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Teaching School English

By Hannah Askin - Posted on 15 April 2009

Book citation: Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms By Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords (2006)

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Co-authored by a teacher and a school research scientist, this book could be very helpful to the elementary school teacher. The authors outline detailed lesson plans on contrastive analysis, a highly recommended method for teaching School English.

Why contrastive analysis?

Teachers use contrastive analysis to teach AAE speakers to translate or “code-switch” from AAE to School English. The method provides explicit description of the forms and the contrasts between AAE and School English, and thus is similar to teaching a second language.

All students learn the language patterns that are appropriate in school, but some have native dialects that are more similar to the academic language than others. School English has typically been taught through immersion and correction, with no direct reference to dialect difference. As an alternative method, contrastive analysis aims to add to the students’ existing linguistic skills, rather than completely replacing them with School English.

Contrastive analysis also helps those who are not familiar with AAE to understand it better. This helps all students in their communication with each other, and helps tudents gain a greater grasp of the workings of grammar in general.

Teaching Methods

School English is sometimes referred to as “the language of wider communication.” Make clear to students that language is spoken differently according to speaker, audience, culture, and region. Then explain that School English is a good way to talk to people from different places or cultural backgrounds, because School English is well understood across the country.

School English is the language typically expected in school, such as on oral reports, most written assignments, and especially standardized tests. Students can be made aware of the importance of using School English. It is therefore important for students to practice School English, both written and orally.

Literature can help students understand language variety. Swords reads not only books written in School English, but also books written in other language varieties and books written in a combination of School English and another language variety. This shows the value of different types of language in literature. When reading stories with two types of language varieties, Swords asks the students to try to identify when they hear different types of language use.

Wheeler and Swords’ book gives sample worksheets along with lesson plans for using contrastive analysis. They outline a lesson for each of several grammar patterns. Their lesson plans are focused on charts that contrast grammatical patterns. A typical lesson follows these steps:

  • Use examples from the writing and speech of the students. This ensures that you address patterns that the students typically use.
  • Each lesson should focus on one particular pattern.
  • Put the example sentences in a two-columned chart with an Everyday/informal English column and a School/formal English column. Give each sentence in Everyday/informal and in School/formal English. Underline the pattern of focus in each sentence:
    Possessive Patterns
    Everyday English School English
    She is Joe best friend. She is Joe's best friend.
    Pattern: owner + owned Pattern: owner + 's + owned
  • Explain that there are different language patterns for saying the same thing. Avoid saying “right” and “wrong,” and be sure that students understand that each side is right in its own context, even if they are different.
  • Help the students figure out the pattern of one column in the chart, either as a class or in groups.
  • When students are looking for patterns, let them know that they are looking for what is there, not what is missing. For example, the possessive pattern in Joe best friend is not missing an ‘s, but putting two words together in the format owner + owned.
  • When they think they have figured a pattern out, have them check their hypothesis against all of the examples. This process uses the scientific method to come to a conclusion.
  • Move on to the second column once the pattern for the first column has been determined. Write descriptions of the patterns on each column.
  • Have students create both patterns on their own with given words.
  • Have students code-switch/translate sentences with the pattern into School/formal English.
  • Descriptions of common patterns can be found in Wheeler and Swords' book, as well as on the section on African American English<.
  • Once several patterns have been taught to the students (such as possessives, subject-verb agreement, "to be," and habitual be), have a lesson in which students translate sentences that contain more than one Everyday/informal language pattern into School/formal English.

Written assignments can provide not only opportunities for practicing School English, but also for improving expressive use of the students’ native dialects. For example, Wheeler and Swords suggest encouraging Everyday/informal English in creative writing assignments. Journals can provide an opportunity for students to write in whatever language they feel comfortable.


The term “African American English” is not a satisfactory term to use in the elementary-school classroom for many reasons, including that it might confuse the students and give them false impressions about the relationship between language and race.

There are other terms to use for AAE, or for any other dialect that is not School English. Each term has its pros and cons. You can decide what is best for your classroom.

In their book about teaching School English, Wheeler and Swords suggest the term "Informal English to refer to dialects that are different from School English (which they call "Formal English"). In her class, Swords compares variation in language to variation in clothing, which can also be called informal and formal.

However, the word “formal” implies best behavior, and “informal” may be perceived negatively. Students should not feel that their native dialect is in any way less good. Also, some students may speak AAE in formal settings, and this may make the term confusing.

Wheeler and Swords also refer to the term "Everyday English". They find this term to be more confusing to students than the term informal English. School and everyday do not seem separate to students because they are in school every weekday.

On the other hand, I find the term Everyday English to effectively describe the dialect, because students who speak it do so everyday, and it is comfortable to them.