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Composition Forum 44, Summer 2020

Confronting Internalized Language Ideologies in the Writing Classroom: Three Pedagogical Examples

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Jennifer Slinkard and Jeroen Gevers

Abstract: Although writing scholars have increasingly emphasized the need for more equitable approaches to language (difference) in the composition classroom, specific examples of teaching praxis remain sorely needed. In this article, we offer three sets of activities that we have used in our own classes designed for multilingual students. In formulating these activities, we adopt a critical-pragmatic approach to linguistic social justice, inviting students to grapple with standard language ideology and its consequences while questioning the idea that students can or should be liberated by us. Focusing on notions of “standard” and “correct” English, our proposal is grounded in relevant debates, connecting insights from sociolinguistics and World Englishes/Global English Language Teaching with Jerry Won Lee’s theory of “translanguaging pedagogy.” We hope that these examples will inspire more concrete initiatives aimed at promoting linguistic social justice and student agency.


Outside of writing studies, social justice debates tend to revolve around race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, with varying degrees of consideration for how these intersect; language is not always taken into account (Piller). Yet, as a social marker, language use is clearly of crucial importance—indeed, it is often implicated in social inequities and racial discrimination (e.g., Alim, Rickford, and Ball). As the editors of this Special Issue point out in their introduction, harmful language attitudes can thus perpetuate inequalities in the writing classroom. We should therefore praise the efforts of those who have formulated more ethically informed approaches to language difference. Apart from centering the needs and experiences of our students, such efforts can help to put language difference on the agendas of educators as well as mainstream social justice debates.

Despite these recent advances, much work remains to be done. In particular, concrete examples of linguistic social justice pedagogy are still lacking. Faced with the sheer complexity of social justice issues, teachers who want to promote student agency and fairness may find themselves at a loss; indeed, we, as early-career applied linguists and writing teachers, have struggled to identify concrete activities to use in our writing courses with multilingual students. While recent insights in Critical English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and translingualism—among other pedagogical orientations—provide starting points for instructors concerned with linguistic social justice, this literature also has its limitations. First, calls to confront (racio)linguistic discrimination or engage language diversity often remain fairly abstract or philosophical, offering few practical guidelines; as a result, such arguments—despite being important and thought-provoking—may seem more relevant to scholars than to teachers and their students, as Ryuko Kubota astutely observes (312). Second, proposals for equity-oriented teaching in the writing classroom frequently lack grounding in relevant prior research in sociolinguistics (Watson) and second language writing (Tardy). Third, critical-pedagogical approaches ultimately carry the risk that one set of assumptions about what is valuable or beneficial for students is replaced with another, as scholars have warned within the context of Critical EAP (Harwood and Hadley; Hyland).{1} Indeed, we worry that initiatives meant to empower students could give way to new forms of prescriptivism, positioning learners “in the same passive and unequal relationship for which Critical [sic] pedagogy criticizes pragmatic pedagogy . . . rather than bringing democratic and reflexive practices to the classroom” (Hyland 393).

Grappling with these challenges, this article advocates a critical-pragmatic (Corcoran and Englander; Harwood and Hadley; Hyland; Pennycook) approach to linguistic social justice, illustrated through three pedagogical examples.{2} Our activities are partially inspired by Jerry Won Lee’s argument for “translanguaging pedagogy” (Politics 129), which urges educators to address language difference in ways that move beyond mere displays of linguistic fluidity. Focusing on standard language ideology (Milroy), our activities examine linguistic norms (Activity 1) and variation (Activity 2 and Activity 3), encouraging students to critically reflect on their own and others’ notions of standardness and correctness. Importantly, we envision these activities as opportunities for students to wrestle with internalized values and beliefs associated with standard language ideology (SLI), given that language attitudes cannot simply be “taught.” Our goal with this contribution, then, is to advocate pedagogical applications for students from diverse language and literacy backgrounds which provide them with “thinking tools” (Atkinson 11) rather than “top-down truths” (Hyland 393), so as to increase their critical awareness of, and agency with, language difference.{3}

Before we present our activities, we first discuss the relevant literature on linguistic social justice, focusing on the need to invite student perspectives when engaging with language difference and assessment criteria, as well as the potential of integrating sociolinguistics and World Englishes in first-year writing courses using content-based instruction.

Toward Democratic Engagement with Language Difference

The concern with linguistic social justice in writing and language education is central to several scholarly traditions such as Global/World Englishes and English as an International Language (Canagarajah A New Paradigm; Aya Matsuda), translingualism (Canagarajah Literacy; Horner et al.; Lee, Beyond Translingual Writing), Critical EAP (Corcoran and Englander; Hyland; Pennycook), plurilingual pedagogies (Kubota; Lau and Van Viegen), and intercultural rhetoric (Connor; McIntosh et al.). These research strands have not always been well integrated as a result of disciplinary specialization and differences in educational contexts. Moreover, the newness imperative of our neoliberal academic enterprise easily makes one overlook previous scholarship (Jaspers and Madsen; Kubota; Schmenk et al.). Given the dizzying scope of the relevant literature, teachers who wish to adopt a social justice-oriented approach in their teaching may not know where to start, especially if they are new to debates on language difference and (racio)linguistic discrimination or if they are still coming to terms with standard language or monolingual ideologies themselves. In addition, in the U.S. context, many first-year composition courses are taught by adjunct lecturers or graduate students (Downs and Wardle) who have limited time and resources for lesson planning, receive little teacher training, and often lack explicit knowledge of “English as a language” (Dryer and Mitchell 137; see also MacDonald; Paul Kei Matsuda).

Translingualism serves as one point of departure in this regard. In our initial understanding, the most significant contribution of translingual pedagogy appeared to be code-meshing, in which students are encouraged to blend their various linguistic or semiotic resources in their written work (Canagarajah Literacy; Young and Martinez). The merits of this approach are not immediately obvious, given that not all students may benefit from or feel the need to code-mesh, irrespective of the language resources at their disposal (Gevers, Translingualism; Kubota); moreover, merely exposing students to linguistic fluidity or inviting them to code-mesh seems insufficient as a means to promote social justice (Lee, Politics). However, several theorists have since clarified that translingual pedagogy does not necessarily involve—let alone require—code-meshing (e.g., Horner and Alvarez; Schreiber and Watson); for them, translingualism refers more broadly to an orientation that perceives “difference as the norm” (Lu and Horner 586), thereby motivating a critical engagement with language variation and SLI in the classroom in the hopes of raising awareness of “how language standards sustain and are sustained by social inequity” (Schreiber and Watson 95).

In perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of translingual teaching to date, Jerry Won Lee has further questioned the effectiveness of “curricularizing” translingual practices, arguing that critical awareness of language difference should inform our teaching and assessment practices on a more structural level, beyond “the mere representation” of linguistic fluidity (Politics 129). Lee concludes that “it is not so much that we need to locate spaces for translingualism in pedagogy; instead, we need to imagine ways of translanguaging pedagogy” (129; our emphasis). To this end, Lee makes two key recommendations. First, he suggests that we rethink the “teaching of English,” noting the need to teach students also about “the assumptions of how to use English” (144), as doing so could help foster critical language awareness (Alim; Fairclough). Second, he urges us to depart from a transmission-based model of instruction in which teachers impart knowledge to their students, as the teacher’s linguistic and institutional authority can no longer be taken for granted in a social justice-oriented approach.

We support this agenda, and in fact believe that it should be extended to account as well for beliefs or values regarding language and writing instruction, which, like “English,” cannot simply be “taught.” In addition to inviting students’ Englishes into the classroom, then, we argue that it is necessary to elicit their perspectives on notions of standardness and correctness, given that our students’ prior experiences, needs, and interests will vary. Rather than telling students what to think, by which we would risk conceiving them as oppressed subjects waiting to be liberated by us (Hyland; Jaspers; Jaspers and Madsen), we should actively encourage students to develop their own positions on language difference while examining their past assumptions. Thus, our pedagogical activities are intended, in the words of Mary Breunig, to engage the “critical capacity, curiosity, and autonomy of the learner” (13).

Aligning Assessment Criteria with Students’ Own Learning Goals

One crucial area of attention for linguistic social justice is that of writing assessment, which continuously validates and reproduces SLI (Kubota; Lee, Beyond Translingual Writing; Politics). In parallel with second language writing research (e.g., Severino; Silva; see also Tardy and Whittig), scholars like Jerry Won Lee and Asao Inoue have advocated institutional and classroom practices aimed at creating fairer assessment conditions. For example, labor-based grading contracts are proposed as a concrete strategy to improve assessment conditions, challenging the idea of a “single [fixed] standard by which to evaluate instances of writing” (Inoue 121). Noting that students’ needs and interests will inevitably differ, and that no evaluative policy can therefore be a cure-all, Lee further recommends “individualizing evaluative criteria” (Politics 138 ff.), giving students the option to indicate how they want their writing to be assessed. The value of these approaches lies in their recognition that notions of “errors” and “good” (or even “effective”) writing are not universal and may (inadvertently) perpetuate the (racio)linguistic “status quo” (Schreiber and Watson 96).

However, we perceive two practical hurdles related to these initiatives. First, depending on the institutional settings and logistical constraints, writing teachers are not always in a position to transform assessment and gatekeeping practices, including course grading policies (Gevers,Recognizing; see also Kubota; Lee, Politics). Second, while composition scholars have addressed the need for fairer assessment conditions primarily within the confines of the writing classroom, we must keep in mind that our approaches to classroom assessment also serve to familiarize students with academic or professional writing expectations outside this narrow context—expectations which often remain implicit. Especially for multilingual student populations, whose previous educational experiences vary widely, opportunities to learn about such literacy expectations is crucial. Labor-based grading clearly provides an attractive strategy to resist a single standard of “correctness,” but when used without caution, it could send misleading messages about the contexts students are entering into, including what aspects of their writing will be valued based on local constructs of (college) writing.

For this reason, we adopt a critical-pragmatic approach to classroom assessment (Corcoran and Englander; Harwood and Hadley; Pennycook). This approach seeks to reconcile idealism and pragmatism (see also Ruecker and Shapiro): on the one hand, it aims to raise awareness of the socially constructed nature of notions of standard and correct English, and thereby aims to increase student agency, while on the other hand, it acknowledges the continued relevance and practicality of these notions, for better or worse. Although we encourage teachers to elicit student input on their own assessment practices if this is feasible, our main hope is that students will come to understand language-related evaluative policies across their courses in relation to their own learning goals. Activity 1, which focuses on the use of assignment grading rubrics, serves to illustrate this approach.

Integrating Sociolinguistics and World Englishes as Course Content

Apart from examining and negotiating assessment criteria, another promising avenue for social justice-oriented writing pedagogy is that of content-based instruction (CBI). A CBI approach is potentially beneficial for multilingual students since course content can provide a shared area of inquiry while also serving as a vehicle for language acquisition, meaning that critical engagement with SLI and writing development can be integrated (Snow; see also Cenoz; Tardy et al.).{4} In other words, CBI offers the opportunity to complement the teaching of English with classroom exchanges aimed at teaching students “about assumptions of standardness and appropriateness” (Lee, Politics 144), which we recognize as a central aspect of promoting linguistic social justice.

In the multilingual composition classroom, suitable content can range from linguistically fluid practices to materials pertaining to language variability and (racio)linguistic discrimination. However, while translingual texts are central to recent pedagogical and theoretical arguments, sociolinguistic topics and readings have received far less attention in writing studies (see also Watson), despite the fact that they could provide a helpful shared vocabulary to engage with language difference. Notable exceptions include proposals by Ana Maria Wetzl and Bee Chamcharatsri, each of whom has explored the pedagogical use of World Englishes (WE) in first-year writing (see also Tardy et al.; for individual activities focused on WE, see Aya Matsuda and Duran). Although not strictly focusing on first-year composition, Megan Siczek and Shawna Shapiro further describe two writing-intensive courses on global and U.S. English varieties that culminate in final projects on topics like English language hegemony and linguistic prejudice. More recently, educators at our own institution have developed a first-year writing course for multilingual students (Tardy et al.) combining the principles of CBI, genre-based pedagogy, and Global English Language Teaching (Rose and Galloway Debating). This course specifically seeks to stimulate critical awareness of English as a dynamic, global language while enhancing students’ control over academic writing conventions.

In our experience, the most beneficial applications of sociolinguistics and WE content are those that cast students in the role of researchers, allowing them to explore the functioning of SLI through hands-on tasks. Most students have internalized beliefs pertaining to SLI throughout their schooling and have not yet had a chance to reflect on and interrogate such beliefs. We have therefore found it helpful to complement assigned readings with activities in which students are encouraged to consider their own as well as others’ language attitudes. An important source of inspiration in this regard is Rosina Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, a textbook which also serves as the core reading in Missy Watson’s introductory sociolinguistics course for language and literacy educators (167). In the first part of her book, Lippi-Green provides an accessible introduction to language variation and change, linguistic discrimination, and the closely related myths of standardness and “non-accent.” In the approach we envision, relevant chapters or excerpts are paired with tasks in which students discuss their initial impressions of various spoken Englishes before eliciting responses from their friends or family members (see Activity 2). While comparing their findings, students are also encouraged to reflect on their own accents and their individual beliefs or learning goals, enabling them to recognize the socially constructed nature of notions of prestige or appropriateness.

Scholars increasingly seem to concur that writing teachers should address both “standard” or “native” and “nonstandard” or “nonnative”{5} language use, as doing so could increase students’ agency and raise their consciousness of both norms and variation. Such a critical-pragmatic approach seems especially promising if teachers and students explore the relative “markedness” of various alternatives, as well as the ways in which the writer may be perceived based on them (Matsuda and Matsuda). In a CBI approach, students could further be asked to develop researched arguments on the use of “standard” and “nonstandard” language varieties in the (writing) classroom as well as the global dominance of English more generally, allowing them to grapple with these debates. Indeed, following Siczek and Shapiro’s example, the WE-oriented course that was implemented at our institution includes an argumentative essay assignment in which students are asked to support their position on language use in the classroom drawing from both course readings and their personal experiences (Activity 3). This assignment encourages students to formulate what they value or consider important in their English (writing) education, while at the same time recognizing that some students may still decide that they “want standardized English to be a ‘cudgel to bludgeon’ them” (Lee, Politics 142) after contemplating the issue.

Pedagogical Examples

In this section, we outline three concrete sets of activities aimed at advancing linguistic social justice in multilingual writing classrooms. These activities are envisioned in line with Lee’s proposal of “translanguaging pedagogy” (Politics 133) as well as critical-pragmatic EAP (e.g., Corcoran and Englander; Harwood and Hadley) as they serve to acknowledge, investigate, and—whenever possible—negotiate power dynamics that shape English writing instruction, while refraining from telling students what they should believe. Along with providing a theoretical rationale for each activity, we aim to show its concrete application. Where relevant, we therefore offer suggestions for course materials, including both websites and assigned readings. Although we have not yet had the opportunity to conduct an empirical study on the benefits of activities, we also include anecdotal discussion of our own and our students’ experiences with them. For those who wish to implement the activities in their teaching, brief overviews are provided.

Activity 1: Rubric Analysis

Brief overview

Students analyze grading rubrics, focusing on language criteria.

Activity Set: One or more lessons

Time in class: 30-60 minutes


  1. Students gather grading rubrics for writing assignments from other classes.

  2. The instructor helps define terms often used to assess language, e.g., grammar, mechanics, style, voice, clarity, etc., as well as terms that indicate the level to which a student has met the criteria, e.g., meets, exceeds, fails, etc.

  3. The students (alone or in groups) identify evaluation criteria in the rubrics they have provided and discuss their relevance to the course goals and outcomes.

Follow-up activities:

  1. Students create a rubric for a class writing assignment, including criteria for language form.

  2. Allow students to decide on percentage ranges for different criteria on grading rubrics.

  3. Students reflect (in writing or in group discussions) on their own goals for language development.

The first activity we present here asks students to investigate their instructors’ assessment practices by analyzing language-related criteria in college-level grading rubrics. Jeroen has used this activity repeatedly, initially to familiarize students with main assignments and learning goals, but more recently also as a way to investigate and negotiate linguistic expectations in college writing, which is how we envision it here.

Given the importance of assessment practices in perpetuating notions of standardness and correctness, grading rubrics provide a rich territory for investigation. Ideally, teachers would try to individualize evaluative criteria based on students’ own learning goals, as Lee has argued (Beyond Translingual Writing; Politics). However, we recognize that many teachers and institutions of learning will continue to value “correctness” in writing, at least in the foreseeable future. Outside the writing classroom, instructors may base their assessment on their own understanding of what kind of language is deemed acceptable in their discipline or profession, which is likely informed by SLI but can often be rather idiosyncratic. In other words, linguistic justice “cannot be reduced to simply inviting alternate discourse styles in academic, even high-stakes, writing without attending to the technologies—placement testing, exit testing, common rubric scoring, among others—and stakeholders who decide when and where such discourse styles will be valued” (Politics 133). This activity attends to one important language assessment technology as we invite students to examine various uses of rubrics at their institution to discover how, and hypothesize about why instructors choose to assess (written) usage in the ways they do. We hope that through this activity students begin to perceive themselves as stakeholders and take ownership over how their use of language is assessed.

To prepare for the activity, students first collect grading criteria from their previous and current (writing) assignments. The teacher then guides students through an initial analysis of the rubrics, wherein students work to identify evaluation criteria pertaining to form, including language use. For example, students might look for criteria related to style, mechanics, grammar, clarity, or voice. In groups or on their own, students are asked to consider the meanings of such terms as well as the expectations that are conveyed by them, focusing on the exact wording of the criteria, the relative weight assigned to them, and the nature and overall goals of the assignment. Following class discussion, students write a journal entry or reflection on how appropriate they think the criteria are for the course goals or outcomes as well as to what degree the criteria match their own goals for language use more generally. Some possible questions to elicit reflection and class discussion are:

  • What connections do you see between the language assessment criteria and the course goals and/or goals of the assignment?

  • Do the language criteria seem appropriate for this course? Why or why not?

  • How closely are they connected to what you thought you would learn in this course?

  • How are the language criteria related to your own goals for this course?

  • In what ways are these criteria relevant to the personal, professional, or academic writing you expect or hope to do in the future?

As possible follow-up activities, students may be asked to revise an existing rubric or propose a new one for an upcoming assignment. Writing instructors can also extend the activity by eliciting input from students on their own grading rubrics. For instance, we both have allowed students to determine the relative weight of various items on analytical rubrics (such as content, organization, mechanics, and revision), enabling them to identify their own particular writing goals for each unit.

Although this activity is relatively short compared to the other examples below, it may require quite some scaffolding to support students’ developing understanding. If students lack familiarity with grading rubrics, the teacher will first need to introduce this genre and share examples of analytic, holistic, and checklist rubrics. It may be necessary to adapt the activity, for instance if the students’ content instructors do not state clear grading criteria, or if expectations regarding language use are instead communicated in the syllabus or during class meetings—opportunities for reflection and discussion in their own right. In this case, students could still benefit from analyzing their classmates’ rubrics.

The activity fits with a linguistic social justice agenda as it draws attention to the constructedness of “standard language” and variability of language expectations, which are yet to be defined (Lippi-Green 57-61). After completing the activity, our students have submitted reflections in which they questioned the value of “rules” of writing they had been previously taught, realizing that understandings of “appropriate” or “correct” usage differ markedly across university courses and genres. Several students further commented on the importance of academic writing conventions, while others noted a general lack of transparency or concluded that some language criteria seemed too rigid, dismissing them as individual teachers’ pet peeves. These reactions, we believe, indicate that this activity can foster critical language awareness (Fairclough; see also Alim; Lee, Politics), by highlighting how teachers choose to establish or enforce discourse norms in ways that should not be taken for granted. Such critical awareness is a prerequisite for linguistic social justice, as it invites students to consider how their language use is or might be assessed, thereby enabling them to participate more effectively in conversations about what is relevant to their education. Indeed, we ultimately hope to enable students to critically examine assessment practices both inside and outside our writing classes, giving them the confidence needed to push against assessment practices that they believe do not align with their own learning goals or the stated course goals.

Activity 2: Language Attitude Interviews

Brief Overview

Students reflect on their own language ideologies and engage in primary investigation of language attitudes of their peers, with support from the instructor.

Activity Set: Multiple lessons

Time in class: 180-210 minutes

  1. Students reflect on their own knowledge about and attitudes toward English accents around the world.

  2. Students read about the “linguistic facts of life” (p. 6) identified by Lippi-Green and listen to excerpts from the International Dialects of English Archive and/or the Speech Accent Archive. Students reflect on their own reactions to the accents and how their reactions may have been shaped by prior experiences.

  3. As a class, students decide on several accents that all will play for their peers and/or family. The class constructs a short survey to elicit language attitudes. Students survey their peers and report on their findings.

  4. The instructor supports students through an analysis of their findings. With enough data, students should see that ideas about language form (language ideologies) are not universal but socially determined.

  5. Students reflect on possible explanations for their findings.

Follow-up activities:

  1. Students reflect (in writing or in groups) on how the activity influences their own ideas about notions of correctness.

  2. Students continue a full unit on language variety and write an argument about what varieties of (spoken or written) language should be taught (see Activity 3 below).

Our second activity was originally designed for an introductory undergraduate sociolinguistics class; Jennifer redesigned it for use in her foundational writing class for multilingual writers, which focused on the theme of the globalization of higher education. In this activity, students first take stock of their own knowledge about and attitudes toward different spoken English accents before investigating their peers’ and family members’ attitudes.

Sociolinguists have long recognized the validity of “nonstandard” language varieties. Rosina Lippi-Green offers a helpful starting point for teachers and students alike in the first chapter of English with an Accent, where she introduces what she calls the five “linguistic facts of life” (6): (1) spoken language changes; (2) all languages have the same ability to convey meaning; (3) “correct” grammar and effective communication are separate matters; (4) writing and speech are distinct forms of language; and (5) all spoken language exhibits “emblematic” variation. Her last point, especially, urges one to consider that differences in language(s) are meaningful, rather than “wrong,” and acknowledges both the legitimacy of students’ language varieties and the real-life consequences of academic, professional, and societal expectations for language use.

This activity begins with an introduction to spoken accent, especially within students’ home languages, in preparation for a full unit on language variety in writing (See Activity 3). Students are asked to reflect on their views regarding their accent and other accents they have heard. In particular, the instructor can provide prompts such as:

  • How do you feel about your accent in your home language (or other languages)? What experiences have you had with other accents in your home language? Are there accents in your home language that you consider more “correct” or “beautiful”?

  • What experiences have you had with accents in English? For example, have you ever talked to (or heard on television) someone from England? The United States? Nigeria?

  • How do you feel about your accent in English? What experiences have you had with friends or others who have studied English as an additional language? Is there someone who you believe has a “good” accent in English?

  • What makes an accent “intelligible?”

After students reflect on their accents and experiences, the instructor introduces them to additional fundamental sociolinguistic concepts, such as language change, language variety, and language discrimination, using texts like Lippi-Green’s and materials from the PBS series, Do You Speak American. Next, the instructor introduces students to the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) and The Speech Accent Archive, collected and maintained by George Mason University. Both the IDEA and the Speech Accent Archive state that one purpose is to provide models for actors wishing to learn an accent. Both are intuitive, easy to use, rich resources with recordings representing regional English varieties around the world including both “native” and “nonnative” speakers. Though some aspects of the archives are normative—e.g., while the accents of individual speakers differ, the recordings consist of them reading a text in “standard” written English, and the person who introduces each recording uses Standard British pronunciation (Received Pronunciation)—the resources demonstrate the extent of variation in English accents. Instructors can also use the archives to compare rhetorical and linguistic aspects of writing and speech, and to examine the notion of written accents.{6}

As a class activity, the instructor plays several examples from the archives, soliciting students’ reactions and asking them to discuss how the accents relate to Lippi-Green’s “linguistic facts of life.” For example, students can be exposed to both regional dialects from within the United States (e.g., Minnesota and California) and from around the world (e.g., accents from English-speaking countries like Nigeria and Hong Kong as well as other places like Saudi Arabia and Argentina). Students might already be aware of regional differences from within the United States, but they may be less familiar with Englishes from around the world. This activity could help them consider how English varieties used in Nigeria and Hong Kong are no less intelligible or meaningful than those used in the United States and Britain. The instructor can also invite students to discuss how accent is perceived as a marker of regional, gender, and racial identity.

In response to a homework assignment or in groups in class, students listen to several more accents and then examine their own assumptions about each speaker. Some prompts for reflection are:

  • What kind of accent do you have? What kind of accents have your instructors had?

  • How important is your accent to your sense of self, your identity? Have you ever tried to change your accent, either in your home language or another language? If so, why, and what were the results? If not, would you ever want to? Why or why not?

  • How does accent influence your assumptions of people? Do certain accents sound more pleasant to you? Do you remember when you first heard that accent? Do you have prior experiences that cause you to associate the accent with something pleasant or negative?

During this activity, it is especially important to consider the speech community of the speaker and the differences between communicative effectiveness for different listeners. This way, students are encouraged to see how their own accent might be perceived in different locations due to “the effects of standard language ideology on attitudes” (Milroy 530), as well as to consider how their own and others’ accents are results of their experiences and exposure (Lippi-Green 48-52).

This activity can provide the basis for a class research project in which students design a survey for their peers and family members. In this project, students as a class choose a variety of accents to play for others in order to solicit their reactions and assumptions about the speakers. Students can collect responses with a free survey tool (such as Google Forms) or simply take notes that they share with the whole class, and then review the findings and speculate about the similarity or differences in reactions.

Inevitably, in completing this activity, Jennifer’s students have found differences in survey responses to the different accents. Students discover that not only are attitudes toward language difference not self-evident, they are often based on personal experiences and mere opinion. Interestingly, Jennifer has found that many multilingual students find certain “standard,” more prestigious English accents especially hard to understand, a finding that is also supported by Chit Cheung Matthew Sung’s survey of students’ perceptions regarding different accents.

As in the rubric analysis activity, the main goals of this activity are to examine assumptions about language use and consider how norms are dynamic and socially constructed; however, in this case, the activity addresses not academic but broader societal norms and attitudes, beginning with students’ own perceptions. Ideally, the activity thus provides an opportunity for students to engage with “the frames of reference and structures” (Mezirow xiv) underlying assumptions “that exacerbate sociolinguistic inequalities” (Lee 176).{7} While it can be difficult for students to test—let alone revise—assumptions that are firmly anchored in SLI, our proposed activity can encourage students to see that their attitudes cannot be taken for granted and may in fact differ from those of their peers. The use of sociolinguistic readings and terminology and the accent survey further allows students to act as researchers, which could help them feel less vulnerable as they engage in critical (self-)reflection. Importantly, language-minoritized students can examine their own attitudes toward their accent and be exposed to the idea that non-accentedness is a myth, and that their accents can be significant and beneficial markers of social identity. This way, the activity invites students to reconsider previous beliefs about themselves and others, offering a student-centered approach to promoting linguistic social justice.

Activity 3: Argument on “Standard” and “Nonstandard” Language Varieties

Brief Overview

Students write a position paper on whether “standard”/“native” or “nonstandard”/“nonnative” English accents should be taught to English learners or on what form(s) of English writing should be acceptable in different settings.

Activity Set: Full unit

Time in class: 4-5 weeks

  1. The instructor uses the themes of language variety and World Englishes as content to discuss academic writing conventions. Over the course of several weeks, students read academic texts that present alternative models of what should be considered as appropriate models of spoken and written English. Important concepts to consider are notions of prestige, intelligibility, and discourse and speech community, register, and identity.

  2. Throughout the unit, the instructor uses the academic texts to introduce academic writing conventions. Some conventions that we have focused on include citations, reporting verbs and attribution, hedging, complex sentence structure, and transitions.

  3. Students reflect on their own experiences as multilingual students. Some prompts for reflection are:

    1. Do you have a model of someone you would like to sound like? (Similar to the research question posed by Cheung. Instructors can use Activity 2, above, to provide models of English accents.)

    2. What have you used English to do outside of studying and taking tests? For example, have you used English while traveling? Reading for fun? Watching movies? Have you ever used English as a way to communicate with someone who spoke a different first language than you (but also not English)? How important was “correctness” during these times? How did your English differ from the English you have used at school?

    3. What forms of writing do you think should be acceptable for writing text messages? What about academic papers? The instructor can present multiple situations (e.g., academic writing in Singapore; business writing between Korea and Mexico; WeChat messages between China and the United States) to prompt students to consider English as a world language with multiple acceptable varieties.

  4. In the final weeks of the unit, students write an argument responding to one of the prompts below. Students should present their argument with support from the readings and their personal experiences.

    1. Write an academic paper taking position on whether “native-speaker” pronunciation should be taught as a model in English courses in countries where English is not a dominant or official language.

    2. Write a formal response to the article by Matsuda and Matsuda (2010), in which you argue why you think English as an Additional Language (EAL) writers should be taught dominant forms of English writing, nondominant forms, or (as the authors argue) both.

    3. Write a position paper for your university’s professors in which you discuss whether or not nonnative or nonstandard forms of English (e.g., nondominant spelling, vocabulary, grammar) should be considered acceptable in student writing.

Follow-up activities

  1. Students can compare their arguments and the types of support used for each argument.

  2. Students can reflect on the extent their beliefs about standard language ideology has been influenced by the readings.

Suggested Readings

Blommaert, Jan. Teaching the English that makes one happy: English teaching could be far more effective if targeted at specific niches of ‘integration’. English Today 32.3 (2016): 11-13.

Edwards, Jette G. Hansen. China English: Attitudes, legitimacy, and the native speaker construct: Is China English becoming accepted as a legitimate variety of English?. English Today 33.2 (2017): 38-45.

Graddol, David. English Next. Vol. 62. London: British Council, 2006.

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Wang, Ying. Native English speakers' authority in English: Do Chinese speakers of English care about native English speakers' judgments?. English Today 32.1 (2016): 35-40.

The final example we present was originally designed for an introductory first-year writing course for international students at our institution, and described at length by Christine Tardy and her colleagues (Exploring Global Englishes). This content-based course used global Englishes and language variation as the basis for developing academic language throughout the semester, but the unit we discuss here could also be adapted for a course that asks students to develop rhetorical awareness and critical thinking and composing more broadly.

The growing awareness of the diversity and legitimacy of global, localized Englishes around the world has urged writing teachers to reconsider what kind of English is acceptable in the writing classroom (e.g., see Aya Matsuda; Rose and Galloway Global Englishes). As a result, as Aya Matsuda and Paul Kei Matsuda argue, “the traditional model of setting a single target variety has become problematic” (370). For this reason, authors like Matsuda and Matsuda suggest that intelligibility and comprehensibility provide more appropriate language goals for students of English, as opposed to “native-like” usage. Despite the growing recognition of linguistic diversity, this idea has yet to find broader acceptance.

With Activity 3, we invite those at the center of considerations regarding linguistic inequalities and writing pedagogy, namely students, to participate in these debates. The readings and activities in this unit present World Englishes as viable alternatives to the “native-speaker” model of instruction still prevalent around the world. Whether or not students ultimately agree with the argument that intelligibility and comprehensibility are more important than adhering to a “nativeness” model, the texts provide an avenue for them to critically question their own stance toward language variety and perceived prestige (see also Schreiber). Though most of these texts were originally written for instructors or academics, they provide several points of departure for students to engage in discussions about their own education and goals; instructors can use these texts to familiarize students with the academic discussions currently taking place, and thus invite students into a conversation from which they are often excluded.

Activity 3 includes a full, scaffolded unit (of 4-5 weeks) in which students are introduced to the concepts of language variation and World Englishes, reflect on their own experiences with language variation, and ultimately write an academic argumentative essay. The instructor assigns short, relatively accessible texts on language variation or World Englishes, including Aya Matsuda and Paul Kei Matsuda’s World Englishes and the Teaching of Writing and Chit Cheung Matthew Sung’s ‘I Would Like to Sound like Heidi Klum’: What Do Non-Native Speakers Say about Who They Want to Sound like? The goal of these readings is to introduce students to the concept that English does not “belong” to nations like Britain or the U.S., but is used throughout the world in different forms for different purposes. Reading guides with activities for before, during, and after reading are helpful to scaffold students through the scholarly texts and prompt students to make connections to their own experiences. For example, in a reading guide for Jennifer Jenkins’ Who Speaks English Today, we include vocabulary support, include a chart that helps students move through the main ideas of the article, and ask students to consider how they used English before coming to the U.S. to study.

In addition to talking about the content and ideas in the academic articles, we also use this unit as an opportunity to investigate academic language conventions, in a way similar to Megan Siczek and Shawna Shapiro’s writing-intensive courses, which effectively combine academic writing development with content instruction. For example, in our course, the scholarly texts are used to direct students’ attention to how academics make claims, hedge, integrate primary and secondary sources, and structure an argument, which is the culminating assignment for this unit. This approach fits with a critical-pragmatic orientation to language difference, which aims to familiarize students with “normative codes and conventions” (Corcoran and Englander 2) while “concurrently raising awareness of the politics surrounding language choice(s)” (5).

The culminating assignment in this unit is an academic argument in which students respond to one of three prompts designed to explicitly invite them into the debate. The first prompt asks students to respond to the findings in Sung’s survey of students’ opinions about what kind of accent should be used as a model in English classrooms. The second prompt asks students to respond to the arguments presented in Matsuda and Matsuda’s position paper on how writing should be taught in English classrooms. The third prompt asks students to write a letter to a higher-level administrator making a claim about what kinds of written English should be acceptable at their university. Students are asked to support their argument with evidence from the readings in class as well as their own life experiences.

Building on the previous activities, which seek to foster critical language awareness and stimulate critical reflection on prior assumptions related to SLI, Activity 3 is intended as a way for students to develop and support their own positions on language difference. After discussing alternative models to standardness and native-speakerism, students are asked to take a stance on language variation in the English language or writing classroom, an institutional context that is directly relevant to them. When discussing their own experiences in the argumentative essay, our students have not always been inclined to view their language resources positively, or to challenge traditional notions of standardness and correctness. While some recognize the importance of welcoming linguistic diversity, arguing for acceptance of and instruction in all varieties of English in their classes, others resist the idea that students no longer need to strive to “improve” their accent (or “correct” their “errors”), instead advocating continued instruction in dominant forms of English and in accordance with native-speaker models. However, we view these arguments as strengths of the assignment in that it affords students an opportunity to disagree with their peers and look for evidence to support their position, while at the same time engaging with concepts of WE and “nonnative” accents as viable alternatives to established teaching practices.


The English language is implicated in social inequalities on a global scale, many of which affect multilingual writers directly or indirectly; however, as Ingrid Piller notes, “the injustices of English are not inherent to the language per se” (203). In other words, the relation between English as a global (academic) language and postcolonial or neoliberal injustices is highly complex, and it cannot be reduced to simple teachable points. For this reason, to pursue socially just writing pedagogy, it is imperative that we invite students into the conversation. This way, students can consider the effects of SLI and dominant discourse norms (as well as the role of universities and other institutions in this regard), reflect on their own assumptions, and justify their points of view, which may at times differ from their instructors’. Indeed, such conflicting perspectives can generate further interaction, whether in the form of individualized feedback or class discussions, as part of a negotiation of the “power imbalances inherent within any classroom context” (Lee, Politics 138). Some students will insist on a single standard, which may at first seem disappointing to teachers concerned with linguistic social justice; however, we have come to value student arguments that contradict our own views, recognizing them as possible indicators that students are wrestling with internalized belief systems and reflecting on their own learning goals.

Apart from addressing relevant insights from WE, sociolinguistics, and translingual scholarship concerning language change and variation, our activities encourage students to reflect on and assert their own stance on standardness and how to engage with language difference, both within and outside the classroom context, while recognizing that they may not (yet) be prepared or willing to challenge linguistic norms or conventions. This way, the activities serve to support multilingual students—including those with language-minoritized backgrounds—as they enter into the conversation about language difference, a “discursive universe in which words [may] seem to belong to more powerful others” (Starfield 126). We believe that this is a necessary first step toward linguistic social justice, and one that might enable students to make informed choices in their writing and challenge deficit-based understandings of their linguistic abilities more confidently. In particular, activities like ours could help students develop an increased sense of ownership of their learning goals, as they begin to recognize how these may have been shaped by the global commodification of privileged English varieties as well as socially constructed notions of prestige, conceiving their own goals in relation to the various expectations they will encounter.

We hope that our examples will inspire further pedagogical proposals, including concrete examples of course units, readings, lesson plans, homework tasks, or writing assignments, as well as empirical studies aimed at determining the strengths and weaknesses of various teaching approaches and materials. Ultimately, such efforts could help bridge the divide between theory and practice, providing more concrete guidelines and practices for social justice-oriented teaching.

Acknowledgements: We gratefully acknowledge that these sample lessons have benefited from the contributions of several other instructors and administrators dedicated to student success. In particular, we want to thank Drs. Christine Tardy and Kara Reed as well as Rachel LaMance and Emily Palese for their work on designing and improving the curriculum and continually encouraging social justice for L2 learners. We also are grateful to our students for their willingness to share their insights and perspectives in response to our ideas, and we would like to thank the guest editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.


  1. It is worth noting that understandings of critical pedagogy may differ considerably among educators who identify with this movement, as a study by Mary Breunig involving 17 university professors suggests. (Return to text.)

  2. We have previously presented these activities at the 2019 CCCC Annual Convention and as part of a webinar, A More Just Campus for Multilingual Students, which was organized by Brooke Ricker Schreiber and Eunjeong Lee and co-hosted by the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section and the CCCC Second Language Writing Standing Group. (Return to text.)

  3. Commenting on the role of theory in second language writing research and pedagogy, Dwight Atkinson conceptualizes “thinking tools” as “small tools that will help people build their own understandings (or not—there is no sense in which one must use these tools) of social situations and power structures which will be relevant and useful in their own situation, including how to change them” (12). (Return to text.)

  4. As Jasone Cenoz notes, CBI shares the same essential features with content and language integrated learning (CLIL), and the terms are at times used interchangeably despite minor differences. (Return to text.)

  5. Throughout, we have chosen to put “standard/nonstandard” and “native/nonnative” in scare quotes, so as to acknowledge that standard language is a “constructed and re-constructed . . . mythical beast” (Lippi-Green 56) and that the idea of nativeness is similarly founded on an imaginary boundary, which has become increasingly blurred (Kirkpatrick). (Return to text.)

  6. Here it bears repeating that writing responds to different demands than oral expression. In contrast with most spoken language, a shared purpose of many written genres is to “convey decontextualized information over time and space” (Lippi-Green 21). Therefore, students may perceive the role of norms differently in written and spoken language instruction (see also Gevers, Translingualism; Tardy et al.). (Return to text.)

  7. Jack Mezirow refers to this process whereby learners engage with, and possibly revise, “assumptions that influence the way they think, decide, feel, and act on their experience” as “critical reflection” (xvi). (Return to text.)

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