Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

When Schools Stopped Teaching Standard English

President Barack Obama during a visit to the General Clarence Tinker K-8 School at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., September 17, 2014 (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Schools in many English-speaking countries have gradually given up teaching Standard English. One could cite various supporting instances. In England during the past decade, schools have stopped insisting that th be sounded the traditional way instead of as either a v sound or an f sound: So my muvver and I fink so are no longer corrected in the speech of British youth. (Linguists call this “th-fronting.”) In Seattle in 2010, a reviewer of The Chicago Manual of Style declared this “basic of linguistics”: “There really isn’t such a thing as poor grammar, just a variety of contexts.” Even spelling is under attack: In the magazine Wired in February 2012, Anne Trubek argued that snobbery is the only reason for traditional spelling rules. She argued that spell-checkers and autocorrect should be discontinued because we are now past the “print era.”

The core idea among many educators is that we shouldn’t stigmatize regional and class speech habits because that’s equivalent to teaching children that their parents are uneducated or socially unacceptable. Given that most children learn language from their parents, linguistic correction would supposedly damage those children’s self-esteem.

This change in approach marks an about-face in education. In essence, it makes the learning of Standard English optional. It dooms many speakers of English to the dialect into which they were born. It also liberates English teachers by letting them skip English-language lessons and focus entirely on literature, which for many is the more enjoyable aspect of the curriculum.

While growing up in a small college town in the Texas Panhandle, I was exposed to both educated speech and the regional dialect. Some of my friends’ parents would say things like It don’t make me no never mind. Although I never adopted that particular locution, I did as a child often say things like Me and Leslie are fixin’ to go to the store.

My father, a university professor with a doctorate in music education, was continually correcting his sons away from such speech. My mother and grandparents did, too. If I’d been born to a different family, I might well have spent my life speaking the West Texas dialect. But then maybe not: The English teachers in Canyon were also constantly correcting their pupils’ grammar and pronunciation in the 1960s and 1970s.

But imagine being a public-school teacher today in a more racially and linguistically diverse community. Imagine being one of the few speakers of Standard English in a classroom and telling 90 percent of your students that the way they say something is “wrong.” If you try to soften that judgment with a circumlocution, you’re probably not helping matters: “appropriate to some dialects but not to Standard English, which is what I’m trying to teach you.”

“What is Standard English?” you hear from a pupil.

“It’s the variety of English,” you answer, “traditionally used by people of influence. That’s what you need to learn if you’re hoping to become a person of influence.”

“You mean you want me to talk white?”

“Not exactly,” you answer. “Many African Americans use Standard English — especially those in positions of power or influence.”

“Like who?”

“Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Don Lemon, Colin Powell, Martin Luther King, Lester Holt, Condoleezza Rice.” These aren’t coming trippingly off the tongue, but you’re calling many to mind: “Denzel Washington, Maya Angelou, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Samuel L. Jackson, Meghan Markle, Trevor Noah, Eddie Murphy, Tyra Banks, Will Smith, Whoopi Goldberg. Many others.”

You’ve just run off a pretty impressive list. Then you think to add, “Like most of us, they’re probably all capable of speaking dialect, but they use Standard English when it’s appropriate. Most have mastered the standard form of the language in addition to a different dialect. They’re bidialectal. That’s what you’re trying to do in this classroom — and what I’m trying to help you do.”

This type of conversation can go on and on. Indeed, it has to be repeated with some frequency because of the resistance you meet as a teacher. And you must project some degree of racial sensitivity if you’re to have any credibility yourself.

If you tire of this, of course, you can simply ignore the issue and teach literature, hoping that your students will pick up Standard English by osmosis from great writers.

In the 1940s, an English professor named Robert C. Pooley, of the University of Wisconsin, with the backing of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), issued guidelines on the degree to which American children ought to learn Standard English and by what grades. Toward the end of his life, in 1974, these guidelines were renewed in a book called “The Teaching of English Usage,” again published by the NCTE.

Pooley’s standards were for grade-school teachers, middle-school teachers, and high-school teachers. Seeing his guidance today is eye-opening. You might be interested in thinking back on your own education and considering whether your teachers might have been influenced by his guidelines. And you might think about how standards in any realm are carried over from one generation to the next.

In the elementary grades, students were to be intensively taught to avoid these common nonstandard expressions. The asterisks mark expressions that are regarded as incorrect for Standard English:

*ain’t; *I don’t have no; *have ate, *have went, *have saw, *have wrote, etc.; *he begun, *he seen, *he run, *he drunk, *he come, etc.; *I says; *she brung, *she clumb; *we was, *you was, *they was; *knowed, *growed, etc.; *my brother he said; *him and me went, *Mary and me saw, etc.; *hisself, *theirselves, etc.; *them books, *this here book, *that there book

At the grade-school level, it’s just those basics. Nothing else. Pooley reasoned that selecting a limited number of items to teach is the foundation of a successful program.

In the next two installments of this column, we’ll consider what was expected of middle-school and high-school curricula.

This article appears as “Killing Grammar: Part I of a Three-Part Series” in the May 18, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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