Sociolinguistics Writing


Journal: Working Papers in Educational Linguistics*

Article Title: Analyzing the Role of the Vernacular in Student Writing: A Social Literacies Approach.

Author: Mollie Blackburn, Deborah Stern  


*The presented writing is direct quotations from the scholarly article.  Quotations are being used to establish the type of language and writing that is used in scholarly research articles.


In this article the authors present and use a social literacies perspective to analyze a rap written by a high school student. They begin by examining the student's uses of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard English. The student-writing sample and the researchers' analysis are subjected to review by two other African American teenagers, and these students' insights are used to interrogate the assumptions of analysis and research into language use. The article ends by claiming that teachers and researchers must engage students' literacy practices in order to enrich classroom life and conduct meaningful, socially just research (Blackburn, Stern, p. 53).


It seems that all talk today about reforming instruction in urban schools centers around one of two ideas: either we have to toughen academic standards, or we have to make curriculum responsive to the changing needs and identities of our student population. If teachers and researchers are going to take the latter recommendation seriously, one of the first tasks before us is to find ways to understand our students' writing. Currently, most evaluation of student writing focuses on technical deficits or strength of argument or organization; this avoids the ideological issues that underlie all types of evaluations. What we need is a new approach to student writing that recognizes and seeks to make intellectual and academic use of students' social literacies.  As veteran teachers who have worked in urban schools around the country, we recognize the need for radical instructional reform (Blackburn, Stern, p. 53).

Focus:  This is the purpose of our study.  We hope to gain new insights into literacy by exploring students’ feelings about writing and school.  We hope to use these insights to critique and see more clearly the implications of the choices we have made in the past as English teachers.  We hope to unpack some of the assumptions about literacy and learning that we currently hold as researchers of language, school, and students.  Each of these goals fits into our larger hopes for our work with urban teenagers and schools.  Paramount among these hopes is the desire to find ways to make urban teens and urban schools fit one another more successfully (Blackburn, Stern, p. 54).

Conceptual Framework

Our work allowed us to look closely at three of what Mitchell (1984) calls “telling cases”: Casey’s piece, our interview subjects’ responses to this piece, and our own research methods.  We are not implying that these telling cases are typical or represent general social or cultural truths.  Rather, we understand them to be illustrations of “social fields” that provide contexts which surround linked events and relationships (Mitchell 1984) (Blackburn, Stern, p. 55).  In analyzing Casey’s piece, we formed some tentative theories about his use of language.  These theories are grounded in New Literacy Theory, which makes explicit some of the political and social realties inherent in all communication (Blackburn, Stern, p. 56).


We first selected a piece of student writing and analyzed it in an eclectic but rigorous way.  This was “How Many?” a piece of writing by Casey an 18-year-old African American male high school student in Athens, Georgia (see Figure 1) (Blackburn, Stern, p. 55).  This text, a rap written in AAVE, allows us to explore how alternative literacies function in the school context.  Casey made choice in writing the rap that is embedded in social and political contexts (Blackburn, Stern, p. 56).  We then conducted interviews with two other students about writing in an out of school in general, and about the aforementioned sample of student writing in particular.  We finished by reflecting on our finding in an effort to recognize that what counts as knowledge is fluid (Blackburn, Stern, p. 55).


This search for deeper meaning, particularly social and political meaning, is what drove our analysis of Casey’s rap. We began by noting Casey’s use of AAVE.  Labov (1972) defines AAVE as, “the relatively uniform dialect spoken by the majority of black youth in most parts of the United States” (Labox 1972: xii) (Blackburn, Stern, p. 57).  “How Many?” is replete with instances of AAVE.  We found thirteen occurrences of AAVE and eleven incidences of other vernacular English varieties.  At line 17 Casey stopped using vernacular, changed from black to blue ink, modified his handwriting a bit, and shifted his discourse organization. Evidence of his shift exists in the change of ink color, print style, use of vernacular, and mood.  We interpreted his shift away from AAVE use and towards a didactic tone as a shift in audience from peers to teachers.  So perhaps vernacular writing suggest an audience of peers, with whom solidarity is important (Gee 1996), and the absence of vernacular suggests a more distant audience, such as teachers or other adults, for whom status is more important (Gee 1996) (Blackburn, Stern, p. 58).


Both Graham and Norton were friendly and shared their feelings about school and writing freely.  Both boys are intelligent, polite, and forthright.  Both separate school from “life outside of school,” but they assign different values to these two domains.  Graham and Norton consistently drew distinction between “school stuff” and “life stuff.”  Norton told us that he never wrote anything for school that he enjoyed, and contrasted this with the kind of writing he enjoyed very much: writing lyrics to share with Graham and other peers.  We learned form Graham and Norton’s descriptions of this writing that one critical element of out-of-school writing that mattered to the boys was its collaborative nature (Blackburn, Stern, p. 60).   

It is our belief that even though he was writing for school, Casey wanted to make his piece as authentic, as vernacular (Camitta 1987) as possible.  Casey’s intentions are made clear by his deliberate use of AAVE and his choice of subject matter.  But he was also writing for a teacher, and both Graham and Norton noted this conflict in different ways (Blackburn, Stern, pp. 62-63).

This study reinforces our need to continue the conversation about imposing Standard English on all speakers and writers of nonstandard English at school.  Effective communicators like Casey, Graham, and Norton show us the fallacy of the concept of verbal deprivation (Labov 1972: 202).  They also push us to devise new ways to validate alternative literacies and aid us in helping students become proficient users of dominant literacies (Blackburn, Stern, pp. 65-66).

The trick is to make sure that these students are given opportunities to practice Standard English while they are studying the power dynamics inherent in its use and in its variations.  Probably the most useful tool at our disposal for making in-school writing matter to students is the model of collaborative literacy, which has been indicated by both our interview subjects and by some New Literacy scholars. Urban teachers can do their students a great service by taking a social literacy stance in regards to student writing.  As Lee’s (1993) works shows, when teachers approach nonstandard English and non-school literacies with respect and intellectual rigor, they not only gain insight into their students’ writing but also help their students make crucial links between school and the streets (Blackburn, Stern, p. 66).

Writing Article Definitions
*These definitions are directly quoted from the listed websites

Social literacies:

(1) The power of identity in groups (From The Atlas of New Librarianship).

(2) The process of defining and expanding social groupings to further our aims (From The Atlas of New Librarianship). 

Vernacular Writing:

(1) Of, relating to, or using the language of ordinary speech rather than formal writing (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

(2) Of or relating to the common style of a particular time, place, or group (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

African–American Vernacular English: A nonstandard variety of English spoken by some African-Americans (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 

New Literacy Theory: The classification of being literate is changing with technology becoming a prominent aspect of how we read, gather, and process information.  The New Literacy Theory says we must begin to include the literacies associated with the Internet in a broader definition of what it means to become literate (From International Reading Association).

Didactic Tone: Designed or intended to teach people something.

—Used to describe someone or something that tries to teach something (such as proper or moral behavior) in a way that is annoying or unwanted (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 

Verbal Deprivation: Black children from the ghetto area are said to receive little verbal stimulation, to hear very little well-formed language, and as a result are impoverished in their means of verbal expression (From the Atlantic Online).