Teaching Tips: African American Language and the Composition Classroom

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The language, only the language…It is the thing that black people love so

much—the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with

them, playing with them. It’s a love, a passion…The worst of all possible things

 that could happen would be to lose that language. There are certain things I

cannot say without recourse to my language.

Toni Morrison (Interview with Thomas LeClair, 1981)


African American Language (AAL) has become a critical area of concern in composition studies. In the most recent decade, composition theorists Elaine Richardson (2010), Keith Gilyard (2011), and Carmen Kynard (2013) have provided insight into this criticalness–citing an understanding of African American linguistic features as a curricular and pedagogical necessity. In ““English Only,” African American Contributions to Standardized Communication Structures, and the Potential for Social Transformation,” Elaine Richardson highlights the scholarly work of Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Geneva Smitherman, and a host of others–in order to show that African Americans use language to make linguistic and stylistic moves that are often culturally and socially situated. To this extent, she calls for a re-visioning of composition curriculums and pedagogies that use standardized language ideologies as a basis.

These types of curriculums and pedagogies, as forwarded by Richardson, deny AAL-speaking students the opportunity to excel as intellectual, literate beings. Keith Gilyard furthers this argument in True to the Language Game: African American Discourse, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy. Using new and previously published material, Gilyard discusses such matters as the social, cultural, rhetorical, and political underpinnings of AAL. Furthermore, he shows how AAL is artistically and effectively employed in African American literary works such as Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. According to Gilyard, acknowledging and embracing this knowledge leads to a fair, democratic education for AAL-speaking students–a type of education that would allow them to be seen as equally literate beings.

In Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies, Carmen Kynard examines language from an activist point of view. In this text, Kynard provides a detailed overview of Black Freedom Movements. These movements, as argued by Kynard, provide insight into the rhetorical, linguistic and literate workings of past and present day African Americans. Kynard uses knowledge from various sources (Black Caucus, Black Studies, and more) to advocate for a shift in composition curriculums and pedagogies. In specific, Kynard advocates for “an alternative awareness, ideological approach, and set of critical practices” that correlate with Black Rhetorical Traditions that are situated and delivered in cultural modes instead of Eurocentric modes (19). Kynard believes that these types of curriculums and pedagogies could help dismantle problematic racial ideologies that prevent AAL-speaking students (and other linguistically marginalized students) from excelling in “composition-literacy”.

Lately, I have been chronicling some of the best pedagogical strategies that correlate with these theories–pedagogical strategies that use culturally relevant teaching (see Gloria Ladson-Billings, 1995) as a heuristic for providing AAL-speaking students with equitable academic access. Here are two of my favorites:

  • On Supporting the Writing of AAL-Speaking Students: Arnetha Ball offers numerous pedagogical suggestions for supporting the writing of AAL-speaking students in “Evaluating the Writing of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students: The Case of the African American Vernacular English Speaker” (1999)[1]; however, I find her “notion of expanding the role of writing conferences to include opportunities for teachers and students to better understand each others’ intentions and visions for constructing a successful text” must helpful–as this can help teachers understand AAL-speaking students planned writing situation and planned writing context, and the teachers in turn, can provide applicable feedback (239).
  • On Teaching with Technology: In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age (2010), Adam Banks discusses the advantages of linking oral, print, and digital productions of knowledge. Working at the intersection of African American rhetoric and composition studies, Banks shows how considering the context of the DJ–an example of a digital griot–helps teachers and African American students re-imagine what writing is and what writing can do. Most prominent here, is Banks’ focus on multimodality­–showing how various assignments (such as narrative, analytical, and research-based assignments) can be transformed into low-stake and/or high-stake assignments that illustrate an intersection among musical elements, visual elements, technological elements, and African American linguistic and cultural elements.

[1] As Arnetha Ball (and the composition theorists noted above) indicates, not all AAL-speaking students use features of AAL in writing; however, some do. Thus as forwarded by these scholars, the goal is to support these students use of AAL in oral and/or written contexts.

Shenika Hankerson is a lecturer at Wayne State University and is currently ABD at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on using AAL intervention strategies in the Composition Classroom. 

One thought on “Teaching Tips: African American Language and the Composition Classroom

  1. Pingback: Shenika Hankerson’s “African American Language and the Composition Classroom” | Writing Technologies

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