3 Ways Of Building Curriculum From Students’ Oral Grammar

Listen, Talk Ask

by Jen McCreight

Here we are on the brink of another academic year. Amid the planning and meeting, setting up your room, and catching up with colleagues, there exists a palpable buzz. Soon, if they haven’t already, a new group of students will enter your room, and you will begin the exciting process of learning with each other.

At the beginning of the year, our most important task is to establish community and to get to know our students. Language is one of the ways student express their identity (Allen, 2010; Nieto, 2009). When we use worksheets to assess students’ grammar, we decontextualize language from who they are. But, when we pay attention to how students use language to express who they are, we are able to meaningfully connect their rich backgrounds to our language and grammar curriculums. As JoBeth Allen (2010) stated so eloquently:

Home language. It’s a comforting phrase — isn’t it? — conjuring images of families chatting around the television, dinner table, or front porch; of dads or grandmas telling stories about relatives’ escapades, of moms or grandpas crooning the baby to sleep; of siblings and cousins making up games and arguing about the rules. Yet too often in our country’s educational history, we have at best ignored home language as a valuable linguistic resource and at worst denigrated and even prohibited its use in school. (pp. 27–28)

Many researchers and teachers agree with Allen, and have pushed for schools to be a place in which multiple linguistic codes are integrated and accepted as valid ways of speaking (Hudley & Mallinson, 2011). As bell hooks (1994) stated, “It is evident that we must change conventional ways of thinking about language, creating spaces where diverse voices can speak in words other than [Standardized] English” (p. 173–174).

Based on her own experiences and speaking to African American families, Lisa Delpit (1995) has argued for schools to strike a balance between silencing students’ home dialects and languages, and encouraging their use of these codes in all academic settings. While Delpit cautioned teachers that students would become increasingly disinterested in a school program that continually ignored their home and cultural identities, she also maintained her assertion that it does linguistically diverse children a disservice to not teach them how to speak using the “culture of power” that is often, if unfairly, prized in job interviews, office discourse, and term papers.

Classrooms, then, must provide students with a language and grammar curriculum that invites multiple codes into the conversation, as a way to build communal understanding of the validity of languages and dialects beyond Standardized English.

It is with this in mind that I challenge you, at the beginning of another promising school year, to consider the following: What would it look like if your approach to grammar study invited children to build on background experiences in order to learn standards-based content in relevant ways?

There is one simple, three-step strategy: listen, talk, ask. It takes little time, and you can use it in conjunction with an already existing grammar program:

Step 1. Listen

Listen to the way your students speak while in different contexts (with friends on the playground, with teachers in the hallway, as they think out loud about the dialogue they are considering for a written personal narrative). Keep a record of these phrases, and the context(s) in which students speak them. Are you finding patterns? Are your students using Standardized English in certain contexts, and not in others? Do particular children speak Spanish with their family or Spanish-speaking friends, but know to switch to English when communicating with others?

Step 2. Talk

Talk with your students about diverse ways of speaking. Bring up specific phrases or sentences you have heard, in multiple dialects, languages, or levels of formality. Draw their attention to the fact that they likely use different wording with their friends on the playground than with their teachers in the classroom. Make these conversations part of your school day. When they hear interesting examples of language, encourage children to write them down or share them with the class.

Step 3. Ask

Ask students questions that build from the language they already use. For instance, if you are studying subject/verb agreement, and the children need to circle “be” or “am” in the sentence I (be/am) walking to school, you might present the sentence, and then say, “Now, when we complete sheets like this, we are usually thinking about how we speak in more formal settings, with people we don’t know very well, or while giving a speech or presentation. Which word would you use in these more formal settings?” This approach does not prize one way of speaking over another. Instead of shutting down some students’ home languages/dialects, it uses multiple codes to encourage critical thinking and engagement with grammar.

By using the listen, talk, ask strategy, you and your students can start to build an authentic and relevant grammar curriculum. This, in turn, will increase the chances that your students will commit this information to their long term memories, as they can connect what they are learning to already familiar language contexts.


Allen, J. B. (2010). Literacy in the welcoming classroom: Creating family-school partnerships that support student learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Delpit, L. D. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York, NY: New Press.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hudley, A. H. C., & Mallinson, C. (2011). Understanding English language variation in U.S. schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Nieto, S. (2009). Language, culture, and teaching (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Jen McCreight has eight years of experience teaching kindergarten and first grade, and is currently an Assistant Professor at Hiram College in Hiram, OH. She teaches Early Childhood Education courses, and enjoys working with her students and area teachers to honor and build upon language diversity within elementary school classrooms. Jen holds a Ph.D in Language and Literacy Education from the University of Georgia.

Her newest book is Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study: A New Approach To Grammar Lessons.

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