Patricia Causey Nichols

San José State University


Register and Codeswitching in the South: Linguistic Notions for K-12 Students

Language educators are at a crossroads. After half a century of nearly total neglect of the English language system as a subject of instruction in the schools (Hudson 1999), recent publications such as Denham & Lobeck (forthcoming), Haussamen (forthcoming), Mulder et al. (2001; 2002), and Wheeler (1999a; 1999b) reflect current interest in this topic that is both linguistically grounded and politically motivated (Nichols, forthcoming). Although LAVIS I (Montgomery & Bailey, 1986) included several papers on language use of children in the South, and LAVIS II included a couple (Bernstein, Nunnally, & Sabino, 1997), the 2004 session on Language in the Schools for LAVIS III reflects the increasing concern for how language is presented as a subject of inquiry for the next generation. Particularly in this region where minority dialects are widespread and their speakers too often penalized for using them in the classroom, language educators will need to work out a balanced approach that ensures political motivations for "standards-based" instruction will not eclipse sound linguistic principles for new curricula. The challenge can be addressed in two stages: 1) reform of the curriculum for university-based classes in introductory linguistics and English language structure, and 2) development of K-12 curricular materials that focus on discovery procedures for learning about structure and use. The notions of register and codeswitching must be front and center in both phases because these are the linguistic notions most accessible to students at all levels in their everyday observation of language. Register and codeswitching can serve as the frame for studying the structural elements of English, including school grammar notions such as parts of speech, complete sentences, verb tenses, and pronominal cases -- as well as dialect pronunciations that vary by region, social class, and ethnicity.

This paper addresses the reform of university teaching in its description of courses on language structure developed for prospective teachers at California and Virginia universities (Nichols, forthcoming; Wheeler, forthcoming a & b), which focus on discovery procedures that require students to use authentic language data from their communities. It argues that modeling such a teaching approach in university classes is the surest way to promote similar teaching in K-12 classrooms. Likewise, it argues that curricular materials using authentic language samples from a variety of dialects and social registers (spoken and written) are the surest way to engage K-12 students in systematic study of the English language. Using as a model the curriculum developed jointly by school and university educators in the Australian state of Victoria (Mulder et al., 2001; 2002), the paper calls for the development of a coherent language curriculum for high school students in states of the Southern U. S. - either for four years of study similar to the Victoria materials, or as a single year-long course that satisfies graduation requirements for the study of English.

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