Using language to teach about history is key, and you can start by exploring these questions: How did our language come into play in the first place? How does it connect to our ancestors? Where does our language come from? Talking about how it’s connected to enslavement: we don’t like to tell that story. We don’t like to talk about language planning, and how when enslaved Africans were being captured by white enslavers, they intentionally put enslaved Africans who communicated in the same language in different groups, so that they would not be able to break free. That was intentional language planning and central to how enslavement continued to happen, but we leave that out. People take for granted that there’s always this dis on Black Language, but in my work when I’m talking about linguistic justice and calling out systems, it’s because we see Black Language being capitalized on, exploited, and modified. The question is not, “How would one use Black Language in a global market?”—it is the global market! So using Black Language as a strength to highlight what’s happening in the world is linguistic justice.
I also talk about how you can use Black Language to teach Black linguistic consciousness raising and critical literacies. We have to be able to use language, not just do language. We have to teach the critical literacy skills that young people need for them to understand how their language is being used in the world, and to understand things like linguistic racism and anti-Blackness. I honestly think that the work we are doing, and have been doing, pushes far beyond our really basic understanding of what language is capable of.
NT: So this is foundational for language and literacy learning?
ABB: Right! It’s not on the outside of language and literacy learning, it is language and literacy learning. It’s central to what needs to happen. People always think they need to accommodate and do something to bring this in. It’s central to what you should be doing in the first place.
Being knowledgeable of Black language is key for educators to address the pervasive language bias in curriculum and assessment.
Anna Osborn: The deficit narratives about Black children and African American Language (AAL) are pervasive, not just in our schools, but in society. What beliefs must educators have about Black children and AAL in order to genuinely engage in justice-centered work?
GB: What you just said about it being foundational is essential. Obviously, teachers have to understand and respect Black culture, ethnicity, and language. They have to view African American Language as a co-parallel language to any other language. One of the teachers who was engaged in professional development with me—and learned about AAL for the first time—later became a teacher who strongly advocated for African American students and their culture. Once she learned about AAL and its sophistication, she said, “I have a confession to make to you. I feel like I have to atone for all of the linguistic violence that I have subjected African American speakers to over the last 30 years.” She told me her disdain for African American Language had been so deep that when she and her husband were dating and he would write her letters using AAL, his first language, she would “correct” the letters and send them back to him. And I was like, “and he married you?” [laughter] One thing I really love that she’s done in her classroom: She created a word wall that has African American Language on it, in addition to the words that she had to have on the wall, and she did the translations. So when students are sounding out and trying to figure out how to spell the word using conventional English, they can look up their own pronunciations on the board first. I thought this was really beautifully done.
Of course, teachers have to understand there is a huge knowledge base on this topic that’s been around for more than five decades, so that means they’ve got to learn something about the phonological, syntactical, semantic, and pragmatic features of African American Language, which requires ongoing professional development, either individually or in school. A recent piece that I wrote with Mary Earick and Tambra Jackson in Theory into Practice includes other recommendations for teachers: to understand how to teach about and honor code meshing, how to engage African American speakers in critical dialogue about African American Language, and provide tools and avenues for dismantling anti-Black linguicism. Also routinely including high-quality AAL texts, providing accurate historical and contemporary accounts of Black culture, because culture and language go hand in hand, and promoting the use of African American Language in the classroom because African American speakers are often disciplined for using features of AAL, such as signifying and tonal semantics.
Importantly, educators are going to have to think about how they can use more culturally relevant assessment measures. This requires understanding issues of validity, you know, whether or not the assessment measures being used are valid for the students, and simple things like, what is considered a miscue. We know that Patricia Cunningham and others found that children who speak with what she refers to as a dialect are more likely to be “corrected” than kids who are perceived as not having a dialect, which is biased.
GB: Orlando Taylor identified five different kinds of biases related to African American Language speakers: situational bias, linguistic bias, communicative style bias, cognitive style bias, and interpretation bias. These are all things that affect how AAL speakers are assessed. Situational bias is a mismatch between the test taker and the tester, in terms of the social rules of language interaction. Rules such as, Who can speak to whom? And how do you appropriately get
what you want to get in a setting? What kind of language behaviors are you looking for? So, for example, if students are silent, because the language style is different, that’s interpreted as they have a deficiency or pathology. In terms of communication style bias, there are a lot of the styles that are privileged on assessments and require a lot of verbosity and stating things that are obvious, as noted in some of the earlier work by people like Shirley Brice Heath. Kids were being asked questions that were different kinds of communication styles, like, what colors is the sky? Well, the kids don’t answer because they’re thinking, “Why you asking me a question you already know the answer to?” That’s not their communication style; they may use an episodic-centered approach versus topic-centered. Orlando Taylor also talks about cognitive style biases that relate to African American Language speakers. AAL speakers tend to be more relational, and a lot of assessments privilege the “analytic.” I’m putting up quotes, because relational is analytic too, right? He also talks about linguistic bias, and an example of making phonological distinctions between pairs of words on auditory tests. So being able to distinguish between pen and pin. You know, those things are going to be marked wrong, because in AAL, there’s no distinction made between those words. Then you have situational bias, which would be comparing African American Language speakers’ answers to those who are not AAL speakers, and that’s problematic.
Mary Rhodes Hoover talked about things like lexical biases that we see. How simple things such as how students interpret the test item because they have different lexicons. So if you ask students things like, “Can you point to a picture of a toboggan?”, if they don’t know toboggan, then they would not be able to point to it. It’s not that they can’t read or they can’t learn new words, it’s just not one of the words in their lexicons. She uses a really good example of a test question with four choices. The question goes, “If a person does something against the law, he is an (a) ambassador, (b) official, (c) offender, (d) officer,” so you already know where I’m going with that one, right? For many African American students, they’ve witnessed incidents of police brutality, they’re going to choose officer. They’re not going to choose offender or any of those other things. So those are things that teachers have to know how to think about, and you have to know in order to teach well.
“Radical self-work” is a necessary first step to engage in linguistics justice work.
ABB: You took us to church, Dr. Boutte; thank you so much. I’ll just briefly add to that. Teachers have to begin with themselves. There’s some work you have to do in order to be the kind of teacher that Dr. Boutte just pointed out. So with the example of the Black educator who corrected the Black Language of her potential husband, she had to go through a process of unlearning in order to get to do the kind of work that she’s doing now, right? In my own work, I always think about educators who often want to fix Black kids to make us accommodate white supremacy and anti-Black linguistic racism without thinking about, “What’s the work I need to do as the educator in order to work with Black children?”
Number one, we have to admit that we are all socialized into an anti-Black, white supremacist society; and you have to admit that it is going to show up in everything you do. If you went through a teacher education system like I did, it was a white supremacist system and we have to work to unlearn and dismantle those structures. So I always say to educators, what is the first thing you can do? I talk about Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy in my book, but you can’t do that without doing your own work. So I’ve been calling it “the radical self-work.” The radical self-work and positionality asks questions like, “How can I do the radical self-work that’s necessary to help me see the ways I’m complicit to anti-Black linguistic racism?” We know the system exists, but you have to understand how you’re part of it. So how can you work against your own assumptions that maintain that Black students are linguistically and morally inferior, and that their language practices reflect incompetence or a lack of intelligence? Who am I to tell a Black student that they don’t have the right to their own language? Language is humanity. So when you are telling people they can’t use their language, you’re policing them, you’re policing their humanity. Every person, every human being should be extended the right to their language, and to try to take that away and eradicate it from a young child, it’s inhumane. It’s dehumanizing to anyone. What’s your self-work with respect to your own identities? Your racial identity? If you don’t identify as Black, then your ethnic identity, but that’s also your linguistic identity. We have to think about how class impacts the way we see things, right? We all have work to do and we have to think about those types of structures, those types of identities that may play out in what happens in your classroom in order to engage in antiracist work.
GB: In the end, when we do get Black educators who finally have revelations, it’s healing for them. Because, in fact, many of them confess, “You know, all my life I was told there was something wrong,” so they’ve internalized those messages very deeply as well, and it’s healing. I’ve had some Black people say things like, “I don’t be speaking that and I don’t allow my students to do it,” and I say to myself, “I’m not gonna tell you right now, you just did.”
ABB: Exactly. You just spoke the language! But I do handle Black educators delicately. Yes, we don’t have time for y’all to be playing around and being on the side of upholding white supremacy, but I recognize that you are socially conditioned into this system.
So questions like, “How can you speak back to administrators and teachers and advocate for Black students in their full humanity?” Oftentimes, when I’m giving workshops, I’m talking to educators and I think it’s a way to hide behind something. They’ll say, “well administrators expect us to do this.” But teachers have to understand that they are the experts in that classroom. You are the advocate for the student in that classroom. Your job is also to advocate for Black students as you signed up to advocate for all students. Black students are students too, right? You should be the one speaking back to administrators on behalf of Black kids, and if you can’t do that you have some questions and some other things you need to deal with. Another question I ask teachers to think about: instead of focusing on getting Black students to accommodate and acquiesce to these systems of anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy, let’s flip that on its head. How can you dismantle current language arts and writing curriculum policies, practices and pedagogies that harm Black people? Let’s get to the point: these things are harmful to Black people. We want you to stop the harm. That is something above and beyond any type of academic thing that you’re thinking about doing. We’re talking about the humanity of Black people. If you don’t identify as a Black Language speaker, you need to ask yourself, “Why are your cultural and linguistic norms deemed the standard for which Black people must reach?” Those are some serious questions, and I think that it could take you far. And it’s the first step to everything that Dr. Boutte just laid out, that our elders and ancestors have laid out, in this work. There’s some fundamental questions about you above and beyond your role as an educator: Who do you want to be in this work? I think about what Kendi says, or let me go back to Angela Davis. She says, “either you are a racist, or you’re antiracist.” You can’t be neutral in this. So you got to choose a side. Either you’re going to advocate for Black students or you’re not, but you can’t call yourself an advocate or someone that believes in DEI or antiracism if you’re not willing to step up for Black kids.
NT: Has there been progress in classroom examples of culturally relevant language and literacy practices?
GB: Building on what Dr. Baker said, it hasn’t advanced to where it should be, because people don’t want to do the self-work. Although there are lots of articles out there, the translation doesn’t quite reach the classroom level. I do a lot of long-term professional development around the topic and I insist on long-term presentations, but one problem is that many districts mandate pacing guides that are restricted. And so my team and I want to shout out to people who I have worked with: Susi Long, Eliza Braden, Kamania Wynter-Hoyte, and Meir Muller. We often try to show teachers how you can actually
meet and exceed standards. So I would say that culturally relevant pedagogy was just gaining some momentum, but the anti-CRT [critical race theory] movement is intentionally disruptive to culturally relevant teaching. It has teachers fearing for their jobs, and that’s real. Teachers have lost their jobs. So we have to think about that and how we help them to navigate that space. Another issue is because teachers have been so dehumanized and disrespected. As professionals who are capable of creating their own lessons, they still want step-by-step directions and strategies rather than guiding tenets. And of course, there is no prescription for culturally relevant pedagogy. I’ve been using Gloria Ladson-Billings’ conceptualization of CRP, which has three major dimensions: academic excellence, critical consciousness, and cultural competence. And as noted by Gloria in a recent book chapter, and in numerous presentations, many times teachers often miss or misinterpret that critical consciousness piece. So that is missing the piece where students get to think about some issues they can research and talk about regarding inequities and how to be politically conscious about those.
Here, Dr. Boutte had to step out of the interview.
When phonics instruction corrects students’ phonology it devalues the identities of young children.
AO: And so that miscue work that Dr. Boutte was talking about earlier speaks right to my classroom, and making sure that my students walk away from any reading conference with dignity. What should teachers understand about linguistic justice when teaching phonics?
ABB: I mean, I think you need to know that Black people have a specific type of phonology, and that usually gets lost at the very young levels. One of the things that we do know from research is that there’s a specific type of phonology that Black—particularly young—students have. For example, the t-h sound, sounds like d, “da,” right? And that’s because when we think about West African languages that /th/ sound does not exist, it sounds like a D. So what happens is when young Black children are writing the word “the,” they might write “da” or “dem” for “them.” They write it how they hear it and understand it. Some of my pre-service teachers who go into classrooms to do their field work tell me when students write this way, they are being corrected, without any acknowledgement that this is a feature of their language and that it is not incorrect. You can teach that this is what /th/ sounds like without taking a deficit approach or disconfirming their actual language, by showing them the differences between languages. But that’s usually not what happens at that early level: students are beat, and I’m saying that metaphorically, but abused for bringing their language in. There was a student in the ninth grade I was having a conversation with, and she talked about her experience in elementary school, and she said her teachers were trying to scrutinize her because they kept saying, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong,” and she didn’t know what was wrong. She’s using this cultural linguistic language based on what she hears and maybe how people write in her community, and her teachers are saying, “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” but not able to explain what’s wrong. So the students are having these kinds of conflicts. The student talked about how she shut down, and when a student is shutting down you can’t get through to them. Dr. Elaine Richardson talks about when we’re teaching students to hate Black Language, we ultimately teach them to hate themselves. And so these students are policed from a very early and young age. It is the very first lesson for them about what school is about; it associates Blackness with wrongness and whiteness with rightness, and it starts from the beginning.
Having an understanding of Black language phonology is extremely important. It is something that I teach all of my students—I don’t care if they are secondary or elementary—about the phonology of the language. I even teach rhetorical practices that they have an exam on, because from a linguistic justice standpoint, it’s extremely important for educators to know that this is not wrong. The student is accurately speaking with their cultural and linguistic background. And so we have to make sure we’re training educators to understand the language. We’re not saying that you can’t teach children the differences in phonology (e.g., “dem” and “them”); it’s the way that teachers are doing it that’s troubling. I’m always appreciative of Dr. Boutte’s work, because she works with the younger children. For a long time in the work, you didn’t see many of those studies coming up, but I’m so happy that there’s so many other younger and emerging scholars who are taking up the work of the younger children and thinking about what linguistic justice and Black Language mean in those particular contexts. And then outside being a teacher, I have Black children; my son is eight years old right now, and he has questions about Black Language and white mainstream language practices, and I fully engage him in those conversations, so they’re not too young to learn about linguistic justice with respect to things like phonics, syntax, and semantics.
NT: Absolutely! So can you explain the distinction between code switching, register shifting, and linguistically responsive pedagogy?
ABB: So with code switching, people are afraid to take a racial analysis to that approach. Black, Indigenous, People of Color, Communities of Color are the groups that are asked to code switch. Everyone is not asked to code switch. The way code switching is taken up in classrooms, you have to switch your language, you have to communicate in a Standard English, which we know is grounded in a myth. There is no standard language. When we’re talking about the standard, we’re talking about white mainstream linguistic and cultural norms. We’re telling students they need to be able to communicate in this language in order to be successful. Well, that success is grounded in white linguistic supremacy and anti-Blackness. What it says to Black students is: code switching is cutting off the Black parts of your language, so that you appear intelligent, so that no one will judge you. So if I say, “we be at the store,” If I’m told to code switch, then I’m being told to take that “be” out to say, “we are at the store,” “we will be at the store,” “we’re often at the store.” That’s a habitual be. It’s a Black Language feature. So people like to say that everybody has to code switch, white and Black people, and I say that’s not true. Y’all are talking about register shifting.
Register shifting asks and requires us to think about the formality of a situation, and to use informal registers if it’s in an informal situation or formal registers if it’s a formal situation. What happens is, Black Language gets reduced to informal only, right? It’s deemed an informal language and it’s not. Just like language itself, there are formal and informal ways that we use our Black Language. And I use the simple example to say, if you said, “I just failed the class.”—I don’t care if you white, Black, Brown, Asian—the way you communicate that message to an elder in your family, your boss, or someone else, it’s not going to sound the same way you say that to your friend, right? That’s a formality of the situation. Imma get informal with my friend and say, “I failed my whatever class!,” and I might tell my grandma, “Grandma, you know, I think that I didn’t study enough, I feel. . . .” I’m going to switch it up, right? So yes, we all do have to do register shifting. That’s not code switching. Code switching is talking about language that shows something about you that people will discriminate on. So for Black people, it’s showing the Black part of our language that gets interpreted as incorrect English, as if we’re uneducated, and that’s what we’re told to code switch on. So there’s a difference, as you see. For communities of color, code switching is turning off and on the parts of our language that reflect our racial and ethnic identity. Register shifting: we all do it, no matter what your racial or ethnic background, because it’s about the formality of a situation. No language is completely informal. You cannot reduce Black Language that has syntax, semantics, phonology, rhetoric, and say all of that is informal, right? You don’t know something about human languages if that’s what you’re saying, and you definitely don’t know nothing about Black Language, right?
So linguistic, responsive pedagogy. I would interpret that as what I’m arguing for: Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy, where we recognize that students walk into our classroom with their rich, brilliant language, where we’re not perpetuating monolingual language practices. We’re not perpetuating deficit approaches to language, where we’re inviting students to be critical of these types of systems that don’t consider them or accept them in their full humanity.
Linguistic responsive pedagogy looks different depending on whose work you’re reading. I talk about and advocate for an Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy. That’s what I call the work I am doing with learners because you have to talk about, for me, racism. People like to not talk about racism; they like terms like cultural. Now, culturally relevant, culturally responsive work is very, very deep. But the reason I like to add racism in it, and be very explicit in my language, is because people get too comfortable with things like culture, because it allows for you to talk about things without explicitly pointing out white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism. And I feel like if you’re doing antiracist work, which is what we have to be doing in this society, we have to be explicit about what’s happening.
Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy supports elementary and middle school students with exploring issues of race, language, identity, and power.
AO: What might this work look like with elementary school students and middle school students?
ABB: My book is very practical on the secondary level, but my pre-service elementary educators are doing some amazing work! In my class, I start with the Antiracist Black Language Pedagogy and encourage teachers to think about their own context, and they have to be able to imagine and innovate activities that work. And I’ve seen some of the best things from my pre-service teachers and Black studies students. So my students have done some great things around the intersections of Black Language and Black identity, and there’s a ton of children’s books that help us to do that work. Milo’s Museum, for example, is about a young Black girl talking with her grandfather and people in her community, and they’re using Black Language. They’re showing the intersections between Black Language and Black identity, and intentionally pointing out for their students how the language aligns with the culture. This is an extremely important thing that teachers could do. There are so many young children’s books that I love to use when I’m talking about Black Language and identity. Using Black children’s literature is great for pointing out the beauty and richness of the language or the grammatical and rhetorical features.
When talking about language and power, I’ve seen my students do some amazing things. So one of my students brought in Minions! She did this demonstration on language and power. So Gru is in power and using his language, right, in this powerful position, and the minions had their own language about what was happening. She basically used that example, which I thought was extremely fascinating as an adult, but young kids watch cartoons, right? So that’s a great way to invite them into talking about language. You don’t have to go all outside of the context that students come to you in . . . you can use cartoons. Another cartoon that my students have brought in to teach about Black Language and identity is The Proud Family.
Another thing is letting young kids write a linguistic memoir, for example, about holidays, because those moments are when you see the richness of language. You can ask students to write about their favorite holiday and ask them to describe how people sound when they are experiencing the holiday and what people are saying. It’s a way to invite the language into the space.
Inviting elders and parents into the classroom to read books is a great way to see that linguistic diversity show up in the way that we sound, in the way that we read stories. Sharing narratives like oral stories is a very important part of the Black community. Much of my understanding of my family history comes from stories my grandmother and mom told me. So I feel like storytelling is a native practice within the Black community that should be welcomed, appreciated in any classroom space.
NT: That’s some amazing work! What support, advice, insight can you give educators when mandates and policies are being passed that say teachers cannot talk about issues of race?
ABB: I am not currently teaching in a K–12 setting right now, but when I was a high school English teacher, my administrators didn’t always know what was going on in my classroom. I took power over the class that I was in. Whenever I give workshops or talks on Linguistic Justice, many teachers ask, “How can we do this work given the current mandates, common core, and standardized testing?” But to be honest, it’s not that separate from what the so-called standards say. Like, to affirm someone’s Black Language, their Black humanity is not separate from what the curriculum is saying that we should do. We say we have to start where students are. We know if you don’t begin with the language that the students have in a classroom, no matter what the end goal is, they are not going to learn, and they’re going to fail these so-called standardized tests. I just think that these things that are happening are serious, but I feel like these districts need to be taken to task, because it’s not separate from what the standards say we should be doing. I was the type of teacher … my main goal was going to be to teach them Black kids, even if that meant that the lesson plan that I was turning into administrators looked different from the lesson that was going on in the classroom. You know what I’m saying. I get that jobs are on the line, but I cannot imagine being in a classroom and not being able to educate all my kids. Essentially, it’s saying that we have to perpetuate anti-Blackness. I think that there’s always been things that we were told not to do in classrooms, but I understand my position here as an educator of Black students and how I could either hurt or bring justice to my communities.
Cunningham, P. M. (1976). Teachers’ correction responses to Black-dialect miscues which are non-meaning-changing. Reading Research Quarterly, 12(4), 637–653. https://doi.org/10.2307/747445
Elliot, Z. (2016). Milo’s museum. CreateSpace Independent.
Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, Orlando L. (1990). Cross-cultural communication: an essential dimension of effective education (Rev. ed.). American University Mid-Atlantic Equity Center.
Baker-Bell, A. (2020). Linguistic justice: Black language, literacy, identity, and pedagogy. Routledge; National Council of Teachers of English.
Boutte, G. S., Earick, M. E., & Jackson, T. O. (2021). Linguistic policies for African American language speakers: Moving from anti-Blackness to pro-Blackness. Theory Into Practice, 60(3), 231–241. doi.org/10.1080/
Boutte, G. S., King, J. E., Johnson, G. L., Jr., & King, L. J. (Eds.). (2021). We be lovin’ Black children: Learning to be literate about the African diaspora. Myers Education Press.
Boutte, G. S. (2016). Educating African American students: And how are the children? Routledge.
Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students (CEEAAS). https://www.ceeaas.com/
Dr. Gloria Swindler Boutte is a Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, and her scholarship focuses on equity pedagogies. She is the author or editor of five books and nearly 100 publications; has presented nationally and internationally on equity issues; has received prestigious awards such as the Fulbright Scholar, Fulbright Specialist, 2020 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Outstanding Elementary Educator in the English Language Arts—Elementary Section, and the 2021 American Educational Research Association (AERA) 2021 Division K Legacy Award; and was named a 2022 AERA Fellow. Dr. Boutte is also the founder and executive director of the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students (CEEAAS).
Dr. April Baker-Bell is an award-winning transdisciplinary teacher-researcher-activist and associate professor of language, literacy, and English education in the Department of English and the Department of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University. Baker-Bell is an international leader in conversations on Black Language education; her research interrogates the intersections of Black Language and literacies, anti-Black racism, and antiracist pedagogies. Her award-winning book Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy brings together theory, research, and practice to dismantle anti-Black linguistic racism (a term Baker-Bell coined) and white linguistic supremacy.
Dr. Natasha Thornton is a teacher educator and educational consultant who develops culturally responsive and sustaining professional learning experiences and curricular resources. As the founder of Thornton Educational Consulting, she codeveloped Black Education is Lit(eracy), an online literacy resource that highlights the beauty and brilliance of Black history and culture. Natasha is also an adjunct professor of literacy education at Kennesaw State University and serves on the board of Literacies and Languages for All (LLA).
Anna Gotangco Osborn is a doctoral candidate in reading education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the classroom representative on the Literacies and Languages for All (LLA) board. She currently teaches reading workshop at Jefferson Middle School: A STEAM Academy and works toward equity and inclusion for students and teachers through her scholarship and teacher activism.
She created a word wall that has African American Language on it, in addition to the words that she had to have on the wall, and she did the translations.
Educators . . . often want to fix Black kids to make us accommodate . . . without thinking about, “What’s the work I need to do as the educator in order to work with Black children?”
There is no prescription for culturally relevant pedagogy.
When we’re teaching students to hate Black Language, we ultimately teach them to hate themselves.Subscribe