Sledd – On Not Teaching English Usage

Sledd, J. “On Not Teaching English Usage.” The English Journal 54.8 (1965): 698-703. Print.

In this article, James Sledd is precise in his distinctions between grammar, style, and usage and how this relates to students’ use of language. For Sledd, grammar referred to rules, while style referred to the writer’s choices. Usage, then, is about more limited choices. Sledd described it as:

“the study of socially graded synonyms, then tautologically such choices are determined by status only, and only one question is relevant to our choosing: Which form is used, and which form is approved, by those whose status we would like to share?” 698

In other words, usage is the “study of the social climber’s style.” The challenge in this, other than the oppression associated with the hierarchies in American society, Sledd suggested is that social structures and orders had changed.

To adjust to the change in the socio-cultural and political climates and how they were reflected in changing student bodies, Sledd said  that teachers tried to make students change their language by speaking and writing in very specific ways. Sledd argued that effective pedagogy required teachers to raise above the level of being linguistic bully: “We cannot teach them to choose by making their choices for them” (700).

He continued:

“Those among us who pretend we are good enough to set the crooked straight will have to try something much more difficult. We will have to teach the responsible choice of language for purposes broader and better than social
climbing. Social climbing never made much sense, and it makes still less when nobody knows which end is up.” (501)

In order to be responsible teachers Sledd contended that teachers needed to abandon some of the standards they were accustomed to and examine what ends are the standards serving. Sledd suggested that one of stakeholders being served is “Big Brother” where standardized language is supposedly necessary for an industrial society.

He basically called the upward mobility justification for teaching standard English “BS” and against the interests of the teachers themselves. Teachers who Sledd said were no longer “in the race” themselves were helping to sell the “upward mobility” ambition to the so-called “poor and ignorant” (701). According to Sledd, English teachers were no longer serving the students, but the wealth: “English teachers, who are out of the race themselves, must still help the gross national product to get grosser” (701).

Sledd prioritized student’s freedom and agency as human beings over institutional goal of social mobility, and to this end he offered one way English teachers could help students achieve the former: “When more people are shouting about freedom than understand it, we might set one frail example by not shouting but by speaking freely” (701).

 

 

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Lin – An English Program for students Handicapped by a Local Dialect

Lin, San‐su C. “An English Program for Students Handicapped by a Local Dialect,”.” College Language Association Journal (1963) Print.

In this article, San-su Lin, described her experience as a professor at Claflin University, a historically Black university, teaching college English to students with “local dialects.”  From the beginning, Lin described the Black students’ dialect  as a “handicap” and impediment to them having group membership in the larger society and achieving upward social mobility. Even though Lin is clear that the lowered status of Black dialects are socially constructed in the United States because of the lowered social status of Blacks in the U.S., she nonetheless advocated for Blacks to adopt the language of wider communication in order to be successful, similarly to the way Green (1963) does. The difference between Lin and Green’s (1963) stance on local dialects is that while Lin described that the dialect is a social barrier, she recognized that the dialect itself is not deficient, but another form of usage:

“In a democratic society like ours… linguistic scientists who have done distinguished work in linguistic history and geography should have convinced us that the only sensible viewpoint we could adopt is a liberal viewpoint, allowing for a variability and flexibility in the matter of English usage. According to this viewpoint, the many so-called incorrect usages condemned by the purists are colloquially acceptable, and the usages that are definitely substandard are actually fewer than we once thought” (145).

Despite this acknowledgement, societal and institutional goals prevail. Lin described a program instituted by Claflin University with support from Teachers’ College faculty and the U.S. Department of Education called the “Pattern Practice in the Teaching of Standard English to Students with a Nonstandard Dialect” (142).  The program started in 1961 and sought to identify the extent to which pattern practice could help “nonstandard” English speakers learn “standard” English as well as develop materials to implement pattern practice with students.

The program included mandatory classes and language labs, but Lin found that American speakers of local dialect had a more difficult time picking up “standard” English because they did not have the same motivations to assimilate as foreign students. To this end, Lin said one of the programs most important goals was to show the students in the Claflin program the extend to their “language problem” which was mainly social (144). Secondly, the program  sought to teach the students the best ways to overcome their “handicap” (146). In addition to in class lessons, students were provided mastertape recordings for more practice.

At the time that the article was written, Claflin was in their third academic year of the program and the final assessment had note been conducted. However, Lin suspected that the success of the program would be seen on a more personal level for the students with increases in confidence and  improvements in attitudes toward English language use. Lin concluded that although she presumed this program to be successful, that “special” English classes for “minority” students with local dialects should not mean remedial English classes. Instead, Lin argued that English programs and teacher training should be re-evaluated and answers to the following questions should be pursued:

“How can we adequately prepare our English majors to teach English as a language as well as literature? How can we alert prospective English teachers not only to the dynamic nature of language but also to the psychological needs of the students? How can we encourage our English majors, even if they do not intend to teach, to cultivate a humanistic interest in our language as an integral part of the humanities, and not merely as a set of mechanical rules and abstract definitions? How can we infuse in our students a sense of urgency in learning, or teaching English which has a great impact not only on a child’s sense of security but on national security as well?” (147)