Becoming Adept at Code-Switching – Rebecca S. Wheeler

By putting away the red pen and providing structured instruction in code-switching, teachers can help urban African American students use language more effectively.

It was September, and Joni was concerned. Her 2nd grade student Tamisha could neither read nor write; she was already a grade behind. What had happened? Joni sought out Melinda, Tamisha’s 1st grade teacher. Melinda’s answer stopped her in her tracks. “Tamisha? Why, you can’t do anything with that child. Haven’t you heard how she talks?” Joni pursued, “What did you do with her last year?” “Oh, I put her in the corner with a coloring book.” Incredulous, Joni asked, “All year?” “Yes,” the teacher replied.

Although extreme, Melinda’s appraisal of Tamisha’s performance and potential as a learner is not isolated. In standardized assessments of language acquisition, teachers routinely underrate the language knowledge and the reading and writing performance of African American students (Cazden, 2001; Ferguson, 1998; Godley, Sweetland, Wheeler, Minnici, & Carpenter, 2006; Scott & Smitherman, 1985). A typical reading readiness task asks the student to read five sentences (The mouse runs. The cat runs. The dog runs. The man runs. Run, mouse, run!). As Jamal reads, Da mouse run. Da cat run. Da dog run. Da man run. Run, mouse, run, his teacher notes 8/15 errors, placing him far below the frustration level of 3/15. She assesses Jamal as a struggling reader and puts him in a low reading group or refers him to special education.

Through a traditional language arts lens, Tamisha’s 1st grade teacher saw “broken English” and a broken child. Through the same lens, Jamal’s teacher heard mistakes in Standard English and diagnosed a reading deficit. These teachers’ lack of linguistic background in the dialects their students speak helps explain why African American students perform below their white peers on every measure of academic achievement, from persistent overrepresentation in special education and remedial basic skills classes, to under-representation in honors classes, to lagging SAT scores, to low high school graduation rates (Ogbu, 2003).

Across the United States, teacher education and professional development programs fail to equip teachers to respond adequately to the needs of many African American learners. We know that today’s world “demands a new way of looking at teaching that is grounded in an understanding of the role of culture and language in learning” (Villegas & Lucas, 2007, p. 29). Unfortunately, many teachers lack the linguistic training required to build on the language skills that African American students from dialectally diverse backgrounds bring to school. To fill this need, elementary educator Rachel Swords and I have developed a program for teaching Standard English to African American students in urban classrooms (Wheeler & Swords, 2006). One linguistic insight and three strategies provide a framework for responding to these students’ grammar needs.

One Linguistic Insight

When African American students write I have two sister and two brother, My Dad jeep is out of gas, or My mom deserve a good job, teachers traditionally diagnose “poor English” and conclude that the students are making errors with plurality, possession, or verb agreement. In response, teachers correct the students’ writing and show them the “right” grammar.

Research has amply demonstrated that such traditional correction methods fail to teach students the Standard English writing skills they need (Adger, Wolfram, & Christian, 2007). Further, research has found strong connections among teachers’ negative attitudes about stigmatized dialects, lower teacher expectations for students who speak these dialects, and lower academic achievement (Godley et al., 2006; Nieto, 2000).

An insight from linguistics offers a way out of this labyrinth: Students using vernacular language are not making errors, but instead are speaking or writing correctly following the language patterns of their community (Adger et al., 2007; Green, 2002; Sweetland, 2006; Wheeler & Swords, 2006). With this insight, teachers can transform classroom practice and student learning in dialectally diverse schools.

Three Strategies

Equipped with the insight that students are following the grammar patterns of their communities, here is how a teacher can lead students through a critical-thinking process to help them understand and apply the rules of Standard English grammar.

Scientific Inquiry

As the teacher grades a set of papers, she may notice the same “error” cropping up repeatedly in her students’ writing. My work in schools during the past decade has revealed more than 30 Informal English grammar patterns that appear in students’ writing. Among these, the following patterns consistently emerge (see also Adger et al., 2007; Fogel & Ehri, 2000):

  • Subject-verb agreement (Mama walk the dog every day.)
  • Showing past time (Mama walk the dog yesterday or I seen the movie.)
  • Possessive (My sister friend came over.)
  • Showing plurality (It take 24 hour to rotate.)
  • “A” versus “an” (a elephant, an rabbit)

A linguistically informed teacher understands that these usages are not errors, but rather grammar patterns from the community dialect transferred into student writing (Wheeler, 2005). Seeing these usages as data, the teacher assembles a set of sentences drawn from student writing, all showing the same grammar pattern, and builds a code-switching chart (see fig. 1). She provides the Formal English equivalent of each sentence in the right-hand column. She then leads students through the following steps:

  • Examine sentences. The teacher reads the Informal English sentences aloud.
  • Seek patterns. Then she leads the students to discover the grammar pattern these sentences follow. She might say, “Taylor cat is black. Let’s see how this sentence shows ownership. Who does the cat belong to?” When students answer that the cat belongs to Taylor, the teacher asks, “How do you know?” Students answer that it says Taylor cat, or that the word Taylor sits next to the word cat.
  • Define the pattern. Now the teacher helps students define the pattern by repeating their response, putting it in context: “Oh, Taylor is next to cat. So you’re saying that the owner, Taylor, is right next to what is owned, cat. Maybe this is the pattern for possessives in Informal English: owner + what is owned?” The class has thus formulated a hypothesis for how Informal English shows possession.
  • Test the hypothesis. After the teacher reads the next sentence aloud, she asks the students to determine whether the pattern holds true. After reading The boy coat is torn, the teacher might ask, “Who is the owner?” The students respond that the boy is the owner. “What does he own?” The students say that he owns the coat. The teacher then summarizes what the students have discovered: “So the boy is the owner and the coat is what he owns. That follows our pattern of owner + what is owned.” It is important to test each sentence in this manner.
  • Write Informal English pattern. Finally, the teacher writes the pattern, owner + what is owned, under the last informal sentence (Wheeler & Swords, 2006).

Figure 1. Code-Switching Chart for Possessive Patterns

Comparison and Contrast

Next, the teacher applies a teaching strategy that has been established as highly effective—comparison and contrast (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Using contrastive analysis, the teacher builds on students’ existing grammar knowledge. She leads students in contrasting the grammatical patterns of Informal English with the grammatical patterns of Formal English written on the right-hand side of the code-switching chart. This process builds an explicit, conscious understanding of the differences between the two language forms. The teacher leads students to explore what changed between the Informal English sentence Taylor cat is black and the Formal English sentence Taylor’s cat is black. Through detailed comparison and contrast, students discover that the pattern for Formal English possessive is owner +’s + what is owned.

Code-Switching as Metacognition

After using scientific inquiry and contrastive analysis to identify the grammar patterns of Informal and Formal English, the teacher leads students in putting their knowledge to work. The class usesmetacognition, which is knowledge about one’s own thinking processes. Students learn to actively code-switch—to assess the needs of the setting (the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose) and intentionally choose the appropriate language style for that setting. When the teacher asks, “In your school writing, which one of these patterns do you think you need to use: Owner + what is owned? or owner +’s + what is owned?” students readily choose the Standard English pattern.

Because code-switching requires that students think about their own language in both formal and informal forms, it builds cognitive flexibility, a skill that plays a significant role in successful literacy learning (Cartwright, in press). Teaching students to consciously reflect on the different dialects they use and to choose the appropriate language form for a particular situation provides them with metacognitive strategies and the cognitive flexibility to apply those strategies in daily practice. With friends and family in the community, the child will choose the language of the community, which is often Informal English. In school discussions, on standardized tests, in analytic essays, and in the world of work, the student learns to choose the expected formal language. In this way, we add another linguistic code, Standard English, to the student’s language toolbox.

A Successful Literacy Tool

Research and test results have demonstrated that these techniques are highly successful in fostering the use of Standard English and boosting overall student writing performance among urban African American students at many different grade levels (Fogel & Ehri, 2000; Sweetland, 2006; Taylor, 1991). Using traditional techniques as a teacher at an urban elementary school on the Virginia peninsula, Rachel Swords saw the usual 30-point gap in test scores between her African American and white 3rd grade students. In 2002, her first year of implementing code-switching strategies, she closed the achievement gap in her classroom; on standardized state assessments, African American students did as well as white students in English and history and outperformed white students in math and science. These results have held constant in each subsequent year. In 2006, in a class that began below grade level, 100 percent of Sword’s African American students passed Virginia’s year-end state tests (Wheeler & Swords, 2006).

Transforming Student Learning

Fortunately, Joni knew that Tamisha was not making grammatical mistakes. Tamisha did know grammar—the grammar of her community. Now the task was to build on her existing knowledge to leverage new knowledge of Standard English. When Joni tutored her after school, Tamisha leapfrogged ahead in reading and writing. Despite having started a year behind, she was reading and writing on grade level by June. How did she achieve such progress? Her teacher possessed the insights and strategies to foster Standard English mastery among dialectally diverse students. Even more important, Joni knew that her student did not suffer a language deficit. She was able to see Tamisha for the bright, capable child she was.

Joni has laid down the red pen and adopted a far more effective approach, teaching students to reflect on their language using the skills of scientific inquiry, contrastive analysis, and code-switching. We have the tools to positively transform the teaching and learning of language arts in dialectally diverse classrooms. Isn’t it time we did?


Adger, C. T., Wolfram, W., & Christian, D. (Eds.). (2007). Dialects in schools and communities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cartwright, K. B. (in press). Literacy processes: Cognitive flexibility in learning and teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

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Fogel, H., & Ehri, L. (2000). Teaching elementary students who speak Black English vernacular to write in Standard English: Effects of dialect transformation practice. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 212–35.

Godley, A., Sweetland, J., Wheeler, S., Minnici, A., & Carpenter, B. (2006). Preparing teachers for dialectally diverse classrooms. Educational Researcher, 35(8), 30–37.

Green, L. (2002). African American English: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (3rd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

Ogbu, J. (2003). Black American students in an affluent suburb: A study of academic disengagement. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Scott, J. C., & Smitherman, G. (1985). Language attitudes and self-fulfilling prophecies in the elementary school. In S. Greenbaum (Ed.), The English language today (pp. 302–314). Oxford, UK: Pergamon.

Sweetland, J. (2006). Teaching writing in the African American classroom: A sociolinguistic approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.

Taylor, H. U. (1991). Standard English, Black English, and bidialectalism: A controversy. New York: Lang.

Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2007). The culturally responsive teacher. Educational Leadership, 64(6), 28–33.

Wheeler, R. (2005). Code-switch to teach Standard English. English Journal, 94(5), 108–112.

Wheeler, R., & Swords, R. (2006). Code-switching: Teaching Standard English in urban classrooms. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Author’s note: Kelly B. Cartwright, Associate Professor of Psychology, Christopher Newport University, crafted the section “Code-Switching as Metacognition.”

Rebecca S. Wheeler is Associate Professor of English Language and Literacy, Department of English, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia;