A Response to Jim Cummins

Prominent bilingual education scholar Jim Cummins has been a critic of my work since his 2017 article that sought to challenge some of the basic arguments of the 2015 article that I wrote with Jonathan Rosa introducing the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies as a critique of appropriateness-based approaches to language education. He has also suggested at a raciolinguistic perspective doesn’t pass the “classroom reality test,” a critique that I have responded to in a previous blog post. More recently he has been raising a series of questions at conferences that I thought I would take some time to answer here. I am only speaking for myself here and not for my colleagues who I have co-written with on topics focused on translanguaging and a raciolinguistic perspective over the years. I hope these answers help to clarify my perspective and on these issues and the stakes that I see in this debate for the education of racialized students.

Flores (2020) is not claiming that certain approaches to teaching academic language are problematic, but rather that academic language itself is a raciolinguistic (i.e. racist) ideology. Does this mean that teachers who attempt to teach academic language are inadvertently implicated in raciolinguistic instructional practices.

I think we are working from different theories of language here. You seem to be working from the perspective that “academic registers” are a set of disembodied linguistic practices that exist as separate from the people who use them. I reject this premise and have pointed in my research to the ways that one’s social status can shape the perception of the same linguistic practices. From this perspective, any dichotomous framing of language is going to be applied such that those with higher social status are perceived as engaged in normative linguistic practices while those with lower social status are perceived to not be engaged in these linguistic practices. In response to this oppressive dynamic I have proposed language architecture as a non-dichotomous view of language that might serve as a point of entry for anti-racist work in the classroom. From this perspective, a teacher’s goal is not to “teach academic language” but rather to help racialized students see that they already possess the necessary cultural and linguistic knowledge to successfully complete school tasks. I have written more about my thoughts on academic language in a previous blog post.

Flores and Rosa (2015) critique Olsen’s (2010:33) pedagogical recommendations that instruct for long-term English learners should focus on “powerful oral language, explicit literacy development, instruction in the academic uses of English, high quality writing, extensive reading of relevant texts, and emphasis on emphasis on academic language and complex vocabulary. If it is problematic for teachers to focus on powerful oral language, what should they focus on instead?

My reading of the Olsen report is that she means “powerful” as more complex than the supposed “simple” oral communication skills of students who are classified as “Long Term English learners.” I reject the premise that the home language practices of these students are any less complex than those required in schools as would the decades of anthropological and sociolinguistic research that has clearly shown the cultural and linguistic complexities of all speech communities. I also reject the idea that any teacher coming from the perspective that their home language practices are less complex and need to be fixed is going to develop the type of culturally sustaining pedagogy that you also seem to be advocating for in your work. Yet, powerful also has another meaning that focuses on issues of domination. This definition seems like a more productive point of entry into developing culturally sustaining pedagogy. Framing powerful in this way shifts the pedagogical approach away from seeking to fix students supposed linguistic deficiencies, to raising their critical language awareness in ways that allow them to reflect on the relationship between language and power and make decisions as to how they would like to position themselves in relation to this relationship. Here the goal would be to support students in exploring the politics of language rather than to fix their supposed linguistic and cultural deficiencies.

If extensive reading of relevant texts is a problematic instructional goal, how should teacher’s expand students’ literacy skills?

I assume based on my understanding of the Olsen report and your work that by “relevant texts” you mean texts that engage in “academic language” and by “expand students’ literacy skills” you mean “teach them academic language.” If students are engaged in extensive reading in order to do this then the implicit message that they are receiving is that their home language practices have not place in the schooling context. Another meaning of “relevant texts” would be texts that explore and build on the existing cultural and linguistic knowledge of students. I welcome the inclusion of such texts in the classroom as a way of helping students to see that the content that they are learning in school is not incompatible with the knowledge that they bring to the classroom and that, on the contrary, this knowledge is integral to successfully engaging in school tasks. In this vein, “expand students’ literacy skills” becomes helping them to make connections between their home literacy skills and the literacy skills required in school in ways that break down rigid dichotomies between them and offer students space to transform both of them in ways that reflect their unique voices and perspectives.

Are all academic registers infused with discourses of appropriateness and raciolinguistic ideologies (e.g., the writing of Ta-Nehishi Coates or Toni Morrison)? If not, what are the criteria for deciding whether a textbook, novel or article is problematic in this regard?

To suggest that authors like Ta-Nehishi Coates or Toni Morrison are simply engaged in academic registers when they have strategically used their entire linguistic repertoire in their writing is both a disservice to the brilliance of their writing and a missed opportunity for teachers of Black students to have the opportunity to reflect on the fact that their students engage in similar rhetorical strategies on a daily basis that are often dismissed as “non-academic.” More generally, to suggest that some texts are academic and others are non-academic also obscures the rhetorical strategies that every author uses in constructing a text. So the short answer to your question is to introduce students to a range of texts that include a range of rhetorical strategies and support them in connecting these rhetorical strategies to their existing language architecture in ways that help them to develop their own unique voices as authors.

Are teachers who provide conceptual and linguistic feedback on students’ writing complicit with ‘discourses of appropriateness?’

It depends on what type of conceptual and linguistic feedback they are providing. If the feedback is primarily focused on correcting their use of their home language practices (including English) so that they are engaged in language practices deemed appropriate for school then they would be complicit in reproducing discourses of appropriateness. If, instead, their feedback is focused on helping students to critically reflect on the rhetorical politics of style and helping them to further develop their own unique voices as authors that strategically deploys their entire linguistic repertoire in ways that match their goals then it would not be.

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