Monday, July 20, 2009

Code-Switching: A Best Practice for ESL Instruction

Anthony Jones

After teaching many ESL students—the majority of whom come from Spanish speaking backgrounds—I’ve begun to believe that code-switching is crucial for their development in an ELA classroom. I came to this conclusion after extensive work with one of my students, Yumary, who was a Dominican immigrant and struggled with the English language. Through informal observations and after-school tutoring, I came to understand the nature of Yumary’s language problems and began to form strategies that could help not only her, but other ESL students in similar positions as herself.

My first breakthrough with Yumary happened the first time I eavesdropped on her conversation with her friends. Immediately, I observed that they were speaking mostly Spanish to one another with a few English phrases mixed in. I knew that Yumary hung out with other Dominican girls—and I assumed that they spoke some Spanish—but I didn’t realize how much of their first language dominated their conversations. Indeed, each time that I overheard her talking with her friends it was by and large in Spanish.

This made sense, given the fact that Yumary was an immigrant whose group of friends were in a similar life situation as her. Judith Baker takes this peer influence into account in her article on Trilingualism (2002). According to Baker, Yumary’s speech with her friends is an example of “home” dialect, a specific language pattern that “recent immigrants often learn from their peers” (Baker, 2002). She also takes into account the mixture of some English into their speech saying that “[the home dialect] for first and second generation immigrants may be a combination of English and their mother tongue” (Baker 2002). In this case, this peer influence helped to form Yumary’s home dialect as heavily Spanish.

However, it was not simply Yumary’s peers who had shaped her home dialect. Clearly, her parents have played a very significant role in that development. As a result, I expected to learn a lot about Yumary by talking to her parents. I wasn’t disappointed, although the results weren’t quite what I had expected. After calling, I discovered that her parents couldn’t speak a word of English. I communicated with them as best I could in my Elementary Spanish, but they didn’t understand anything in English. This helped me reach a very interesting conclusion—Yumary was not using English outside of the classroom. When she was with her friends, she spoke mostly Spanish and when she was with her family she spoke entirely in Spanish. This certainly was hindering her development as an English speaker.

After taking all of this into account, it was clear to me that Yumary had demonstrated her multidialectal nature; that is, she adapted her style of speaking to suit the social situation in which she found herself (Stubbs, 2002). While she spoke English in the classroom, she spoke Spanish everywhere else, and I’m sure that the Spanish she spoke to her friends was much different than the Spanish she spoke to her parents. This also served as evidence of Yumary’s ability to code-switch. She was able to adapt her use of language to a specific situation. However, with the exception of the classroom, most of this code-switching seemed to be taking place in Spanish. Consequently, I could understand why Yumary became so frustrated with English at times. She was not spending enough time practicing and developing her English outside of the classroom. In order for her to “flip the switch” from Spanish to English in my class, it was taking her a frustratingly large amount of energy.

I came to the conclusion that the best way to assist Yumary would be to validate her home dialect while simultaneously strengthening her use of English so that she would experience consistently less cognitive frustration while she attempted to code-switch from Spanish to English. Wheeler and Swords (2006) define this strategy as an approach that allows instructors to “maintain the language of the student’s home community while adding the linguistic tools needed for success in our broader society—the tools of mainstream American English.” I think the key term here is tools because such an approach could give Yumary (and other students like her) the cognitive instruments necessary to communicate in many different ways; in effect, empowering her to succeed in a diverse, language-rich community. As a result, this approach could help students like Yumary “switch between their different language styles—to code-switch, that is—choosing the language variety appropriate to the specific time, place, audience, and communicative purpose” (Wheeler and Swords, 2006).

One strategy that could help accomplish this goal would be to give Yumary many different examples of English—both written and spoken—so as to bolster her experience with the language. This would require a plethora of models, many of which must highlight forms of English not normally seen in the classroom, but still in adherence with the rules of Standard English. In order to decrease Yumary’s anxiety on the subject, much of the work with these models could be done in small groups as opposed to forcing her speak in front of the class. I like Judith Baker’s (2002) suggestion. She says to “demonstrate the types of English you speak by holding a group discussion on whatever topic you like.” However, I would extend this to include topics that the students like as well. My goal would be to stimulate enough interest in the topic so that students would want to discuss it with each other in small groups. At this point, I would be able channel their desire to speak into an English language model that we’ve discussed in class. Consequently, they would be able to practice conversational styles in a low-pressure situation on a high-interest topic. I believe that such practices would benefit the majority of ESL students who struggle with the patterns of Standard English.


Wheeler, R. and Swords, R. (2006). Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. Urbana: NCTE.

Baker, J. (2002). “Trilingualism,” from The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. Eds. Delphit, L. & Dowdy, J. New York: New Press.

Stubbs, M. (2002). “Some Basic Sociolinguistic Concepts,” from The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. Eds. Delphit, L. & Dowdy, J. New York: New Press.

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