Sociolinguistics Conversation


Journal: The English Journal (NCTE)*

Article Title: Conversation as Curriculum: Learning to Teach English in Rural America

Author: Carl A. Young


*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.


Carl A. Young highlights teacher disposition that promote learning.  Focusing on students in rural Appalachia, he describes successful approaches and strategies for working with students living in poverty (Young, p. 82). 


As an English educator, I worry not only about students who live in poverty but also about the teachers charged to educate them. I seek model teachers to mentor my preservice students, educators whose practices demonstrate how to meet the literacy needs of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Young, p. 82).

D) Focus:  Mary, one such teacher, has a record of producing successful students with strong literacy skills regardless of their backgrounds. Mary and I met in college during our teacher education program and have remained close friends. Awed by the relationships she forges with students and the academic results she gets, I conducted a case study to discover the dispositions that teachers like her possess that result in such efficacy with at-risk students. The following article relates her story, her challenges, her successes in both urban and rural settings, and the lessons we can all take from her experience (Young, p. 82).

Conceptual Framework

In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne provides important insights for realizing the complexities of poverty. She addresses the hidden rules among classes—poverty, middle class, and wealth—that motivate behavior and lifestyle choices. Not knowing the rules can be detrimental. Drawing on Payne’s framework, Mary identified the following themes as the most pertinent in the context of the rural English classroom: education, language, view of society, view of self and peers, motivation, and money. While students’ positions within these classes are not fixed or absolute, Mary does see the framework as a way of better understanding the unspoken rules that influence student behavior, perceptions, and performance (Young, p. 84).


I was the outsider, and I needed to work on my perceptions and biases, which I quickly learned how to do through careful observation and more interaction with my students, colleagues, and the community (pers. comm.)  Part of our role as English teachers must be exploring language variations and the importance of context in choosing the appropriate variation for a given situation and audience. When the importance of formal register is made explicit to poor people, they want to learn it. When students are made aware of the power and importance of their language choices, they will be more willing to explore and experiment with language (Young, p. 85).


Mary’s effect on students’ literacy has manifested itself in many ways. Given the emphasis on high-stakes testing in Virginia, it is important to note that the student pass rate for the English Standards of Learning (SOL) tests improved from 52 percent to 92 percent in Mary’s first year at West Sully. Her approach to test preparation, integrating it into her instruction while focusing explicitly on the other features of teaching students to read and write well, is a strategy supported by a large body of research conducted by the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA; Langer, “Beating” and Excellence; Langer et al.). However, the relationships she forges with students motivate their success more than test preparation.  Mary’s rapport with her students allows for what Arthur Applebee refers to as “curriculum as conversation.” Her teaching involves knowledge making that stems from “ongoing conversations about things that matter, conversations that are themselves embedded within larger traditions of discourse that we have come to value,” including cultural traditions and understandings as well as their connections to the English language arts (3) (Young, p. 87).


Mary: A Teachers Discussion

Forge Relationships with Students:  My kids know that I am here for them. They know me. In order to create a give and take relationship, I’ve had to put myself out there for them. I had to show them that my words were backed up by my actions. If you make the effort to connect with students, they, their parents, and the community will embrace you in compelling ways (Young, p. 86).

Invest Yourself in the Community:  I also believe firmly that you have to invest yourself in the community. Again, this is important anywhere you teach, but it is especially so in a rural community where relationships are key. I’m learning about 4-H competitions, farming and raising cattle, all the different hunting seasons and related vocabulary, car shows, and so much more. All are important to my students and new experiences for me. Community pride runs deep. It is evident in the outpouring of food for the teachers’ back-to-school luncheon and in any coin or food drive sponsored by the school. The kids that have nothing, and who will probably be the ones to receive the donations, give and give and then give some more. I’ve never met more generous kids. I’ve been invited to my students’ homes and community events for birthdays, dinners, parades, and more (Young, p. 86).

NCTE Discussion:

Mary’s story shows just how integral a teacher’s dispositions are to the classroom experiences of students. Effectiveness in a variety of settings—urban, suburban, and rural—requires teachers to be thoughtful and reflective practitioners who possess a willingness to learn from students, adapt to new cultures, and reinvent themselves and their teaching based on the needs of the students in a given context (Young, p. 87).  

Conversation Article Definitions

*These definitions are directly quoted from the listed websites 

Free or Reduced Lunch: Any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch Program. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reducedprice meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents. (For the period July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, 130 percent of the poverty level is $30,615 for a family of four; 185 percent is $43,568.) (From United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service).

Unspoken Rules: Are behavioral constraints imposed in organizations or societies that are not voiced or written down. They usually exist in unspoken and unwritten format because they form a part of the logical argument or course of action implied by tacit assumptions (From Wikipedia).

Generational Poverty: Having been in poverty for at least two generations; however, the characteristics begin to surface much sooner than two generations if the family lives with others who are from generational poverty (From Conversation as Curriculum article; Carly A. Young).

Formal Register: When an individual speaks or writes in the formal mode, he or she uses Standard American English. Formal register, seen more often in written language than in spoken, is used in the professional realm and when people are not familiar with each other. Formal register and informal register allow the speaker to use a variety of speech styles that can easily be switched to meet the needs of both the speaker and the listener (From University of North Carolina at Pembroke). 

Situational Poverty: Lack of resources due to particular event (i.e., a death, chronic illness, divorce, etc.) (From Conversation as Curriculum article; Carly A. Young).

Discourse: Written or spoken communication or debate (From Google Definitions).