Earlier this week, we interviewed Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson about their new book, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. One intriguing section of the book discusses how students from culturally diverse backgrounds can be assisted in developing academic vocabulary. Here we present an excerpt describing how one creative student approached learning SAT vocabulary via rap.



When it comes to preparing students to succeed on high-stakes tests including the SAT, educators may adopt specific pedagogical strategies for increasing students' academic vocabularies. Having students make flashcards is not the only way for educators to increase students' academic vocabularies. Such exercises may be beneficial in some ways but may become monotonous or boring to students over time, and these techniques may have little value or relevance to students' lives outside of test preparation. Instead, students may be challenged to learn academic vocabulary items, including so-called SAT words, through more creative methods. At one tutoring center in Baltimore, Maryland, an African American male high school student named Dameon (a pseudonym) who was preparing for the SAT chose the following nine words from a list of SAT vocabulary items: flippant, fiasco, fictitious, fledgling, fidelity, festive, frigid, frenzied, and furtive. The tutor asked Dameon to look up each word in a dictionary and write a short definition for each. Then the tutor asked Dameon to practice the definitions either by making flashcards or by writing a poem or rap, in any writing style that felt comfortable to him, that incorporated each vocabulary word in a way that made sense and revealed the meaning of the word in context. Dameon wrote the following rap.

Dese dudes out dere trippin, thinking I'm flippant,
But I'm dead serious, and dey mad fictitious.
Da boy got integrity and outstanding fidelity,
Not a single felony, da feds can't mess wit me.
Most rappers timid, my flow is so frigid,
Datz intensively cold for you dudes dat's illiterate.
U gotta commend me, cuz I leave the crowd frenzied
While dese furtive rappers still tryna befriend me.
Don't think I'm getting beat and not get avenging,
Dese boys take a loss cuz dey all so fledgling.
Da boy flow is heavy, can't weigh it in mass though,
Dese dudes give up quick and dey suffer a fiasco.
I wasn't too festive when I settled for less
Now that I'm on top I can settle as best.

As can be seen, Dameon produced a rap that is personally relevant, is coherent in its content, and accurately employs each of the nine vocabulary items. Context clues in the rap reveal that Dameon has a clear understanding of each word, and in one line he even included a definition for the listener ("...my flow is so frigid/Datz intensively cold for you dudes dat's illiterate"). The rap contains numerous features of African American English, such as the absence of helping or linking forms of be ("Most rappers timid" for "Most rappers are timid") and the absence of possessive -s ("Da boy flow" for "Da boy's flow"). Dameon also represents some nonstandardized pronunciations with nonstandardized spellings (e.g., the use of d for the th sound, as in "Dese boys" for "These boys"), which lend a specific linguistic style to the rap.

From beginning to end, the assignment took Dameon only 45 minutes, and composing the rap itself took him less than half an hour. On most written assignments, Dameon tends to work much more slowly, but on this task, Dameon may have felt the freedom to compose his rap more quickly because he did not have to simultaneously focus on creative expression and on adhering to the spelling and grammar conventions of standardized English. Dameon enthusiastically agreed to have his rap published in this book, stating that he wanted other students to benefit from this technique for learning difficult vocabulary items. Weeks later, Dameon showed a continued facility with these words, employing them in other situations without having been prompted.

At the tutoring center, students are also engaged in writing poetry and fiction in ways that encourage them to develop their academic vocabulary while also writing in ways that feel comfortable to them. Similar techniques as well as follow-up exercises may be used: After students have written raps, poems, or fiction in a writing style that feels comfortable to them, educators may ask students to rewrite those texts in ways that adhere to the conventions of standardized English. These types of exercises help students develop their linguistic versatility. They may also help students improve their performance on standardized tests, such as the SAT. Hill (2009) found that when hip-hop was incorporated into a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, high school literature classroom, student attendance and test performance rose. Other scholars (e.g., Alim, Ibrahim, & Pennycook, 2008; Ball & Lardner, 2005) have described the global impact of hip-hop culture in pedagogy as well.

Used with permission from the publisher. From Charity Hudley & Mallinson, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools, New York: Teachers College Press, © 2011 by Teachers College, Columbia University.  All rights reserved. To order copies visit www.tcpress.com or call (800) 575-6566.