Study Tips

How To Use “Student Language” To Teach Language

It’s always an uphill task teaching children language and literature.

In Uganda, one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, we have over 50 native languages, and official communications are delivered in English and Swahili. Children have to transition from their mother tongues, then to English and before long they adopt slang, or informal English (Who’s your “Bae”, “Kiwani” to mean fake, to mention but a few).

An education researcher collaborated with High School teachers to help them integrate students creative use of language into the classroom. Betsy Rymes, a Professor of Education Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, found that some of the playful exercises from the project could make even more serious texts more accessible for students.

Make A Language Diversity Pie

By asking students to create a pie graph of all the ways they use words, you can illuminate what students already know about language. Most students will find their pie has at least six slices, with labels like “school,” “home,” “older siblings,” “younger siblings,” “friends,” and “at sports practice.” Older students will likely have more slices, like “nice friends,” “vulgar friends,” and “boyfriend’s parents.”

Students can talk though their pies as a class or in small groups. How do they vary their “accent” when talking to people from different slices? How about word choice? Would they tell their mom that supper was “perfect” or “on point”?

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Create a Slang Wurdle

Each term, teachers can have students work in small groups to brainstorm unique vocabulary that they use among their friends. Students can start making those lists by simply brainstorming together, but with time they will be capable of generating much longer lists, and uncover many more creative expressions, when they turn to social media and their phones. Social media trends are a source of new words for today’s teens, e.g. tweeps, UOT for Ugandans on Twitter.

Students use their list to create a word cloud, or wurdle, with the help of a website. These wurdles prompt even more talk about how language changes across sections of each person’s language diversity pie, and suggest the need for more finely divided slices (“only freshers use that!” or “that is a word I only use with the football team”).

Bring It Back to the Text

The Common Core State Standards language goals require students to “apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.”

As students understand variations in language, they’ll be better able to grasp how an author uses words differently according to situations or speakers, and the effects those changes have. The profusion of slang about “taboo” activities that inevitably shows up in older teens’ wurdles can immediately relate to word choices a writer would make when portraying a distinct group, like the Mau Mau rebels in Meja Mwangi’s A Carcase for Hounds, a core O’Level text for the Uganda Certificate of Education.

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