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Radical Eyes for Equity: Correcting Course on Correctness in English/ELA

My granddaughter is six, in the first grade, and currently in the throes of learning to read—as commanded by formal schooling. Recently, she has shown some of those typical bursts of improvement I have witnessed in learning by young children; those moments give meaning to the word “marvelous.”

In an effort to inject some joy into my granddaughter’s reading journey, I have given her some comic books (a medium that was central to my own journey to being a voracious reader and writer). I was concerned that the text and format of a comic book would be beyond her, but she loves to make her own books, which are heavily picture-oriented to tell stories, so I thought even if she couldn’t read comic books, they would be very appealing to her own hobby.

But what surprised me was when she picked up a graphic novel of Marvel’s Spider-Gwen, she immediately began reading quite well—until she hit very commonly used wording and words that aren’t served well by structured phonics; she stubbled as “gonna” and “wanna,” but was really thrown by “MJ” as the way characters refer to Mary Jane Watson.

Having been taught formally how to read in an environment grounded in correctness, my granddaughter stumbles over the far more prevalent language usage in the real world.

This tension is represented well by the fate of the pronoun “they” (and its forms); “they” for centuries has served in the real-world of speaking English as a gender-neutral singular pronoun even as so-called standard English has persisted in tossing that usage into the “incorrect” bin (although this nonsense is finally losing momentum in formal formats).

For more than a century, the field of English/ELA has resisted real-world language usage and awareness and preferred training children in language acquisition through systems of correctness (phonics rules and grammar rules). Teaching that is grounded in rules and correctness appears to be easier because that approach contributes to control and simplistic forms of assessment and grading, but approaching language through correctness is a dis-service to children and language.

Even though there are increasingly important calls for de-emphasizing correctness in English/ELA, such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)’s call for Black linguistic justice, those of us who teach reading, literature, or writing face an incredibly complex paradox—the challenge of fostering in students a healthy and valid view of language while also raising their awareness of the politics of language (that dialects such as so-called standard English, for example, do carry political weight in the real world even though it shouldn’t).

Boland and Queen address the tyranny of correctness in the real world in their Why grammar mistakes in a short email could make some people judge you. Here they investigate why “readers judged strangers harshly simply because of writing errors”—themselves using language of “correctness” (“errors”).

Every semester when I once again address issues surround formatting (citation styles, submitting assignments), I must confront the tyranny of correctness in terms of not wanting to perpetuate the unhealthy culture of correctness while also wanting my students to be aware of the power of correctness so that they have power over their language use instead of being victims of the “error hunt.”

Here, then, are some of the ever-evolving ways I am trying to navigate the tensions in teaching language against the tyranny of correctness:

  • De-grade correctness and formatting related to language. Removing grades and punishment allows a teacher still to address language use and shifts the focus to editing and away from correcting.
  • Change the language we use about language. I avoid “correct/incorrect,” “right/wrong,” and any reference to “fixing” or “correcting” when I mean “revising” or “editing.”
  • Use minimum expectations that move issues of correctness and formatting outside the more substantive elements of language usage. I often have students submit early drafts to address formatting (such as the working references list for a cited essay) well before submitting the essay for my feedback.
  • Examine all dialects and forms of language as powerful and complex language while also interrogating the politics of dialects, including that “standard English” exists and why it exists. Student awareness about the growing debate to de-center standard English is the least we can do in English/ELA on the path to actually de-centering it.
  • Foster a culture of purposefulness instead of a culture of rules. When we examine, for example, the arcane formatting guidelines involved in formal citation, I try to emphasize not that this or that format is “right,” but that formal writing needs to exhibit purposefulness by the writer as part of their credibility and authority. A submitted essay with two or three fonts and font sizes appears careless, for example, and diminishes the reader’s trust in the purposefulness of the writer.
  • Shift all explorations of language to discovery instead of complying with correctness. This, as I noted about my ploy with my granddaughter, is about the joy and wonder of language usage. Once we set aside corrupted and debasing beliefs about “good” or “bad” language (especially that one dialect is more or less rich than another), we allow students to engage with all language in healthy and complex ways.

I became a reader and writer very heavily influenced by collecting and reading comic books, where the text is not simply formatted on the page and where artwork provides a substantial percentage of the textual meaning. My granddaughter has been zipping through reading aloud from children’s books or her homework worksheets (often designed to match the culture of correctness). But comic books and even signage have proven that correctness falters in the real world.

For far too long English/ELA classes and teachers have been associated with a hostility toward language (and students) because of a culture of correctness; our fields have also been too often disengaged with the real world, where WandaVision is more compelling than Shakespeare.

If we love language and our students, we must correct course on correctness in English/ELA.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...