Helping students negotiate dialects in the writing center.
Article Type:
Composition (Language arts) (Study and teaching)
Consultants (Practice)
Teacher-student relationships
McDuffie, Kristi
Pub Date:
Name: Writing Lab Newsletter Publisher: The RiCH Company, LLC Audience: Academic Format: Newsletter Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 The RiCH Company, LLC ISSN: 1040-3779
Date: May-June, 2010 Source Volume: 34 Source Issue: 9-10
Event Code: 200 Management dynamics
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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During a consulting session last semester, I made an exciting connection. I was reading through a first-year student's personal essay for a composition course, and I noticed that he was using plural verbs for singular subjects and that his possessives were often incomplete. But after pointing out a few missing s's, I recognized it was a pattern.

The week before I had learned in my linguistics class that "dropped s's" are a dialect feature of African American English. I realized that I was not helping the student correct his mistakes--I was helping him translate his paper into Standard Written English. Although I was excited about applying this information, it created another problem: How was I going to address this issue with the student?

Many of us who work in composition studies might agree with Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes that "there are no 'good' or 'bad' dialects; dialect is simply how we refer to any language variety that typifies a group of speakers within a language" (3). However, I could not immediately see how I could reconcile this ideological position with my practice in the writing center. Because tutors are tasked with helping students learn how to write papers that will be successful in an academic environment, we often need to help students learn how to write in Standard Written English.

Sitting there with that student, eager to share this knowledge, I said that he was consistently not using s's to show possession and in subject-verb agreement, and that such forms are a dialect feature of African American English. He didn't know how to respond. He seemed interested, but he wanted me to get through his whole paper during the session. So I showed him how to make a change and suggested that he look for those s's during his revising and proofreading process. Then we moved on.

Afterwards, when I had time to contemplate the experience, I realized that the approach I had taken was risky. It may not have been prudent for me to make a judgment about the student's dialect, as I may have sounded patronizing despite my enthusiasm and good intentions. Since that session, I have researched scholarship on this issue, and this article explores how this dilemma can be handled in the writing center.

What I learned is that my first instinct was right--it is important to validate dialect differences as grammatical patterns rather than as grammatical mistakes. As Rebecca Wheeler points out, "Longstanding student performance and research show that the traditional correction methods fail to teach African American students skills of standard English usage" (239). If writing tutors label dialect differences as errors, not only will they probably fail to help students write in Standard Written English, but they may also make students feel inadequate and frustrated. Therefore, as consultants we have the precarious job of validating students' own language while helping them learn strategies for translating their thoughts and words into Standard Written English. Beth Bir and Carmen Christopher acknowledge the importance of identifying dialects in the writing center when they advocate that tutors study dialect features in order to recognize dialects in consulting sessions. The vital next step is to outline strategies for helping students understand that they are writing in a legitimate dialect that has systematic features that are different from Standard Written English.

Most tutors I have talked to about this challenge recommend using a variation of, "You're writing informally; how can you make this more formal?" Many professors and consultants also value this approach, as I found out during my presentation on dialects in the writing center at the East Central Writing Centers Association last April. Certainly this technique is useful to provide students with an entry-level introduction to discourse communities because the students learn that it is beneficial to use different languages for different audiences. However, I do not think this is the solution to discussing dialect differences. This approach assumes that students understand the grammatical forms of Standard Written English, so all that students have to do is adjust their writing to the audience. Consultants may still continue to label certain dialect features as errors and fail to show students that they speak a valid dialect with systematic features.

An improved variation of the approach described above could be, "There are certain grammatical forms evident in your papers that you may use when you talk to your family and friends; can I show you what forms are required for an audience of your teacher and classmates?" This sentence links the student's writing to the student's speech and thus is closer to acknowledging a dialect. This approach is a solid compromise for tutors who are worried about sounding judgmental when discussing students' language. Tutors can then point out the systematic choices that students make and encourage them to look for these choices in all of their writing. Tutors often point out patterns of error in student writing. The difference here, then, is to point out that those differences are not errors but systematic choices that stem from a dialect other than Standard Written English.

I recommend taking the last approach one step further and incorporating the idea of a dialect into discussions with students so that we validate and educate students about their language in addition to discussing audience awareness. Using the general term "dialect" rather than naming a specific dialect is a way to avoid labeling a student's dialect based on race, ethnicity, or region. This term is also useful because a student's writing might have features of a dialect that are unfamiliar to tutors. A student might use multiple dialects or use only some characteristics of a given dialect. Although consultants would ideally have training in the dialects most prominent in their writing centers, this training may not always be possible. But by engaging in discussions such as the one described in this article, tutors can become more linguistically sensitive and better prepared to help students negotiate dialects in their writing.

If I could rewind and re-do that consulting session last semester, this is how I would revise my response: "I have noticed that there are a number of places in your paper where you do not use s's that are required in Standard Written English. This may mean that you speak a dialect with your family and friends that does not require these forms. Would you like to make a list of what is required in Standard Written English, like these s's, so that you can look for these things when you write and revise academic papers?" Of course it is possible that the student I encountered last semester still would not have wanted to spend time having that discussion. But maybe, just maybe, he would have been open to a discussion about his language. And maybe he would have been empowered by my validation of his dialect and enthused about learning how to maneuver in Standard Written English. As tutors all we can do is try to help each student. By sharing my investigation of these issues, I encourage other tutors to become more aware of the distinction between dialect features and errors and use that knowledge to empower student writers.

Works Cited

Bir, Beth and Carmen Christopher. "Training Writing Tutors to Recognize Dialectical Difference." Writing Lab Newsletter 27.9 (2003): 4-6. Writing Lab Newsletter Archives. Web. 1 Aug. 2009.

Wheeler, Rebecca S. "Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in African American Classrooms." Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing. Ed. Constance Weaver, with Jonathan Bush. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2008. 235-257. Print.

Wolfram, Walt, and Nicole Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

* Kristi McDuffie

Eastern Illinois University

Charleston, IL
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