Reflections on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

When I was in graduate school I had the great fortune to take a course with Dr. Rebecca Mlynarczyk that introduced to the world of composition and rhetoric and its longstanding political commitment to make college classrooms inclusive of the literacy practices of all students. It was my first opportunity to think about the art of language that would eventually inspire my recent blog post on calling for the bringing of the art of language into language arts.

I was so honored when Rebecca emailed me to share some free writing that she had done with her granddaughter in response to the post. I was so moved by the responses that I asked both of them if they would allow me to share their responses on my blog. They both graciously agreed. Together they powerfully show the damaging effects of traditional approaches to language arts and point to alternatives that truly embrace the art of language. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Reflection on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

by Liberty Evans

When I went to a “real” school, ELA– the acronym for English Language Arts –was always unfortunately one of the least looked forward to classes. It was boring. We were taught a few basic formulas for persuasive essays, narratives, and informative pieces, and we were made to read books and “analyze” them chapter by chapter. A good thing to know how to do, perhaps, but it consisted mostly of kindergarten-level worksheets.

There never was any creative freedom in ELA class. It was just “do the work just so” and “use this formula or you will get a bad grade.” I have always liked writing and reading. I have written entire books for fun. ELA class was not about that. Honestly, I’m not sure what it was meant to teach us. It seems as though it– like many other parts of the education system still are –was developed back in the 1950s when all you needed to be able to do was follow rules and work in a factory.

In 6th grade, I took a creative writing course. It was actually what I would expect an ELA class should be like. We worked on one big project all year long, a book or poem or song, and we did a lot of free-writes and practiced coming up with creative stories. It was fun, and I learned a lot.

This past year, I have been homeschooled. My grandmother has been my English teacher. Each week, she asks me to complete a Reading Journal. I read a book section by section, write a summary for every few chapters, answer some questions that relate to the book, and come up with a topic to discuss when we meet via Zoom. Aside from that, I have also worked on a few essays– some of them about books we’ve read –and creative pieces. I think that we have achieved a good blend of traditional writing skills and techniques and creative exploration.

I wish that “real” schools would do the same. If they would level up the challenge, give us something to think about, to be interested in, I think a lot more kids would feel that ELA is not in fact a useless waste of time. (I also think that they should actually teach grammar formally, but that’s a different topic.)

–May 12, 2021

Reflection on “How About We Actually Bring the Art of Language into Language Arts?” 

by Rebecca Mlynarczyk

    Reading this blog post by Nelson Flores a few days ago, I found myself agreeing very much with what he was saying. We are all artists when it comes to speaking, reading, or writing in our native language, but schools, especially the earlier grades, tend to treat students like dummies who don’t know anything when they enter the classroom. They begin by teaching reading, not always in the most sensible way. Some students, like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, actually have to pretend they don’t already know how to read so that their first-grade teacher can “teach” them.

            The same is true when it comes to writing. Teachers, and the all-important standardized tests, try to convince students that writing a good academic essay means following a strict formula ending with five boring, predictable paragraphs. Nothing creative or artistic is required to write a paper like this, but if you can do it without making a bunch of grammar or punctuation errors, you will probably get an okay grade or pass the standardized test.

            I didn’t think about this at the time, but as I was designing Liberty’s English curriculum for 7th grade, I did not want to reinforce these misguided ideas about what language is, what English class is. Fortunately, she began the year as an extremely mature reader and writer, so I didn’t have to worry about building her vocabulary or teaching her correct grammar, which is something I don’t believe can be taught directly. People acquire competence in language by actually using language. They increase their competence in language by using it more and more. So I assigned what I felt was a lot of reading and writing for someone in 7th grade.

            For me, one of the keys of teaching, and I think this also relates to putting the art back into language arts, is assigning reading and writing tasks that the student(s) will find engaging and meaningful. I started with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon  because I thought it would be a page turner, and it turned out to be for both of us. I followed that with some of my own favorite books, great books from different eras, but all relating to the topic of racial justice—something that has been on everyone’s mind since the police murder of George Floyd and other black people and the ensuing protests across the whole country. To Kill a Mockingbird,  Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  I hope Liberty found her work on these texts engaging. For me, rereading these works brought out a theme that Nelson highlights in his blog post—our shared humanity, whatever our social class or the color of our skin.

            In the second half of the year, knowing more about Liberty’s abilities and interests, I chose books that would give her a break from the often disturbing content we had encountered in the first half. It turned out by a serendipitous coincidence that most of these texts were fanciful and took place on remote islands and involved sailing, one of Liberty’s sports interests. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, The Tempest by Shakespeare, and The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. I had never read anything by Gerald Durrell or Ursula Le Guin, and it had been years since I had read or seen The Tempest. This also turned out to be serendipitous because I learned that surprise and unexpected delight on the part of the teacher as well as the student can help to put the art back into language arts.

            I wanted Liberty to have a chance to practice different kinds of writing—freewriting, descriptive writing, regular analytic essays, personal essays, and, I suspect her own personal favorite, fantasy writing. I also encouraged her to include drawings for some of these assignments. Now, at year’s end, she is in the process of selecting some of this work to include in an end-of-year portfolio.

            Next year Liberty will return to “real school.” I hope she will look back on the work we did this year as work that encouraged her to see and use the art of language more than just another routine class in language arts. And I hope as she completes middle school and continues into high school, she will have more English classes that put the arts back into language arts.

–May 12, 2021

The Transformative Potential of Translanguaging

My good friend and collaborator Kate Seltzer also had the opportunity to respond to Jim Cummins’ keynote at the 2021 CCERBAL conference. Her comments speak powerfully to the practical implications of translanguaging in dismantling oppressive language ideologies in classrooms and the broader society. She generously agreed to allow me to share her commentary on my blog. Her recorded commentary can be found here with the written comments included below.


What I’m going to talk about builds on Nelson’s powerful historicizing of some of the concepts that lie beneath Jim Cummins’s critique of translanguaging and raciolinguistic ideologies. Nelson ended with some examples of how deficit framings have portrayed students as lacking everyday thinking practices like making inferences or as being so “behind” in both English and their home languages that they need remedial pedagogical approaches, and I could add many more examples to his. But in my own work with teachers I can tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways of both empowering teachers to question and disrupt monoglossic, raciolinguistic ideologies and equipping them with tools to create meaningful, effective language and literacy instruction.

I want to begin by sharing a classroom reality that comes from my research with an English Language Arts teacher, Ms. Winter, in New York City. Ms. Winter teaches in a school where some of the classic deficit narratives and framings of students are most common: the school serves students who come from “low SES” backgrounds; test scores and attendance rates can be very low; and many students have or have had some kind of label placed on them, including ELL or LTELL or Special Education. And Ms. Winter is tasked with preparing students for a high-stakes standardized exam that is necessary for students to graduate.

The Regents Exam in English Language Arts is an assessment that all students in New York State have to take, and as has been documented by Kate Menken and others, it is particularly difficult for students labeled English Language Learners to pass. But rather than typical approaches to preparing students for this test – rote, remedial instruction that teaches to the test – Ms. Winter teaches with the perspective that these students – both bilingual students and racialized English-speaking students, like African American students – are already engaged in and go far beyond the kind of language and literacy practices expected of them on this test. So she designs instructional opportunities for students to explore their own language and literacy practices, to read the work of writers who engage in translanguaging, to write in ways that challenge existing language norms and in ways that align with those norms, like in the style of the test. And as they engage in this exciting English Language Arts class, as they talk about language itself, what also comes up are their experiences as language minoritized people. They talk about linguistic prejudice, about times they sensed their language practices were judged, about interactions with authority figures like teachers and police where their ways of languaging were linked with being threatening, disruptive, insubordinate. And the teacher, Ms. Winter, listens. She, a white, English-speaking woman, learns from them. And, during the year we worked together, she shifted her instruction so that students’ experiences and sophisticated understandings of the links between language, identity, and power became the curriculum. The results were striking. Students wrote powerful poetry, acted out provocative role plays, engaged in deep, critical analysis of texts, and both critiqued and prepared for the standardized exam they were expected to take. And which, in the end, they scored higher on than any other year Ms. Winter taught 11th grade.

So in my work with teachers like Ms. Winter, both as a researcher and a university teacher educator, I invite teachers to walk a line: to teach the language and literacy practices expected of students by schools AND to learn alongside their students about the intersections of language and power. For many teachers – particularly those who are white and monolingual – it means un-learning ideologies about language and its links to racialization and coloniality. We talk about the normative communicative practices of bi-/multilingual communities. We talk about how solid, well-scaffolded, culturally sustaining, engaging instruction and curriculum can bring students’ translanguaging and understandings about language to the surface. And how we, as teachers, can both question ideas about what counts as “academic language” and teach students to integrate new practices to their repertoire that, as they explore them, can become a part of who they are and how they language – or not. To paraphrase Nelson, we give them the opportunity to explore language; we don’t police it. 

Jim Cummins says there are no pedagogical differences between different conceptualizations of translanguaging, but with that I disagree. Translanguaging absolutely invites bilingual instructional strategies and ways of leveraging students’ language practices for their learning. But it also invites something different: it invites a collaborative disruption of those ideologies that have marginalized language minoritized students in school and beyond. By collectively grappling with questions like “is there such a thing as academic language?” or “how can language open and close doors to us?” – in addition to drawing on all of students’ linguistic repertoire and adding new practices to it – teachers have a decolonial, anti-racist framework for educating language minoritized students and an empowering pedagogical approach that can hone teacher practice and improve students’ educational experiences. 

Response to Jim Cummins Part 2

In a previous post I responded to questions posed in a previous keynote by Dr. Jim Cummins

Today I had the opportunity to respond to Jim Cummins’ keynote at the 2021 Canadian Centre for Studies and Research on Bilingualism and Language Planning Conference. My comments are a bit rough around the edges since I didn’t have the opportunity to view Cummins’ PowerPoint in advanced and was developing commentary on the fly but some people asked for it so I am sharing it here. You can also see the video of me sharing this commentary here.


My disagreement with Dr. Cummins stems from the fact that we are using different theories of language. For Cummins, language is a set of disembodied features that exist as separate from the people who use them and can be objectively documented by researchers. I reject this premise and instead believe that language is embodied in ways such that the social status of the speaker can impact how their language practices are taken up by the listener, which could include researchers. In my research I have focused specifically on examining both historical and contemporary examples of the role of race in shaping hegemonic perceptions of language—what Jonathan Rosa and I have termed the white listening subject. For example, white settler colonialists described indigenous languages as products of “savage minds” that were at an earlier stage of human development than Europeans. In our contemporary context, I recently heard a teacher suggest that her Latinx students lack the ability to engage in inferencing before they lacked academic language. Inferencing is literally something everybody can do and yet the representations of these students language practices as “non-academic” led this teacher to conclude that these students were unable to do this—perhaps, one might speculate because of their “savage minds.”  I do not think that the similarities between these two ideological representations of language are purely coincidental nor did I just theorize them in the ivory tower—these are ideologies I see in classrooms all the time. In the spirit of Cummins suggestion that we use a classroom reality test to see how are theories are doing I would say based on many years first as a classroom teacher and now researcher and teacher educator that academic language as a concept is failing in the promote racial equity part of the test. 

Despite Cummins claim to the contrary, I have actually written extensively on the role of representations of researchers in producing deficit perspectives in their work that are also taken up by teachers. While Cummins claims that the concept of academic language says nothing about middle class and lower class students, I have shown in my work that the concept of academic language has its roots in the culture of poverty theory popularized in the 1960s as an alternative to eugenics that argued that multiple generations of poverty produced cultural and linguistic pathologies in racialized communities that needed to be remediated. It was within this framework of the culture of poverty that Cummins first introduce the concept of semilingualism to describe racialized bilingual students who purportedly lacked native-like proficiency in any language. Putting aside critiques of the very idea of a native speaker, the concept of semilingualism argued that something about the language practices of racialized bilingual students excluded them from what was understand to be a normative human—namely, being a native speaker of at least one language. This was not an objective description but rather an ideological one that suggested that racialized bilingual students needed to receive remediation to become normative humans who were native speakers of a language perhaps because of their “savage minds.” 

Now it might be that Cummins still subscribes to the cultural of poverty theory that provided the ideological foundations of semilingualism and sees it as an objective description of the world.  If so, I would say that is another fundamental disagreement that we have as I believe all communities have complex cultural and linguistic practices. By starting with an ideologically constructed lack, the culture of poverty theory can only lead to deficit frameworks.  You cannot affirm cultural and linguistic practices that you believe are lacking and need to be fixed and you cannot decolonize a framework that is colonial at its core. You need an entirely new framework

Perhaps Cummins now rejects the culture of poverty theory. If this is the case, my question is what is now suddenly objective about a concept with roots in the culture of poverty theory? Indeed, as Cummins himself acknowledges its roots are in assessments, which was also the case with the construction of semilingualism. What now makes assessments that used to designate racialized bilingual students as semilingual as now lacking academic language objective? While Cummins suggests that this has nothing to do with race or class in my many years in classrooms I have never heard middle class white students struggling on standardized assessments to be described as lacking in academic language. This designation is strictly reserved for low-income students of color. Based on the ways that it is deployed in actual classrooms, my concern is that conceptualizations of academic language continue to universalize the white listening subject in ways that discount local knowledge and perceptions of racialized communities. 

My concern with discussions of additive bilingualism is that it doesn’t account for the role of the white listening subject in shaping the perception of the language practices of racialized communities. It doesn’t account for the fact that since the dawn of European colonialism white colonialists have proposed their ideological perceptions of language onto racialized communities as if they were objective descriptions of the world. Cummins says what he refers to as UTT supports the idea of raciolinguistic ideologies? How does it do this? How does it account for the role of the white listening subject in the production of assessments that are instrumental in the construction of these supposedly objective descriptions, themselves with direct roots in eugenics? A theory that purports to accept the concept of raciolinguistic ideologies must at the very minimum have answers to these questions

Translanguaging offers a point of entry for resisting this universalizing. Specifically, it grapples with the ideological dimensions of all representations of language and as a framework consciously chooses to position itself in ways that frame racialized bilingualism as the norm. Unlike Cummins, I believe this isn’t just a theoretical point but one with profound practical implications—one that has allowed me to change my perspective over the years. The rejection of bounded notions of languages as colonial constructs led me to the recognition of the inherent heterogeneity of all language practices including those perceived as standard and academic. This heterogenous view of language focused my attention on the contrast between the raciolinguistic policing of linguistic features used by students in low-income racialized communities that were deemed non-academic by the teachers and their relative unmarkedness in elite academic spaces. It also eventually led me to the development of a non-dichotomous view of language that I have termed language architecture. 

Despite dominant representations to the contrary, language architecture takes as its point of entry the assumption that racialized students already engage in the types of complex language practices desired in school but that their knowledge is being misrecognized because of the pervasiveness of raciolinguistic ideologies such as academic language. Using this as a point of entry allows for new pedagogical practices to emerge, ones that adopt a language exploration rather than a language policing model and ones that places the existing rhetorical sensibility of racialized students at the center of instruction and focuses on supporting them in developing their own unique voice and style rather than the mastery of so-called “academic language.”

So perhaps we should put academic language in its place as a having direct roots in assessment data produced within the logic of the culture of poverty theory and more distant roots in logics of colonialism. To be clear I am not suggesting that teachers or researchers who promote the idea of academic language are necessarily racist. Instead, my point is that the discourses that we use have histories and it is important for us to be aware of these histories when we mobilize them. In the case of academic language, the logic that undergirds it connects to a broader colonial history that was used to construct and maintain racial hierarchies. Therefore, for me, the more productive conversation is not whether translanguaging is unitary or cross-linguistic or who is and isn’t using academic language (a question that I believe is more in the perceptions of the listener than the practices of the speakers) but rather how to develop truly decolonial logics that position the knowledge, perceptions and practices of racialized bilingual communities at the center of our understanding of language and how to incorporate language into our pedagogy and life . It is this conversation that translanguaging and a raciolinguistic perspective had led me to and one that I welcome others to join me in continuing. 

How about we actually bring the art of language into Language Arts?

Schools often teaches courses called Language Arts. Yet, little actual art happens in most of these classrooms. Instead, language is often treated as a static set of prescriptivist rules that children are expected to master and mimic back to their teacher. This is not an exploration of the art of language. This is linguistic oppression.

But there is an art of language. It is present in the work of literary writers, musicians, poets and public speakers. It is also present in how we engage in language with one another on a daily basis. We sometimes engage in the art of language by inventing new words. Some of these words may only have local meanings that never extend beyond our family and close friends. For example, when I was a kid, I decided to call a jelly sandwich a jelly panmi, which I can only imagine came from the fact that bread in Spanish is pan and I was trying to be cute by putting the mi at the end. To this day my family still calls them jelly panmis with my husband even using the term now (and yes, I still do love a jelly panmi from time to time—don’t judge me). Some of these terms may eventually extend beyond the local community. This can be temporary in the form of slang that often gets played out after a brief moment of popularity (like the term played out, which unfortunately for old people like me is played out). But it can also lead to more permanent shifts like terms associated with social media including emoji.

We also sometimes engage in the art of language by creating new meanings for existing words. This project done by one of my students in my Introduction to Sociolinguistics in Education class provides some excellent examples of this with the two interlocutors developing local meanings of the terms “five” and “six.” Local meanings can also get taken up more broadly such as when everybody started to “slay” when Beyonce’s Lemonade album came further popularizing a meaning of the term prominently used to highlight somebody successfully competing within the queer ballroom scene for decades prior raising questions about cultural appropriation as privileged people use words utilized by marginalized communities in ways that give them cache while doing little to challenge the status quo. The point is that we are constantly reinventing language at the local and more global level to better reflect our personal experiences as well as our changing times in ways that simultaneously challenge and reinforce existing social inequities–and navigating that contradiction is art!

But even when we are not inventing and reinventing words, we are constantly engaged in the art of language through the ways that we strategically use language to fit our context, audience and goals. Language, including in forms perceived as static and homogenous such as standard or academic language, is inherently heterogeneous. As language artists we are constantly making choices about how to use language in ways that simultaneously connect us with particular traditions and communities while bringing our unique voice and perspective. We continuously reinvent existing linguistic forms and invent new ones in order to more effectively represent ourselves to others in a changing world—and navigating that creation of a unique voice is art too!

What might it look like to bring this art of language into Language Arts? Let’s think about this in relation to the visual arts. All of us have general sensibilities about visual arts including what we find to be aesthetically beautiful and how to represent that in a range of different forms. Visual artists extend this general sensibility into professional expertise through becoming socialized into specific artistic techniques. But the goal of a visual artist is not to simply apply a specific technique but rather to innovate that technique and bring their own spin to it. In a similar vein, all of us have general sensibilities about the art of language including what we find linguistically beautiful and how to represent this linguistic beauty in a range of different forms. Bringing the art into language arts would seek to extend this general sensibility into professional expertise through socializing students into specific linguistic techniques used by professional language artists. But the goal would not be to simply apply these specific linguistic techniques but rather to support students in bringing their own spin to it based on their existing language artistic sensibility. The goal would not be to master standard or academic language but to experiment with linguistic techniques in ways that transcend homogenous linguistic categories through a focus on choice and style—that is, through a focus on the art of language.

When I think of art, I typically think of efforts to critically examine the human condition. Good art challenges us to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize the good, the bad and the ugly of our own humanity. Great art challenges us to critically interrogate the limits of current conceptions of the human in the hopes of creating new more inclusive futures. This is not what is happening in most classes that call themselves Language Arts. There is very little examination of the human condition let alone efforts to imagine new possibilities. Instead, most Language Arts classrooms convert one of the most dynamic and creative aspects of what makes us human into something boring and dead. The cruel irony is that students often see little relevance of Language Arts in their lives despite the fact that they engage in the art of language in every utterance they make and every line they write.

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.

Anti-Blackness is a Dual Language Issue

I originally wrote the below text for the fall newsletter for the American Educational Research Association Bilingual Education Special Interest Group and thought I would share it here with links as well.


At its core, anti-Blackness has always sought to question the full humanity of Black people. During the time of slavery, questions about the full humanity of Black people were framed within discourses that suggested that they were property before they were human. In our contemporary society, these questions are typically framed within discourses that suggest that Black people are culturally and linguistically inferior to “normal” humans (i.e. white people), which justifies their continued oppression. These contemporary framings of anti-Blackness have their roots in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that concluded that segregation produced psychological damage to Black children, which prevented their social mobility. This damage-centered narrative was subsequently taken up by the 1965 Moynihan report that pointed to purported cultural and linguistic pathologies of Black families as their primary barrier to social mobility and by the 1966 Coleman report that suggested that integration would help to alleviate these cultural and linguistic pathologies.

It is these anti-Black discourses that also provided the foundation of institutionalized forms of bilingual education in the Bilingual Education Act (BEA). Relying on the discourse from these two reports, at the core of debates around the passage of the BEA were the supposed cultural and linguistic pathologies of the primarily Mexican and Puerto Rican students who were understood to be the primary beneficiaries of the programs. The basic argument was that bilingual education would offer one tool for fixing these cultural and linguistic pathologies. These deficit discourses with roots in anti-Blackness became even further entrenched by the accountability systems associated with the BEA. As schools receiving BEA funds were mandated to assess students in both languages to identify eligibility for the programs and monitor student growth, many Latinx students were determined to be not fully proficient in either English or Spanish. These students were originally described as semilingual. The consensus that gradually emerged was thatthey were proficient in Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) but struggled with the Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) that was necessary for school success. 

As a product of this history, dual language programs have inherited these anti-Black discourses. While some attention has been paid to the ways that anti-Black discourses have led to the systematic exclusion of Black children from these programs, deficit discourses with roots in anti-Blackness also serve to marginalize the bilingualism of both Black and non-Black Latinx students. Most notable is the widely circulating discourse that suggests that these programs will provide Latinx children a “strong foundation” in Spanish CALP that they can transfer to English. This discourse is often used to remediate Latinx children, and sometimes even exclude them from these programs, while the bilingualism of white children in these programs is universally celebrated and positions them as gifted.  

In short, anti-Blackness provides the foundation of the deficit discourses that dual language education programs often reproduce. This means that efforts to dismantle anti-Blackness should not be understood as separate from struggles to promote equity in dual language education program but rather as foundational to these struggles. Anti-Blackness is a dual language issue.

Nice White Parents and Dual Language Education

The first episode of the recently released podcast Nice White Parents documents the experiences of a school that experienced an influx of white parents in response to its efforts to create a French dual language program. What happened next is something that those of us who have worked with schools with dual language programs in gentrifying neighborhoods know all to well—white parents enthusiastic to be involved in the school community to ensure that their children receive a quality education steamrolled the existing leadership structure led by people of color and transformed the school in ways that made the families of color who had long been the primary clientele of the school feel unwelcomed and unheard.

With the increasing popularity of dual language programs with white parents, this dynamic will likely continue to emerge as schools trying to attract white parents market programs that were once intended to serve racialized bilingual communities into programs that are framed as enrichment programs for white children. Yet, these dynamics are not inevitable. In line with what the reporter concluded in her exploration of school integration, ensuring that dual language programs do not simply become a new tool for the maintenance of racial hierarchies requires white parents interested in dual language education to be willing to give up some of their power ins service of the greater good—something that the report pointed out hasn’t often happened.

In this spirit, below I lay out some principles that white parents might consider when thinking about how to engage with schools that have an existing dual language programs or (as in this case) how to engage with a school to advocate for the development of a dual language program.

  • Leave your savior complex at the door. A discourse documented in Nice White Parents that I have also come across in other gentrifying contexts are the ways that white parents have convinced themselves that they are somehow saving the school and is the first time that anything positive has happened in the school’s entire history. Guess what? Families of color have been attending these schools for a long time and have been pushing these schools to do right by their children. To suggest that these schools were some kind of urban wasteland before you arrived is not only racist but completely self-serving since it then allows you to promote an agenda that is completely focused on the needs of your child while pretending that you are actually trying to bring positive change to the school community. I’m not sure how your privileged white child receiving a dual language education is helping the many students of color who are either excluded from the program or forced into it because they have not been given another choice. How about instead of positioning yourself as the savior of the school you take some time to listen to the experiences of the families of color who have been attending the school and develop a cross-racial alliance focused on benefiting all of the children in the school, not just yours?
  • Respect the existing leadership structure of the school. One of the most painful moments of the first episode of Nice White Parents are the recorded interactions of the new white parents completely undermining the authority of the Puerto Rican PTA president in a series of tense meetings. Though we don’t hear their perspectives explicitly, I imagine that these white parents experienced the PTA president as overly defensive and perhaps even ill-informed. With this framing as their point of entry, they most likely experienced her as a barrier to their vision for the school. This not only led to her silencing but also worked to undermine the goals of the dual language program by making the families of color even more suspicious of a program they never asked for and didn’t want. Just imagine if white parents interested in a dual language program had met with the PTA first to discuss their ideas and to solicit feedback in the hopes of developing a plan that the entire school community was on board with.
  • Consider the existing languages of the school community when selecting the partner language for a dual language program. In Nice White Parents, the white families unilaterally decided to implement a French dual language program. This was despite the fact that many of the existing students came from homes where Spanish and Arabic were spoken. The result was that white students were celebrated for becoming bilingual or maintaining their heritage language while the longstanding racialized bilingual student population continued to have their bilingualism ignored at best and treated as a barrier to learning at worst. Just imagine if the nice white parents had bothered to do research first and develop alliances with the Spanish and/or Arabic-speaking community to develop a program that offered their children the opportunity to become bilingual while also building on the existing bilingualism of the school community.
  • Don’t ignore the many students who are not in the dual language program. While it is true that dual language programs have unique needs and challenges that need to be addressed, in this case, and in the case of many such programs, it is one program within a larger school community. This means that when developing plans to support the school it is important to think about the entire school so as to avoid the creation of a competitive dynamic that leads families and students not participating in the dual language program to feel like they are getting the short end of the stick. This requires a shift away from discussions of “what is best for my (white) child?” to “what is best for our children (of many different racial backgrounds with a diverse set of needs)?”
  • Understand that you will have to prove yourself to the school community. It can feel demoralizing to be treated with suspicion when you feel like all you are trying to do is to develop an innovative program that will benefit your child and perhaps others in the school community. But what you have to understand, and what this podcast shows over its 5 episodes, is that white parents have been experimenting at the expense of families of color for decades. The only way to show that you are different is through the hard work of community building and compromise—something that white parents have historically not been particularly good at. If you aren’t willing to do this work then you actually are just like all of those nice white parents throughout the history of US education and shouldn’t be upset when you are treated as such.

The podcast does end on a somewhat positive note by pointing to how the school eventually did take stock of the power dynamics that had emerged and worked to consciously work to challenge them in the name of racial equity. Part of this entailed the scaling back of the French dual language programming at the school. While advocates for bilingual education might feel like this was a loss, I would argue that this was a gain. Dual language education is not inherently socially transformative and in this case seemed to be doing more harm than good. Should the school be interested in revisiting a dual language program I hope that they work to develop the program from the bottom-up in ways that ensure that the program fits into a broader vision that ensures that the school is working to service all of its students equitably and with an anti-racist agenda always at the forefront.

Fighting Anti-Blackness IS Real Linguistics

As somebody who does research at the intersection of language and race I am often accused of not doing “real” linguistics. These accusers imagine linguistics to be an objective science and language to be a series of disembodied features separated from actual people. For these people, any political advocacy work is at best something that is done outside of one’s identity as a linguist and at worse a liability that is a threat to one’s objectivity. Aligned with this perspective, these accusers would argue that the current political protests occurring in response to the police murder of George Floyd is outside of the scope of linguistics as an area of scholarly inquiry. I would argue that it is not only well within the scope of linguistics but also offers an opportunity for us to critically interrogate the anti-Blackness that permeates the field.

The current political moment points to the inherent anti-Blackness of frameworks that suggest that language can be studied separately from the bodies who use them. This is seen very clearly in the contrasting perceptions of the predominantly white people protesting stay-at-home orders and the predominantly Black people protesting George Floyd’s murder. In one notable case, a group of armed white protestors were permitted to enter the Michigan statehouse to protest the governor’s extension of the state’s emergency order with no violent response from the police officers there charged with protecting the building and the politicians inside. President Trump even tweeted in support of the protestors through calls to “liberate Michigan!” and calls for the governor to “give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry.”  In contrast, the police response to Black protestors has been much more aggressive with police officers refusing to engage in the de-escalation strategies that they quite effectively used in response to white protestors. In addition, President Trump referred to these Black protestors as “thugs” and threatened violent retaliation through the use of the phrase made famous by the white supremacist presidential candidate George Wallace “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In these examples, both the police officers and President Trump are inhabiting the role of the white perceiving subject that frames Black bodies as inherently criminal and white bodies as inherently good even when they are engaged in similar behaviors. By white perceiving subject I am not referring to individuals per se but rather their institutional positions. That is, while not all of the police officers involved in these contrasting responses may be white, their position as agents charged to protect the interests of dominant elites who have accumulated their wealth through white settler colonialism and the enslavement and continued exploitation of Black populations, socializes them into these same hegemonic modes of perception. While these hegemonic perceptions are not new, they have been further legitimized and emboldened by a president who has directly and explicitly embraced white supremacy.

It is the anti-Blackness of the white perceiving subject that provides the foundation for the raciolinguistic ideologies that frame Black language practices as deficient and in need of remediation. By Black language practices I do not solely mean features that have historically been associated with African American Language as documented in sociolinguistics—one of the few areas of linguistics that has grappled with issues of race. After all, white people often appropriate these same linguistic features in order to gain social currency in their predominantly white social networks. Instead, what I mean is any language practices that a Black person uses. That is, the inherent criminality associated with Blackness by the white perceiving subject frames any utterance a Black person makes as potentially dangerous and in need of regulation. The logical conclusion to these raciolinguistic ideologies is state violence against Black people.

Insisting that such an analysis is outside of the scope of linguistics is anti-Black. It is anti-Black both in the ways that it refuses to grapple with the inextricability of language and race and by the ways that it serves to keep out of the field Black people who refuse to accept this erasure of their experiences. The apt question that we should be asking as a field is not why Black people don’t feel comfortable in linguistics but rather why white people feel so comfortable in linguistics. The short answer is that the foundational assumption of the field that you can remove language from bodies is steeped in whiteness and allows primarily white linguists to avoid grappling with their own complicity in maintaining white supremacy.

Like everybody else, there are many things that linguists can do to fight back against anti-Black state violence. We can participate in protests. We can engage in conversations with families and friends. We can donate money to Black-led community groups who are leading the organized resistance. But we must do this in ways that also acknowledge our fields continued complicity in reifying the anti-Blackness that makes this state violence possible to begin with. It is not enough for linguists to assume that anti-Blackness is an ideology that exists “out there” making it optional to address in our own backyard.


The Bilingual Revolution Will Not Be Funded

Below I share some preliminary notes on a chapter I am working on for my book project examining the ways that the institutionalization and professionalization of bilingual education in the post-Civil Rights era served to maintain racial hierarchies. One dimension that I will be exploring is the role of federal and philanthropic funds in supporting this process of political incorporation. You can get more information on the issues described below in a report based on my research at the Rockefeller Archive Center that explores the role of the Ford Foundation in moderating Latinx community demands for bilingual education in ways that maintained the white supremacist and capitalist status quo.

In July of 1969 the Board of the recently created Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR) had a meeting about whether to change their priorities. In their one year of operation they had primarily supported local grassroots struggles focused on improving the lives of Mexican Americans with one of their primary focuses being to support struggles for bilingual education. Yet, supporting these grassroot political struggles had often put them into conflict with the Ford Foundation, who was their primary funder. The Foundation was pressuring the SWCLR to move away from supporting grassroots political struggles. The meeting was tense and became heated as board members debated whether to comply with the Foundations request or risk losing their funding with the Board reluctantly agreeing to the request leading radical members of the Board to resign. Their resignation alongside a $1.3 million-dollar grant from the Ford Foundation led the organization to rebrand itself as a professional advocacy organization known as the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) far removed from its grassroots origins.

The pressure put on the SWCLR by the Ford Foundation connects to the broader role that philanthropic organizations played in moving racialized communities away from militancy and toward professionalized forms of advocacy within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of the Latinx community, the Ford Foundation supported these efforts through funding the creation of professional organizations, supporting the creation of ethnic studies programs and supporting bilingual education and other educational innovations that promised to improve educational outcomes for Latinx students.

The biggest Foundation support for bilingual education was in the American Southwest with the bulk of this funding being funneled through the Southwest Council of La Raza (SWCLR).  SWCLR’s decentralized model provided space for radical activists to gain leadership roles within the organization and use the funding available to support militant political action against the white establishment. These political actions led the Foundation to be accused of funding militant extremists. Most contentious was the SWCLR’s decision to subcontract funds to the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO). MAYO’s primary focus for community organizing work was challenging what they believed to be the educational genocide occurring within San Antonio area public schools with a major priority being abolishment English-Only school policies and advocating for bilingual education. MAYO’s confrontational tactics were condemned by mainstream white and Mexican American politicians, most notably Congressman Henry González who openly condemned MAYO on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The Foundation found itself increasingly under pressure and, in turn, placed pressure on the SWCLR to reign in MAYO and other radical elements connected to the organization. One way that it sought to do this was through imposing stricter rules on SWCLR that mandated the organization to divert its efforts away from community organizing and advocacy toward the development of “hard programs” with measurable objectives that would be pre-approved by the Foundation. As SWCLR began to adopt this new “hard program” approach it also sought to expand its efforts beyond the American Southwest by becoming a national organization focused on advocating for Mexican Americans across the country. This led the organization leaders to change the name to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and gradually shift its focus toward serving as a professional liaison to federal government agencies and corporations primarily through the release of public statements on pending legislation and through a focus on business projects within Latinx communities. As it relates to bilingual education, a great deal of NCLR’s efforts focused on compiling research related to best practices along with federal policy analysis intended to inform and persuade lawmakers on issues related to bilingual education.

 In short, while having experienced a few road bumps on the way, the Ford Foundation achieved its overall objective in serving as a moderating force in the American Southwest. It did this by first providing funds to Mexican American leaders who were seen as more moderate to fund the SWCLR. When these leaders used funds to support controversial grassroots political action, the Foundation used its funding as leverage to change the direction of the SWCLR and its subsidiaries away from supporting grassroots community organizing toward supporting professional advocacy work focused on technical expertise. In the case of bilingual education, this led to a movement away from local community-led work focused on dismantling the racist structures and practices of schools as part of broader efforts to dismantle the white power structure toward a focus on sharing professional expertise about the value of bilingual education with a particular focus on federal level policy. More radical elements of the Mexican American movement found other avenues for entering into local community work primarily through electoral politics. Neither of these tactics were particularly successful with most of the most prominent Mexican American activists absorbed into the Democratic Party by the 1980s just as bilingual education began to be systematically dismantled with the rise of the Ronald Regan presidency.

This points to a catch-22 that confronted many Latinx activists working to promote bilingual education within the context of the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. On the one hand, financial support provided necessary resources that could be used to mobilize communities in support of bilingual education and other policies that will have a meaningful impact on their lives. On the other hand, accepting this financial support came with certain strings attached that pushed activists to compromise in ways that they felt were politically necessary if not necessarily philosophically aligned with their true vision of bilingual education. Reliance on federal and philanthropic funds led advocacy work focused on bilingual education to become divorced from grassroots political struggles through its professionalization. The result was the emergence of a cadre of primarily Latinx professionals charged with advocating for and implementing bilingual education programs. The ascendancy of this new professional class occurred alongside the ascendency of neoliberalism as the structuring logic of the global political and economic order and, in turn, the structuring logic of educational reform in the United States. The bilingual revolution had become neoliberalized.


Are People Who Support the Concept of Academic Language Racist? An FAQ

For the past several years I have been presenting at academic conferences and offering workshops to educators challenging dominant conceptualizations of academic language in educational linguistics from a raciolinguistic perspective. In this post I thought I would offer a FAQ about my perspective based on conversations that I have had over the years.

What are your concerns about the concept of academic language?

I have three major concerns about the concept of academic language. The first one is that it continues the logic of European colonialism that frames the language practices of racialized communities as inherently deficient and in need of remediation. The second one is that it is currently taken up in schools and classrooms in ways that relegate many racialized students to remedial instruction. Finally, its dichotomous framing does not map on to the fluid language use that characterizes the real world that schools are purportedly preparing students for.

But was academic language ever intended to be really be treated as dichotomous with non-academic language?

The introduction of the concept of academic language into language education is typically attributed to Jim Cummins who originally proposed the distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). In 1980, he argued “CALP is defined as those dimensions of language proficiency that are strongly related to literacy skills, whereas BICS refers to cognitively undemanding manifestations of language proficiency in interpersonal situations.” Not only does this sound like a dichotomy to me but based on this definition when somebody describes children as having BICS but not CALP they are essentially arguing that they only engage in cognitively undemanding language practices. This deficit framing isn’t entirely surprising since Cummins had originally used the term semilingualism before introducing the BICS and CALP dichotomy. It also isn’t surprising that this framing would lead to remediation.

How does this dichotomous framing play out in schools and classrooms?

 There are three unfortunate consequences of this dichotomous framing. For one, it inevitably positions teachers as language police who have to surveil and correct the supposed non-academic language practices of their students. Because of the broader racialized history of US society, it is racialized students who are disproportionately impacted by this type of policing. Secondly, it overdetermines the home language practices of racialized students to be non-academic in ways that overlook the vast amounts of linguistic knowledge that racialized students bring to the classroom that are very much aligned with the knowledge being measured by state standards. Finally, it denies students the opportunity to bring their entire identities into their interactions with classroom texts in the ways that we all do outside of classrooms on a daily basis. Indeed, some of the most gifted racialized authors are celebrated precisely for their ability to utilize a range of linguistic practices in their writing. Why should we deny this opportunity to our children in the name of teaching them academic language?

Are you against the promotion of academic literacy?

I am against the promotion of the normative conceptualization of literacy and biliteracy that undergirds the construction of academic literacy. In my work, I am particularly interested in critically interrogating how children who engage with written texts across two or more languages on a daily basis are framed as illiterate because of their supposed lack of  a “strong foundation” in “academic literacy” in any language. I imagine if affluent white children were engaged in the same exact biliteracy practices they would not be positioned in this way. It is this inequity that I am trying to make central to the conversation.

What do you suggest as an alternative to academic language?

Any dichotomous framing of language will inevitably be taken up in ways that reinforce deficit perspectives of racialized communities. In response to this dilemma, in a recent article I proposed language architecture as a non-dichotomous framing of language. Language architecture takes as its point of entry the assumption that racialized students can already engage in the types of complex linguistic practices desired by state standards but that their knowledge is being misrecognized because of the pervasiveness of raciolinguistic ideologies. Using this as a point of entry can allow for new pedagogical practices to emerge. Yet, it is also important to transform the racist structures that constrain the types of practices that can emerge in classrooms.

Aren’t you using academic language in your critique of it?

This question comes from the perspective that academic language is a set of disembodied empirical linguistic features. I reject the logic that undergirds this perspective in favor of one that treats academic language as an ideological construction shaped by the social status of the speaker in relation to the listener/perceiver. As an example, I recently wrote an article that a reviewer recommended for rejection because their perception was that the tone and tenor was not sufficiently academic. When the article was published another person immediately critiqued it for engaging in academic language even as it sought to critique it. It would seem from this example and many others than academic language is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. It is this shift from the speaker to the listener/perceiver that lies at the heart of the shift I am working to facilitate.

Are you calling people who support the concept of academic language racist?

I don’t know most of them personally, so I don’t know if they are racist or not. But that isn’t really the point I am trying to make. Instead, my point is that the discourses that we use have histories and it is important for us to be aware of these histories when we mobilize them. This can be especially important for those of us who seek to promote anti-racism. In the case of academic language, the logic that undergirds it connects to a broader colonial history that was used to construct and maintain racial hierarchies. It can be difficult to fully meet our potential if we continue to rely on this logic in our efforts to promote racial equity. I am hoping to engage in conversations about how to develop new logics and welcome others to join me in that conversation.