In Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study, author Jen McCreight introduces us to a new approach to grammar study, a subject area all too often taught without students and their unique backgrounds in mind. In this post adapted from Jen's introduction to the book, she argues for a more personal approach to grammar is necessary if we want to reach every learner in today's linguistically diverse classrooms.
By Jen McCreight
Children’s language is an intensely personal part of their lives, intertwined with their families, cultures, and experiences. As such, all students and teachers in the elementary grades, no matter their linguistic backgrounds, would benefit from a student-centered approach to language study. In fact, I would go so far as to say students and teachers need to incorporate some version of language study into their English language arts instruction, as a way to reclaim and recontextualize a subject area that is all too often taught without individual students and unique backgrounds in mind.
In all other subject areas, teachers acknowledge as best practice the necessity of building on prior knowledge. They comb the literary shelves for books based on their students’ interests and reading levels. They encourage children to write personal narratives when learning the concept of beginning, middle, and end. In social studies, teachers create businesses with products to sell to solidify the concept of good and services. Even in mathematics, teachers create word problems that use their students’ names or focus on topics in which the children are interested. We should approach the study of how words work in the world, then, in a similar manner.
The disconnect so many children feel from school will begin to shrink.
Too often, the most critical stakeholders in educations (students, teachers, and families) receive conflicting messages that undermine their ability to engage in meaningful English language arts learning. On the one hand, districts spend millions of dollars on standardized programs for language and literacy, complete with teacher scripts, grammar worksheets, discussion guides, and previously selected children’s literature. These districts often expect their teachers to take these programs at face value, to replicate them because they are “scientifically based” and foolproof. Many times, when teachers’ schedules are mapped out prior to the beginning of the school year, so that they are being told not only how to teach content but when. Students and families are expected to fall in line, while rarely being asked for their perspectives or input. The dissemination of these programs undermines the knowledge of the teacher, the individuality of each student, and the autonomy of families, at the cost of authentic connections between home and school.
On the other hand, educators are reprimanded for letting students fall through the cracks, for not reaching all children through individualized instruction methods. Families read and hear that they are not involved enough in their children’s schooling. Students are written about as passive learners who need to take more responsibility for their own learning.
Teachers know in their guts (and they are supported by the literature!) that children must feel invested in school to thrive there. They must believe school is interested in and values their home lives to meaningfully engage in curricular content. Further, families whose linguistic and cultural backgrounds are different from those prized in schools fel isolated when they are told how to help their children learn, rather than being invited to the curricular table as partners.
There is no more personal topic that bridges the divide between home and school than language. Children live their home languages, experiencing them through lullabies and jokes and family stories, from the time they are born. Upon entering school, those who speak languages and dialects other than standardized English are often asked to disconnect from them in favor of mastering the “correct” way of speaking. Rather than building on students’ prior knowledge, celebrating linguistic diversity and the wonder inherent in multiple ways of speaking, grammar programs silence home languages and dialects; in the process, they also silence children’s lullabies, jokes, and family stories.
It is because of the intimate connection children and families have to their home languages that I believe it is essential for teachers, schools, and districts to reenvision language study. By linking language study to children’s backgrounds, and by empowering teachers, students, and families to become actively engaged in this work, we will begin to shrink the disconnect so many children feel from school.
Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study: A New Approach to Grammar Lessons is out now. Click here to learn more.
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Jen McCreight has eight years of experience teaching kindergarten and first grade, and is currently an assistant professor at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. She holds a Ph.D. in Language and Literacy Education from the University of Georgia.