Code Switching: What Teachers Need to Know

Code Switching: What Teachers Need to Know

As a black teacher who worked in a predominantly white school for the majority of my career, the art of code switching was nothing new to me. Growing up, I heard my immigrant parents put on their “posh voice” when they spoke to anyone other than family and friends on the phone. For most people of colour, code switching is an essential part of survival and social mobility in the western world.

What is Code Switching? 

Code Switching is the practice of changing one’s language, dialect or speaking style to better fit one’s environment. Code switching is not only used by people of colour. We all code switch when we talk to our loved ones versus when we talk to our service providers or manager at work. It’s clear to all of us that in order to communicate effectively in a given situation we need to adjust the way we speak

What Teachers Need To Know About Code Switching

Code switching also covers written communication. Many pupils “write as they speak” which puts pupils from non-standard English speaking households at  a huge disadvantage.  The national curriculum aims for every pupil to learn how to use Standard English in writing and verbal communication. Teachers need to know that treating the features of non-standard dialects as if they are “errors” does not guarantee that pupils will suddenly start speaking or writing in standard English. This is because most of these dialects have their own consistent grammatical rules that pupils will use most often. To be told their language use is incorrect makes no logical sense to them because that is how they’ve been able to move around in their cultural community. This is why “speaking school” can feel like a whole new language for some pupils. Their community sees standard English as incorrect. 

I know you’re probably thinking – should I just ignore the use of non-standard English in my classroom then? The answer is no. Teachers just need to consider more effective ways to teach academically appropriate language. In the book Code-Switching Lessons: Grammar Strategies for Linguistically Diverse Writers by Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Sword they encourage teachers to stop correcting other kinds of dialects as wrong but to teach pupils what is appropriate. In some situations standard English is most appropriate and in others another “language” would work better.

The authors recommend contrast analysis lessons where pupils have to compare the features of their community’s dialect to the features in standard English. It gives pupils the opportunity to develop the ability to recognise the differences between their home dialect and formal English. Once they have that skill they’ll be able to use the most appropriate language in any given situation. Language is not either “correct” or “incorrect” it just depends on the time and context. 

As teachers, we must be aware of how we view and approach young people whose cultural dialect is non-standard. All too often, these pupils are labelled as unintelligent when really they are simply the product of their environment just like the standard English speaking pupils are. The ability to code switch is a strength not a weakness.

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