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Composition Forum 22, Summer 2010

Brown, David West. In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-Switching, and Academic Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Print.

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Charlotte Brammer

Sociolinguistic research focusing on the intersection of language, culture, and education is not new, but in recent years, this research has gained urgency in response to the increased use of high stakes testing (Farr, Seloni and Song). Beliefs in linguistic purism (i.e., notions that standard edited English is superior to all other forms of English) drive prescriptivist pedagogies that punish linguistic variations, despite statements from professional organizations, like NCTE, that support students’ rights to their own language. In this context, sociolinguistic research has shifted from describing various linguistic vernaculars to advocating for pedagogical approaches. One approach, often labeled “accommodation,” calls on teachers to accept variations in students’ writings, thus focusing on students as writers rather than privileging the form. This approach has been criticized for failing many of the student groups it proposes to help, largely because students are still assessed based on standard edited English and must be able to understand and produce discourse in this preferred dialect (Brammer, 2002).

A second pedagogical approach seeks to increase students’ linguistic repertoires by encouraging deeper understandings of standard edited English and dialect variations. Methods for this “additive” approach differ, but the pedagogical goal is consistent. David West Brown’s new text, In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-Switching, and Academic Writing, falls clearly within the additive model. In it, he applies substantial research in sociolinguistics to the question of teaching grammar in secondary schools. The result is a collection of thirty-five, short grammar lesson plans, each of which can be taught in fifteen minute increments.

One critical component of Brown’s pedagogical method is helping students to become cognizant of their grammatical knowledge so that they can take ownership of that knowledge and further their understanding of how language works. This approach is quite similar to William Rutherford’s notion of grammatical “consciousness-raising” in second language learners. Grammatical consciousness-raising draws on the students’ existing knowledge of grammar (i.e., what is familiar) to introduce new aspects of grammar (i.e., what is unfamiliar). In other words, consciousness-raising grammar pedagogy involves introducing specific grammatical features that the learner can use in conjunction with existing general knowledge. From this perspective, according to Rutherford, “grammar is the on-line processing component of discourse and not the set of syntactic ‘building blocks’ with which discourse is, as it were, ‘constructed’” (104). Similarly, Brown’s lesson plans call on students to use their current, implicit knowledge of grammar or “how language works” to increase their explicit knowledge of grammar and hopefully to broaden their linguistic skills.

While Brown’s lesson plans are based on sound sociolinguistic research, teachers do not have to be well versed in that research in order to share the lessons with students. Brown provides sufficient information and structure to each lesson for teachers to follow, including reproducible handouts and answer keys. He also provides excellent resources that inquisitive teachers can use to deepen their knowledge, and he offers suggestions for modifying the lessons. As a former high school English teacher, Brown understands the time constraints of the classroom and thus created some lesson plans using texts typically read in high school English classes. He also is sensitive to the teachers’ audience, and thus, many of his examples are pulled from popular culture, such as movies, television shows, music, etc. His lessons are also applicable for college composition courses, especially ones with underprepared students. Students in these courses can learn to value their dialects, while adding new language skills.

Grammar instruction fell out of favor in most K-12 classrooms following the assertion by Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer that “the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing” (37, emphasis added). A host of recent studies, however, have called on the field to reconsider this position based on new evidence that grammar instruction may benefit student writers (Campbell, Brammer and Ervin; Brammer, 2009; Wheeler and Swords; Brown). Brown is clearly concerned with rethinking the role and practice of grammar instruction in classrooms. In a recent piece published in American Speech, he called on other linguists, both socio- and applied, to help develop “a clear understanding of how one is going to engage grammar in the classroom and how that engagement will benefit students” (225). This new book can be seen as Brown’s own effort at following through on that call.

Works Cited

Braddock, Richard, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. Research on Written Composition. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1963. Print.

Brammer, Charlotte. “Composition and Applied Linguistics: Exploring the Oral/Written Connection.” Negotiating a Meta-Pedagogy, Ed. Emily Golson and Toni Glover. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. 152-169. Print.

———.“Linguistic Cultural Capital and Basic Writers.” Journal of Basic Writing 21.1 (2002): 16-36. Print.

Brown, David West. “Coming to Terms With What It Means To Teach and Learn Grammar.” American Speech 84.2 (2009): 216-227. Print.

Campbell, Kim Sydow, Charlotte Brammer, and Nicole Ervin. “Exploring How Instruction in Style Affects Writing Quality,” Business Communication Quarterly 62.3 (1999): 71-86. Print.

Farr, Marcia, Lisya Seloni, and Juyoung Song, eds. Ethnolinguistic Diversity and Education: Language, Literacy, and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Rutherford, William E. Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman, 1987. Print.

Wheeler, Rebecca S., and Rachel Swords. Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006. Print.

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