Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Language and Education

pp 3287-3300

Variationist Approaches to Language and Education

  • Kirk HazenAffiliated withWest Virginia University, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences


For over four decades, variationists have investigated the social dilemmas of language and education. This effort is based on the study of language variation, with language variation being a cover term for both synchronic and diachronic variation (variation in space and over time). Since language variation is a daily presence in the classroom, many proactive efforts of variationists have focused on how educational policies and practitioners handle language variation.

Variationist sociolinguistics can be seen as both a subtype of sociolinguistics and linguistics: This work is exemplified by The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Chambers, Trudgill, and Schilling‐Estes, 2002). As linguists, variationists work from the findings of cognitive science to construct explanations for language variation both in the speech community and in the mind. The extraordinary trait of variationists‐cum‐linguists is the inclusion of social factors as well as linguistic factors in their explanations.

From their scholarship, variationists argue against two “common sense” beliefs about language: the concept of the homogenous correct form and the reification of language (e.g., English). Over recent decades, educational professionals 1 have begun to transition from an assumption of language having only one correct/incorrect form to an assumption of language having multiple, linguistically legitimate forms. Second, treating a “Standard English” as a single, coherent entity is an empirical mistake (Bex and Watts, 1999; Milroy and Milroy, 1999). Standard English is defined synchronically and diachronically by shifting social standards. There are standard Englishes throughout the world, but there is no one “Standard English.”

This article covers some early developments of language variation and education, some major contributions, prescriptivist views and variationist approaches, and a conclusion of the challenges for researching this topic.

Preliminary Developments

The pervasive question across both public and scholarly debate concerns what role nonstandard language should play in institutional education: Should vernacular language be encouraged, allowed, or discouraged in the classroom? Through 1960s and 1970s, sociolinguists sided with two different approaches to language variation and education. The first is the dialect rights position (see Wolfram, Adger, and Christian, 1999, p. 115), which maintains that students have a right to their own language. The second approach involves the so‐called additive dialect methods, where standard language features are supposedly taught to vernacular speakers (rarely are vernacular features taught to nonvernacular speakers).

The difficulty with this second approach is twofold: it often conflates a community's language variation patterns with written genre conventions of traditional prescriptive grammar (e.g., treating need + past participle in The sentence needs fixed on a par with semicolons or capitalization). In addition, it is assumed speakers can “pick up” a second dialect. Successful students in such programs should be able to control different registers and genres, primarily writing conventions. For variationists, dialect is a label for a set of language variation patterns associated with a social group, including everything from vowels to syntactic patterns. For educational professionals, the term dialect most often refers to only stigmatized features. From a variationist perspective, humans do not have the ability to develop two separate dialects (in the variationist sense) (Hazen, 2001; Labov, 1998), but certainly all humans have different styles which may reflect different ethnic and social sources (cf. Sledd, 1969).

A single source to begin exploring such variationist work would be Wolfram, Adger, and Christian ( 1999). A complimentary book with a variationist understanding is Adger, Snow, and Christian ( 2002), What Teachers Need to Know About Language. For a reference source, the Rickford, Sweetland, and Rickford ( 2004) bibliography should be a touchstone. For a general source on language stigmatization in English, readers should consult English with an Accent (Lippi‐Green, 1997).

Major Contributions

Modern variationist methodologies (e.g., Chambers, Trudgill, and Schilling‐Estes, 2002) were developed from dialectology (the study of the geographic distribution of language variation), and many variationists also shared the dialectologists’ interests in education. One prominent dialectologist, McDavid ( 1962), recognized the importance of knowledge of language variation for teachers and discusses how knowledge of dialect variation could assist the teacher and student in their educational goals.

Key Positions

Numerous points of this early period have continued relevance. For example, Stewart ( 1964, p. 1) cited the “increase in realism” as the most fundamental change in language teaching, whereby he means “simply the view of language as it is rather than as it ought to be, and of the learner's need for it as a personally useful tool of social interaction rather than as a rottenly learned device of principally esthetic value.” One technique also suggested by dialectologists and variationists was a second‐language approach for African‐American Vernacular English 2 (AAVE) speakers. This pedagogy was also being examined with creoles. Craig ( 1966), for instance, described the foreign‐language‐like teaching techniques used for speakers of Jamaican Creole.

At this time, the works of variationists were often in stark and contentious opposition to the educational researchers. Baratz ( 1969) is an important article summarizing three possible stances. The third approach, the one Baratz champions, is the modern approach of variationists since the late 1960s: AAVE is a dialect of English like any other dialect of English. Baratz ( 1969) found that African‐American children in Washington, DC, did significantly better at accurately repeating AAVE sentences, and European‐American children were significantly better at accurately repeating nonstigmatized sentences. The implications from this article affected both language variation study in speech pathology and in other educational fields: The dialect of the community has to be evaluated on its own terms. Other countries have gone through similar shifts in public opinion. Dalphinis ( 2001, p. 701) described how the UK went through stages of eradicationism, assimilation, tolerance, and acceptance in regard to Black English. These stages result from increased knowledge about language variation and its role in stigmatization.

Continuing Baratz's momentum, Fasold and Shuy ( 1970) edited a volume still valuable for researchers today: Wolfram's (1970) contribution in that volume lays out the basics of variationist research for educational professionals and argues forcefully for granting priority to some teaching goals over others, such as focusing on the most stereotyped features and those which are sharply stratified between social classes. Complementarily, Shuy's (1970) contribution cites deprecating quotes from teachers about AAVE and suggests teachers learn about how English varieties work, especially the minority varieties.

Perhaps the most widely known text from this early period of variationist work is Labov's “The Logic of Nonstandard English” (Labov, 1969), which has both educational and social implications. Claiming that vernacular dialects are legitimate is often seen as ludicrous by the general public, but for variationist approaches to be effective, this argument must be faced directly.

Nonstandard Dialects and Literacy

Beyond scholars’ engagement with spoken language practice, some saw implications for literacy. Labov ( 1967) discusses the possible interference between students’ development of literacy and their dialect, and in (2001) argues that textbook writers and many teachers do not understand enough about the target vernacular varieties to produce truly helpful exercises. For example, in Labov ( 1967, pp. 157–162), the regular past tense form <‐ed> is noted to be absent often in AAVE, yet this language‐variation pattern received little to no attention from publishers of educational materials.

As with Labov's work, most of the foundational work by variationists applied to urban US settings. Carrying these findings to new regions, Nichols (1977, p. 155) in turn focuses on the US Southern rural schools: “The reading teacher must be thoroughly familiar with the major phonological and syntactic patterns used by the children in order to determine when a child reading aloud is making the right associations between meaning and the printed symbol.” Nichols also suggests that for some vernacular‐speaking populations, employing the local vernacular in the classroom for both writing and reading yields results in developing literacy. In a different language context which also requires local modification to educational materials, that of Guyana and Barbados, Tyndall ( 2000) posits that rural speakers are practically acquiring a second language when learning to write as their varieties are more basilectal than more urban speakers.

Creoles have been a focus of several studies. For example, Carrington ( 1976) discusses the wide diversity of Creoles with different lexifier languages and the subsequent effects on education in the Caribbean territories. He also discusses the proscription of vernacular varieties and prohibitive attitudes toward nonofficial languages, providing guidelines for determining relationships between vernacular varieties and school policies.

In 1979, a legal case involving variationists became widely publicized. This case centered on African‐American elementary students in Ann Arbor, Michigan who were segregated into special education classes. Advocates for the students argued that their civil rights were being violated as their cultural and linguistic background was not accounted for in planning instruction. The ruling reaffirmed the school's obligation to accommodate their language variation (see Smitherman, 1981, 2000, p. 154). Relatedly, Stockman and Vaughn‐Cooke ( 1982) review the deficit research of the 1960s and highlight its lasting influence. By the 1990s, the deficit approach was no longer an overt position for educators, and variationists had correspondingly shifted their focus away from proving minority varieties were not linguistically deficient. Following on this transition, Foster ( 1992) focuses on the effects of students having a different communicative competence than the one expected. Though Foster praises the researchers for overturning previous educational views, she criticizes the field for not thoroughly applying the findings to solid and transportable pedagogy for literacy.

At the end of 1996, the foundational issues of the difference/deficit debate roared back onto the international stage when the Oakland California School Board took steps to assist their African‐American students, many of whom were performing poorly in school. Their approach was to bring students to full literacy by introducing the written word in the style and form of AAE (see Rickford and Rickford, 1995). For a full account of the firestorm surrounding the Oakland School Board's activities, readers should consult Rickford and Rickford's Spoken Soul ( 2000), Green ( 2002), and Rickford ( 1999).

Similarly, in response to the social furor that eliminated bilingual education in California in 1998, students and professors developed the anthology Tongue Tied (Santa Ana, 2004). Variationist approaches are found throughout the volume in application to numerous multilingual situations. For both the Ebonics debates and multilingualism, a safe prediction is that such media‐sponsored uproars will occur in the future.

Although these situations are the most widely publicized, the status of the nonstandard variety is not always stigmatized. For instance, Norway has two written standards, bokmål and nynorsk, both based on Norwegian speech. Vikør ( 1989, p. 42) reports that, “forced speech standardization is forbidden by law.” This institutional respect for language variation has a long tradition dating back to a parliamentary motion in 1878. The underlying belief is that regional dialects reflect Norwegian cultural tradition uncontaminated by Danish rule. The import for the educational researcher is that stigmatization of nonstandard varieties does not have to be accepted or institutionalized.

As an introduction to variationist insights on literacy and education in European school systems, Cheshire, Edwards, Münstermann, and Weltens ( 1989) provides national perspectives, a review of the literature from 1970 to 1989, and classroom initiatives. For example, Weltens and Sonderen ( 1989) investigate nonstandard Dutch in school settings: Through examining language tests and both teacher and student questionnaires, they find that these speakers are at a disadvantage in comparison with their standard‐speaking peers. Researchers in Europe have given clear descriptions of the attitudes surrounding more and less standard varieties. Van de Craen and Humblet ( 1989, p. 19) conclude that the standard Dutch in Belgium has “enormous prestige” which covers both the realms of friendliness and intelligence.

Arguments for Non‐Intervention

Complementary to these debates of vernacular dialect in schools, Cheshire ( 2005, p. 2346) argues from a survey of recent literature that nonstandard varieties are not as “detrimental to educational success as might be thought.” Several studies illustrate this point. Williams ( 1989) found that both standard and nonstandard speakers used colloquial forms in their writing. Williams illustrated the importance of analyzing written work and disambiguating which issues result from normal literacy development processes and which from vernacular interference. In St. Lucia, Winch and Gingell (1994) also argued that such developmental difficulties were being wrongly labeled as stigmatized variation interference from local creoles. Abd‐Kadir, Hardman, and Blaize ( 2003) report the same findings in the commonwealth of Dominica for 55 students whose writing was sampled.

In analyzing three areas of England, Williamson and Hardman ( 1997a, p. 255) advise teachers not to concern themselves with problems of prescriptive grammar and lexical items, but to focus on punctuation and orthography. In their study, vernacular forms were rare compared with spelling and punctuation mistakes. This comparison is even true when the students’ spoken language contained more vernacular features (cf. Hudson and Holmes, 1995). For researchers intent on giving teachers some grammatical focus, Williamson and Hardman ( 1997b, p. 168) suggest nonstandard verb forms, as they constituted more than half of the nonstandard written forms in their samples.

Classroom Solutions

Although variationists have identified related problems in educational practice, they have received criticism for not producing solutions. This section discusses some of the potential solutions variationists have discussed.

Ranging from the study of names, regional variation, shibboleths such as ain't, and vernacular varieties in the composition classroom, Glowka and Lance ( 1993), like Fasold and Shuy ( 1970), provide opportunities for teachers to learn how to incorporate language variation into a classroom. Of special note, in “Bilingualism and language variation among Chicanos in the Southwest,” Galindo emphasizes that Chicano English is an increasingly important part of North American English and should be addressed throughout the nation (see Fought, 2002 for further discussion of Chicano English).

Rickford and Rickford ( 1995) is a modern discussion of the role dialect readers can play and the benefits they provide. The other important text from this period is Labov ( 1995), where he proposes five principles which require educational professionals to understand the language variation patterns of AAVE. Perhaps the two most important principles are (1) Teachers should distinguish between mistakes in reading and differences in pronunciation and (2) Give more attention to the ends of words. All of Labov's principles are based on both classroom research and extensive linguistic study of vernacular varieties.

Shifting the focus to an understudied spectrum of language, Hoyle and Adger ( 1998) emphasize discourse analysis for older children. For this reason, understanding the communicative competence of different students should bolster their opportunities to be active agents in their education. Three complementary works are Denham and Lobeck ( 2005), Wheeler ( 1999), and Wheeler and Swords ( 2006). These works justify modern grammar study and encompass several different linguistic approaches. They include sections on classroom methodology and linguistic influences on writing. Similarly, Baugh ( 1999) investigates what has not worked, “educational malpractice,” and motivational strategies for literacy. One strategy is the Lyric Shuffle set of literacy games which tie oral skills to emerging literacy skills such as phonological awareness.

Focusing on pidgins and creoles, Siegel ( 2001) develops categories of programs and evaluates their qualities. His categories of programs—instrumental, accommodation, awareness—incorporate pidgins and creoles to different extents. He further notes that research on instrumental programs, where the home variety is used as the main medium of instruction, in Australia and the Seychelles “has shown that students educated bilingually in their creole mother tongue and the standard outperformed students educated in only the standard language” (2001, p. 748). Siegel attributes the positive benefits of these and other studies to both educational logistics (e.g., students find it easier to develop literacy in familiar varieties first) and to the more positive attitudes such programs engender.

Educational researchers have also adopted variationist approaches to develop solutions to pedagogical problems. For example, Craig and Washington ( 2004, p. 228) address long‐standing variationist questions: The general consensus of researchers is that AAE speakers do not have reading comprehension troubles related to their dialect (2004, p. 237) and that no single language variation pattern will explain the black‐white achievement gap, especially in terms of literacy (2004, p. 240).

A caveat to such research is that variationists may find educational analysis of language variation differently minded in its linguistic description. For example, Craig and Washington ( 2004, Table 11.1) include several phonologically influenced language variation patterns in their morphosyntactic characteristics of child AAE (e.g., a, an indefinite article variation/absence; copula absence; auxiliary verb absence; past tense ‐ed absence). Some traits listed as phonologically AAVE are normal for almost all US English speakers, such as unstressed syllable deletion (e.g., ‘cause for because).

Teachers and Teachers' Attitudes

Several variationist researchers have evaluated teachers’ attitudes toward vernacular speakers, including Winford's ( 1976) investigation of teacher attitudes toward a creole community. Blake and Cutler ( 2003) report findings from a survey of New York City teachers from five high schools. Part of their findings (2003, Figure 6) are that positive responses to the statement that AAVE has its own rules range from 78% to 30%. From surveys in the 1970s, Blake and Cutler surmise that teachers have a generally more positive attitude about AAVE and minority dialects. Student attitudes were also studied by Horner ( 2001): A strong correlation existed between students’ academic success and their Caribbean‐American identity. In addition, Haig and Oliver ( 2003) report for Australia that teachers’ assessments of educational problems and their causes varies by the socioeconomic status and grade level of the students.

Teacher and student attitudes are considered the fulcrum of disadvantages for vernacular speakers by Barbour and Stevenson in their study of German variation. They (1990, p. 191) find that German‐speaking Swiss schools, where traditional dialects are normal, do not note educational dialect problems; only those German schools where vernacular and nonvernacular speakers interact report such issues: “… this strongly suggests that the problem is overwhelmingly one of social attitudes, rather than of the linguistic characteristics of non‐standard German.” Correspondingly, Cheshire and Trudgill (1989, p. 106) write: “The greatest dialect‐related problems in the United Kingdom … continue to be the attitudes and prejudices that many people hold towards non‐standard dialects and accents of English, combined with the lack of understanding about the nature of dialect differences and of their social significance.” As a complement to this view, Cameron ( 1995) provides a reexamination of linguists’ descriptivist stance in relation to education and details educational reforms in the UK.

Rampton ( 2006) presents a contrastive scene in English schools. In responding to the work of Trudgill in the 1970s which propagated the idea of respecting nonstandard dialects, Rampton argues ( 2006, p. 318) that the same dialect prejudices do not persist in the new century and that the nonstandard‐speaking students may not be as linguistically insecure as previously thought.

In a study of similarly potential conflict, Pauwels and Winter ( 2006) explore one dilemma for teachers: They must both persist as “guardians of grammar” and as “agents of social language reform” and may run up against thorny issues such as third person singular generic pronouns in English. They find that younger teachers implement nonsexist pronouns rather than perpetuating the grammatical tradition of “generic” he. Importantly, attitudes for students and teachers have to be a recognized part of the curriculum. Cheshire ( 2005, p. 2349) writes: “The research indicates, then, that educational programmes that recognise the associations that standard and nonstandard English have for speakers, and that build on these, are more likely to result in children becoming proficient in using standard English than are policies which assume that acquiring the standard language is simply a matter of substituting one variant for another.”

Beyond attitudes, the current research methodology now includes a direct assessment of students’ language abilities. Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin ( 2004) quantitatively assess the frequency of standard variants in specified tasks. They distinguish AAVE and school English by degree of features, not categorical presence or absence. Their scholarly stance includes the position that the level of AAVE language variation patterns is not the important factor in predicting reading failure, but that the familiarity with school English (SE) is the crucial factor. They write: “… how often the SE forms are reproduced, was thus chosen as our measure of children's familiarity with SE.” Charity, Scarborough, and Griffin ( 2004, p. 1354) find that “individual differences in familiarity with [school English] are strongly related to reading achievement in young, African‐American students.” Their study inverts the reading conundrum by focusing on knowledge of school English.

Around the world and in the USA, the future of variationist research into language and education is bright. Although educational concerns were secondary to variationists in the past, the newest generation of variationists is making them a primary focus. Three dissertations focusing on different components are recently completed. Charity ( 2005) reports findings from the study of dialect variation of African‐American children in school settings. Sweetland ( 2006) discusses the study of the development and implementation of language variation teacher training programs. Reaser ( 2006) examines dialect awareness programs and their effects on teachers’ and students’ attitudes about language variation. All three of these dissertations should provide substantial benefits for educational professionals.

Works in Progress: Variationist Views and Prescriptivist Traditions

For educational professionals to confidently adopt a modern view of language variation, they should understand how it contrasts with traditional prescriptivism and how it can further their own pedagogical goals.

Common beliefs about language are undergirded by several modern myths: the primary myth is that a supremely correct form exists for all contexts and times; in previous centuries, this belief extended to the superiority of some languages, for example Latin, over other languages. Today, Western societies are currently in transition from a traditional belief to a scientific belief.

Two signs of this transformation have become obvious to linguists who deal with public opinion: People more readily accept that no one language is inherently superior and that language change is not decay. Were the other tenets of variationists’ findings to be taken up, such as the legitimacy of language variation, then the educational goals of literacy and writing would be accomplished more completely and efficiently.

The traditional prescriptivist view does not allow any kind of legitimate language variation, even though its current social rules for English were formulated mostly in the eighteenth century. Many prescriptivist doctrines of today were established in that early period, often in erroneous but well‐intentioned comparisons between English and Latin: Do not split infinitives (e.g., to boldly go); Do not strand prepositions (e.g., We have much to be thankful for).

The challenge for educational researchers is to demonstrate that traditional prescriptivist approaches are less effective and efficient at achieving institutional goals. Fine‐grained, quantitative examinations of pedagogy would provide evidence for which basic assumptions about language produce the best results. Within students’ written and spoken language variation is a wealth of learning opportunities (Hazen, 2005); if educational researchers can construct an accurate model of what students do when they complete institutional goals, the modern view of language variation would be seen as an integral part of that process.

The variationist educational goals are to help people understand the natural linguistic equality of all languages and help them establish teaching tactics that incorporate a scientifically sound view of language. The new assumption for educational purposes must eschew several components of traditional prescriptivism. This scientifically informed prescriptivism allows teachers to encourage literacy at all levels while accurately portraying language. Prescriptivism with an assumption of rhetorically focused language will be more successful for students and teachers alike because of its harmony with the true nature of language.

Conclusion: Challenges and Future Directions

For over 40 years, variationists have contributed to language education research and practice. Variationists will likely continue to play an important role in the development of language education policies and programs surrounding non‐standard dialects in education. Variationist researchers have learned over this time about attitudes and stigmatized varieties. In the next 40 years, they should inquire about the best methods for shifting attitudes to a proper understanding of language variation. The most general results of the variationist approach to language and education should be a better understanding of language use in society and thus students’ increased awareness of their own language variation.

One crucial component is to work with teachers to develop materials which reflect a modern, scientific view of language. Understanding of how language works, including its social intricacies, makes the teaching of standard codes less of a social hand grenade, increasing both the efficiency and effectiveness of the teaching. When language variation is properly respected, students are less opposed to institutional language and the social connotations of it.


Educational professionals signifies anybody employed by a school system who influences children's education, including teachers, teachers' aides, librarians, principals, or system-wide administrators.


Most variationists consider the terms African-American English (AAE) and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to designate different sets of language. AAE would be any language (from rhetorical styles through syntax all the way to intonation) used by African Americans. AAVE would be a subset of AAE which contains the stigmatized items (e.g., habitual “be”, theta to “f” in the US North). However, AAVE features may be adopted by other ethnicities. It is not clear within the original documents cited in this article that all researchers adopt this distinction.


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