Sociolinguistics Code-Switching


Journal: National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)* 

Article Title: Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom

Authors: Rebecca S. Wheeler, Rachel Swords 


*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.


Codeswitching and contrastive analysis are tools of language and culture that can transform literacy instruction (Wheeler, Swords, p. 470). Our core point remains: Language is structured. Its structure varies by circumstance. But to perceive this, we must let go of blinding conventional assumptions.  Only then can we build upon the strengths of the language each child brings to school (Wheeler, Swords, p. 474).


Teachers can draw upon the language strengths of urban learners to help student’s codeswitch- choose the language variety appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose (Wheeler, Swords, p. 471). 

D) Focus:  The motivation for this article lies in our desire to bring the insights of 20th century linguistics to bear on the achievement gap, the “devastating rates at which schools fail African American students” (Rickford, 1999, p. 22) (Wheeler, Swords, p. 471).  The question of why African American students struggle revolves around issues of language and culture, poverty, distribution of goods and resources, the physical condition of school buildings, the training of teachers in urban schools, and ethnic and linguistic bias in standardized test, just to name a few factors.  While all these issues need to be addressed, we focus here on approaches to language and culture in the linguistically diverse urban classroom (Wheeler, Swords, p. 472).

Conceptual Framework

With contrastive analysis, we move to break the cycle.  Techniques of contrastive analysis also offer students tangible help in interpreting standardized test questions (Wheeler, Swords, p. 477).


Instead of seeking to correct or eradicate styles of language, we may add language varieties to the child’s linguistic toolbox, bringing a pluralistic vantage to language in the classroom (Gilyard, 1991; McWhorter, 1998). Such an approach allows us to maintain the language of the student’s home community (CCCC, 1974), while adding the linguistic tools needed for success in our broader society— Mainstream American English (Wheeler, Swords, p. 473).


Classroom results reported from Chicago and Georgia were particularly revealing. In Chicago, Taylor (1991) studied student performance across two kinds of college writing classrooms. With one group, she used the traditional English techniques while in the other classroom; she led her students in explicit discovery by contrasting the grammatical patterns of AAVE and SE. The control group, using the correctionist model, showed an 8.5% increase in African American features in their writing after 11 weeks, but the experimental group, using a technique called contrastive analysis, showed a remarkable 59.3% decrease in African American vernacular features. Taylor observed that students had been neither aware of their dialect nor of “grammatical black English features that interfere in their writing” (p. 150). By contrasting the language varieties, students were able to learn the detailed differences between the two, thereby “limit[ing] AAVE intrusions into their SE usage” (Rickford, 1997, p. 4) (Wheeler, Swords, p. 474).

The same kind of approach was also implemented by teachers in DeKalb County, Georgia, who helped young speakers of minority dialects explicitly contrast their mother tongue with the standard dialect. Thus, when a fifth grader answered a question with a double negative (“not no more”), the teacher prompted the student to “codeswitch,” to which the student replied, “not any more.” The children learned to switch from their home speech to school speech at appropriate times and places, and to recognize that “the dialect they might use at home is valuable and ‘effective’ in that setting, but not for school, for work—or for American democracy” (Cumming, 1997, p. B1). This program has been designated a “center of excellence” by the National Council of Teachers of English (Wheeler, Swords, p. 474).


A 3rd grade elementary school teacher discusses in this article how implementing codeswitching in her classroom helped promote student success.  Rebecca discusses the first notion students needed was that language varies (among other things) by formality of situation.  Rebecca discusses how her students were able to use their own prior knowledge to define formal and informal language (Wheeler, Swords, p. 475).

A Teachers Perspective (Rebecca): I implicitly (and later explicitly) suggested that we might move not only from vernacular to standard, but also from standard to vernacular. Such even-handedness between varieties is crucial.  I talked to the students about how I change my language setting-by-setting and told them that when I make these language choices, I am codeswitching. To codeswitch is to choose the pattern of language appropriate to the context. This is what I want my students to be able to do—choose the language form appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose (Ezarik, 2002). I use a classroom technique called contrastive analysis to support children in learning how to codeswitch between informal and formal language patterns (Wheeler, Swords, p. 475).

Codeswitching Article Definitions

*These definitions are directly quoted from the listed websites 

Contrastive Analysis (also known as Contrastive Linguistics): Describes the structural differences and similarities of two or more languages or dialects (From Blackwell Reference Online). 


(1) A situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

(2) The belief that people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., should live together in a society (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 

Dialect: A form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations (From Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Language Variety: Linguists commonly use language variety (or simply variety) as a cover term for any of the overlapping subcategories of a language, including dialect, idiolect, register, and social dialect (From About Education).

Formal Language: Is language used in situations that are serious or that involve people we don’t know well. Formal language is more common when we write (From Cambridge Dictionaries Online). 

Informal Language: Informal language is more commonly used in situations that are more relaxed and involve people we know well. Informal language is more common when we speak. Contractions, relative clauses without a relative pronoun and ellipsis are more common in informal language (From Cambridge Dictionaries Online).