The teachers worked from the premise that teaching students about the structural differences and similarities of the languages would help them to "code switch" or move back and forth between the variants of the dialect of their place and Standard English.

Clark explains how contrastive analysis can lead to code switching. "By using their own words to describe these patterns, students move from what they intuitively know about language to an understanding of language variation and how it works in different settings and with different audiences."

To expand their knowledge and confidence, the teachers collectively studied two resources: Wheeler and Swords' 2006 book, Code-switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms and Appalachian Speech by Wolfram and Christian.

Phillips has come to believe a large part of the success of Wheeler and Swords' approach is letting students use their informal speech in the classroom and acknowledging it as a valid language which does not have to be corrected and is not wrong. As Phillips says, "I know my kids as individuals, and this is who they are. It's my responsibility to teach the learning standards, but not to change them or take away their dialect."

As a result of her involvement in AWP's focused inquiry, Phillips engages her middle-schoolers in a full scale inquiry into the language patterns in southeastern Washington County and the small community of Wallace. The walls of her classroom hang with maps and charts on which dialect patterns are tracked by county road and even family. Students interview parents and grandparents and find out how their Appalachian English has changed over time.

By the end of the year, AWP teachers found that teaching students to use contrastive analysis led to a greater adoption and use of Standard English. Phillips' students showed a 72% increase in the use of Standard English over Appalachian English in her student's pre and post writing samples.

For now Appalachian English studies continue at AWP. The teachers are enthused, and last year's students are impressing their teachers this year with their knowledge of the grammar systems of Standard English and how it contrasts with their home dialects. As time passes, Dr. Clark and the teachers at the Appalachian Writing Project in Wise, VA hope to influence teachers far beyond their small mountain community to engage their students in studies of their home dialect, contrast it with Standard American English, and learn how to demonstrate their ability to code switch in order to succeed in school and jobs.

But for now, these teachers are glad they can help their students feel pride in the heritage of their original dialect at the same time they are becoming successful writers in "the dialect of Standard English."

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