Using Student Language to Teach Language

November 23, 2015

Betsy Rymes explores how you can use student language to teach language.

Teaching students language and literature can be seen as a dry and difficult task. But children and teens already do love language. They embrace the widest range of new words—Are you “on fleek”? Who’s your “Bae”?—and find more ways to use language with Twitter, Tumblr, and Vine in a day than many adults do in a month.

Penn GSE Professor of Education Linguistics Betsy Rymes has collaborated with 11th-grade teachers to help them integrate students’ creative use of language into the classroom. Some of the most playful exercises to emerge from this project can make even serious texts more accessible for students. Here are a few ideas:

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 dinner was “perfect” or “on fleek”?

Take the Accent Challenge

Several years ago, young people began using a decades-old dialect survey as a prompt for YouTube “accent challenge” videos, with hilarious and profound results. The challenge taker reads words that often have regional associations, such as water or crayon. They also answer questions about how they would identify items—for example, “What do you call a sweetened, carbonated beverage?” 

One of the best of these videos comes from a woman who calls her accent "Konglish," explaining the different voices she uses with her Korean and American friends. Students are astonished to hear these different voices coming from the same person. But they soon realize that they also change how they speak when moving between slices of their own language diversity pies. After viewing a few of these videos, students can develop their own accent challenge word lists (How do you say “sausage”?) and questions (eliciting distinctions like “gravy” versus “sauce”). They can use their surveys to interview their friends, family, or other people from different communities.

Create a Slang Wurdle

Each semester, we have students work in small groups to brainstorm unique vocabulary that they use among their friends. Students usually start making those lists by simply brainstorming together, but lately, students have found they can generate much longer lists, and uncover many more creative expressions, when they turn to social media and their phones. Vine videos, it seems, are the biggest source of new words for today’s teens.

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 sophomores use that!” or “that is a word I only use with the cross-country 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 soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front, a core 11th grade text.


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