It is common to treat language differences in terms of dichotomies. A prominent dichotomy in educational linguistics is academic vs. non-academic language. The assumption undergirding this dichotomy is that there is something fundamentally different between academic and non-academic language. At best, the difference is discussed in terms of different domains with academic language seen as belonging to academic domains and non-academic language seen as belonging to non-academic domains. At worst, the difference is discussed in terms of hierarchies with academic language seen as more cognitively demanding than non-academic language.
Over my past several years of work with teachers I have come to question the utility of adopting this dichotomous view of academic vs. non-academic language. In particular, as an advocate for language-minoritized children I have witnessed the ways that this dichotomy is often taken up by educators. White middle class children are positioned as coming from homes where they are socialized into academic language while language-minoritized children are positioned as coming from homes where they are socialized into non-academic language. This often leads to self-fulfilling prophecies where teachers overdetermine language-minoritized students to be linguistically deficient and unable to meet the demands of the Common Core Standards.
It is for this reason that I have previously called for a moratorium on the use of the academic language. This begs the question, what is the alternative? After all, don’t the Common Core Standards demand that students master academic language? Not necessarily. The reading and writing anchor standards include no mention of academic language. Instead, there is a focus on skills such as reading in order to analyze “how specific word choices shape meaning and tone” and writing in ways that are “appropriate to task, purpose and audience.” That is, the Common Core are not demanding mastery of academic language. Instead, they are asking for students to become language architects who analyze the general conventions of language use in their reading and who adapt these general conventions in ways that reflect their own unique authorial voices as writers.
This focus on language architecture can be found in the prominent focus in the Common Core on the close reading of complex texts. Students are expected to engage in close reading in order to critically analyze the author’s language choices and the impact of these language choices on shaping the meaning of the text. They, in turn, are expected to use the insights from this close reading to inform their own authorial voices as they construct texts belonging to a range of genres.
The typical narrative around close reading is that it requires academic language that is far removed from the non-academic language that language-minoritized students come to school with. But what would happen if we refused this dichotomy? What if we, instead, began from the perspective that language-minoritized students who navigate two or more languages or language varieties as part of their daily experience have already developed the metalinguistic skills that are needed for engaging in close reading? That is, what if we began from the perspective that the lives of language-minoritized students are already Common Core-aligned?
In the spirit of treating the language practices of language-minoritized students as Common Core-aligned, Elaine Allard, Holly Link and I developed a unit plan for Spanish-English bilingual programs. The unit has two overlapping objectives. The first objective is to familiarize bilingual children with the practice of close reading. The second objective is to support these children in making connections between the language architecture they engage in as bilingual people on a daily basis and the language architecture required by the Common Core.
At the core of the unit is the picture book Abuela, by Arthur Dorros. This book describes the experiences of a child who flies around a city with her grandmother. The author engages in translanguaging rhetorical strategies that parallel the types of translanguaging that bilingual children engage in on a daily basis. The narrative of the text is primarily in English. However, when abuela speaks, her dialogue is primarily in Spanish. The author also offers clues in the narrative that support readers who are not able to read Spanish. The unit plan was designed around close readings of Abuela as a vehicle for supporting students in making connections between the language architecture they engage in on a daily basis—often with their own abuelas—and the language architecture of the author.
This unit recognizes that young bilingual children are already language architects. It has them reflect on when they use Spanish, when they use English, and when they translate for people from one language to the other. It then supports them in making connections between these everyday language practices that characterize their lives and the translanguaging rhetorical choices made by the author of Abeula.
In short, the unit refuses a dichotomy between home and school and, instead, draws on the language architecture that is a natural part of the lives of young bilingual children as a point of entry in supporting them in engaging in Common Core aligned literacy practices. In this way the unit sends students a powerful message that their home language and literacy practices are not dichotomous with the language and literacy practices demands in school but rather integral to their success as students. It also sends teachers a powerful message that the lives of bilingual children are already Common Core aligned if only they reject the dichotomy between academic and non-academic and recognize the language architecture that characterizes the lives of bilingual children.