The Space Between Y’all and You All: Codeswitching in Appalachian Environments

I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply rooted in my soul. I like to think I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it because I might find it and have to leave. 

-Breece Pancake


Breece Pancake was a native Appalachian writer that was born and raised in Cabell County, West Virginia. In the time before his tragic death, Pancake was pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Virginia; while his professors and co-workers at the college didn’t understand the importance of West Virginia as place and dialect, Pancake saw success with his fiction short stories for that exact reason. Mainstream American literature enjoyed Pancake’s use of Midland dialect within Appalachian English, and as a native Appalachian with numerous similarities to Pancake, I’ve always enjoyed the representation of our shared dialect that he presented.

Like Pancake, I’m also a native Appalachian writer, born and raised in Cabell County. Since Cabell County is one of the wealthier counties within West Virginia, it also has more middle class families that weren’t originally from here, and as someone who came from family lines in this area that dates back to before West Virginia even became a state, I had a childhood that focused more on a traditional Appalachian upbringing. This happened to clash with those wealthier newcomers, and between my peers and the teachers strictly discouraging my use of dialect, I eventually came to make it less noticeable in my speech. As I grew older, I sorely regretted that decision as a part of me was in my accent, and I’ve never fully been able to recover that.

There has always been the expectation in academia that dialects should be exchanged for the use of Standard American English (SAE), and while that argument holds up for presentations and academic essays, it’s ultimately harmful for students to essentially erase part of their identity and give up their home dialect even in casual speech. This applies to those students speaking Appalachian English even more as traditional Appalachian culture in West Virginia is slowly dying out; when a dialect is already fleeting, academia should do more to encourage the use of dialect outside of occasions where formal SAE is needed. Codeswitching, a term that originally came about through the use of bilingual people switching between languages, may be a way to productively and effectively bridge the gap between AE and SAE. So, can codeswitching apply to a dialectal setting rather than a multilingual one? What would be the best way to introduce codeswitching into a session without taking up much of the already limited time, and how can codeswitching equal the playing field between teachers and students for better engagement and retention of session knowledge?


What is codeswitching?

Codeswitching is a term for when a person is switching between multiple languages, or language variants (Wheeler & Swords). In the case of this research, the language variants that will be focused on are Appalachian English (AE) and Standard American English (SAE), although African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) will be touched on as well as studies conducted on this dialect can be applicable to codeswitching with AE. Codeswitching is seen as an alternative to cultural erasure as it allows students to learn and practice SAE without giving up their home dialect, and therefore part of their cultural identity (McConnell; Reaser).


Contextualizing the issue

Appalachia is seeing a decline in population and the age gap is widening, especially in West Virginia. The state often finds itself ridiculed and othered by the rest of the country, even when those people are also residing in the state. Many teachers that come from out of state find the common use of AE as something that needs to be replaced entirely with SAE, despite being in Appalachia themselves (McConnell). SAE used to be taught as the standard of a dialect, but shifted over into the standard of speech used by the powerful and rich; by imposing these strict standards on dialectal speakers, we rob them of their voices and further disenfranchise them (Lyman & Figgins). As Jeffery Reaser notes in his essay, grammatical deviations from SAE carries the highest social tax against dialectal speakers.

Students are pushed to lose their authentic voices and instead continually speak in SAE. For this purpose, the authentic voice is being defined as it is in creative writing: a student’s authentic voice is the one that most reflects who an author is and what identity they embrace; it most often becomes a style associated with the writer that invokes their own presence.

Although most academic assignments are in SAE, even a twinge of home dialect can make a student more comfortable and secure in their voice. By restricting, or pushing, that away from them in education, it can make them less likely to feel like they’re adept enough to go on (Crotteau; Blackburn & Stern). The use of codeswitching is a way to encourage students to both use and retain SAE, while still allowing them to casually use AE, encouraging students to become more aware of the types of registers and occasions where this shift may need to occur. Additionally, it has been found that using the home dialect to teach SAE has positive effects on students, their confidence in writing, and in their performance (Clark; Crotteau; Mettille; Yiakoumetti).


Evaluating the environment

One argument against codeswitching is that students won’t understand how to properly navigate the use of two language variants. According to Amy D. Clark, the retention rate for SAE is fairly low in most regional schools, partially due to the way that we classify Appalachian English variants as “improper”, consisting of “bad grammar”, and generally just “bad English” (115). Reaser also notes that the traditional method of correctionist instruction isn’t effective and leaves students shying away from writing entirely.

Instead of pushing SAE standards onto a dialect that is sound by way of descriptive grammar, teaching students a little bit about what’s going on linguistically can encourage them to learn more about their own dialect and environment, which is beneficial to the codeswitching process.

In their dissertation, David W. Brown notes that speakers of African-American English Vernacular (AAEV) in his study were familiar with shifting registers (formal or informal speech of a particular dialect), but could not entirely codeswitch from AAEV to SAE (101-103). Teaching those students not only the difference between registers, but also the difference between their home dialect and the standard, may be a way for them to adequately understand the background enough to be able to codeswitch between home and school.

Clark mentions that by having students consciously listen for casual dialect around them, they can then start to take notice of informal AE speech and contrast their findings with the more formal SAE that’s spoken in the classroom (120-121). Students that are more aware of their own dialects will then be able to codeswitch into SAE more effectively as they’ll have a base of what words and structures consist of home speech and will not confuse that with their use of SAE in academic spaces. A study conducted by Shayla D. Mettille for her dissertation found that being exposed to various dialects within the classroom and how they relate compared to SAE helped them to slip into their home dialects less and understand certain grammatical mechanics of SAE more when writing in the classroom (120).

Based on their studies, Michelle Crotteau and Androula Yiakoumetti found positive results with lessons that taught students the Standard Language through the use of their home dialects. In particular, Crotteau notes that students who learn this way become more comfortable and confident when participating in writing assignments that prepare them for mandatory standardized testing (31-32). McConnell also suggests that students and teachers need to be able to communicate in the regional dialect in order for students to be able to understand and question concepts in SAE that they may not initially understand (31-32). By breaking down that barrier, there’s less chance for miscommunication between the two entities and students will be able to receive the help that they may need when trying to codeswitch from AE to SAE.

One issue that both Clark and Crotteau picked up on while doing their research in Virginia, was that AE speakers were at a disadvantage when working on multiple choice questions for Virginia’s standardized test, the Standards of Learning (SOL). They both found that the multiple choice questions featured in the language arts portion of the SOL frequently put AE speakers at a disadvantage as they include correct sentences in AE as a choice on the test. For students who primarily speak AE and are still learning to switch over to SAE, this presents a problem as they get confused on what would be the correct answer. This further becomes an issue when taking into consideration the fact that students in Virginia must pass the SOL Written Test in order to graduate (Crotteau 27). Shunning their home dialect in the classroom and then handing it to them as a possible answer in a test doesn’t seem to be a way to encourage SAE proficiency, or to support students in the field of academia.



Through this research, I learned that the issues that AE speakers face are ones that other dialectal speakers, both in and out of America, are trying to work on as well. After getting into this area between pedagogy and linguistics, I honestly do believe that using dialect as a base seems to be the most effective way to teach students to move between AE and SAE, along with giving them context for when it’s best to speak in either variation. I personally believe that we should also push for reforming standardized tests such as the SOL. While I don’t agree with standardized testing in general, we should be conscious of putting students at a disadvantage if we are going to implement it, especially if they’re at a disadvantage due to still learning how to speak and write in SAE. There were also a lot more terms that went into codeswitching than I originally thought, but I do think for the purposes of helping students feel validated in their home talk that we can simplify concepts fairly easily. Just using a binary of ‘informal/formal’ for AE and SAE differences in the Writing Center rather than ‘correct/incorrect’ is a super simple way to validate student identities while getting them on the right track for academic writing. It’s something I’ve been implementing in my own sessions already, and I generally hear feedback from the tutees that it’s more helpful for them to think of it in that way. Overall, using codeswitching concepts to help students move between worlds rather than into a singular one sounds like the best strategy to me, and it’s one that I wish had been utilized when I was a child.


Annotated Bibliography


Blackburn, Mollie. Stern, Deborah. “Analyzing the Role of the Vernacular in Student Writing: A
Social Literacies Approach”. Working papers in educational linguistics, vol. 16, no. 1, 2000, pp.

Blackburn and Stern are both teachers that conducted studies on student work in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) to see how the use of culture and dialect can be incorporated into the classroom. They invited two former students, Graham and Norton, to come speak with them about AAVE and SAE, as well as analyzing a poem written by a native AAVE speaker, a student named Casey. They noticed that Casey predominately used AAVE until line 17 when he shifted into more formal language within SAE. The language shift was curious, as was the change in audience. They also spoke to Graham and Norton about writing in general, the differences between personal and classroom writing. Norton admitted that he uses words in SAE for class that he doesn’t understand because it’s what teachers want when using SAE; he also felt like he was unable to actually learn SAE better since he was unable to experiment with it as the stress is on the correct usage instead. Through their inquiry with Graham, Norton, and Casey, both Blackburn and Stern advocate for the validation of dialects in classrooms as a way to help those students become proficient in SAE. They also push for turning the classroom into a more collaborative model where students can practice in SAE without fear of being punished for it, as well as encouraging them to make inquiries about language and the making of meaning in both AAVE and SAE.


Brown, David W. Curricular Approaches to Linguistic Diversity: Code-Switching, Register-Shifting
and Academic Language
. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008.

Brown’s dissertation deals with students learning how to shift registers and learn how to efficiently codeswitch into Standard American English (SAE), primarily with writing. The research and study that Brown conducted is focused on African-American English Vernacular (AAEV), but AAEV and Appalachian English have a lot of similar issues in the backgrounds of the speakers, so his results can be applicable to the Appalachian dialect as well. During his time at Capitol High, Brown notices that most of the students speaking AAEV can attempt to shift registers (moving from slang to more academically inspired language), but cannot actually codeswitch into SAE (107-108). During preliminary interviews, Brown was told by a teacher that the students knew how to codeswitch, but wouldn’t do it; discovering the opposite, it showed that there was a serious disconnect between the teacher and students in terms of motivations and level of understanding SAE (100, 111). The result of this showed that there need to be clearly defined terms for both teachers and students, so they both understand where the other is at in their level of ability with SAE. Additionally, Brown recommends that teachers and students take more time to understand the complexity and “grammatical systematicity” of AAEV (117).


Clark, Amy D. “Voices in the Appalachian Classroom.” Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and
, edited by Amy D. Clark and Nancy M. Hayward, The University Press of Kentucky,
2013, pp. 110-123.

Clark’s article deals with the issues that Appalachian students face in the classroom, particularly in regards to test scores and retention rates that require the use of switching into Standard American English. At the time, Clark was a director of the Appalachian Writing Project (AWP) and undertook a study to examine why speakers of Appalachian English (AE) were doing poorly on Virginia’s standardized test, the Standards of Learning (SOLs). After examination on previous language questions from the SOLs, Clark discovered that the test included vernacular based answers in multiple choice questions; these inclusions meant that students who spoke the dialect would be confused on the test without codeswitching as the “incorrect” dialectal answer would be correctly written in AE (116-118). The teacher-researchers for the AWP also had students keep “language monitor” booklets; the children wrote down instances of causal AE in their everyday lives and would then be able to better articulate and discuss the differences between AE in everyday life and SAE within the classroom (120-121). The end of the study showed that after one semester, the posttest scores from the codeswitching group improved by 72%, while the ‘correctionist’ control group only improved by 9%. The codeswitching group additionally felt “more confident, more productive, and more engaged in their writing” (121).


Crotteau, Michelle. “Honoring Dialect and Culture: Pathways to Student Success on High-Stakes Writing Assessments”. English Journal, vol. 96, no. 4, 2007, pp. 27-32.

Crotteau begins by speaking of a student named Bucky that she had to give remediation instruction to as he had failed Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) Writing Test the previous year. She notes that Bucky was a popular figure at the high school, involved in sports and extra-curricular activities that received fairly good grades and hardly missed any school, but he was also one of the few speakers of Appalachian English (AE); the school didn’t count AE as a subgroup of Standard American English (SAE) Learners as he and the other AE speakers were white. This ultimately caused an issue as the student couldn’t properly receive the help they needed in order to pass Virginia’s SOL, which required them to speak SAE. Crotteau works with the remedial class (all speakers of AE) to renew their confidence in writing and to use their dialectal base in order for them to grasp SAE better. She had them create word lists for AE phrases they were interested in, and found culturally important subjects they would feel comfortable writing about, as well as the use of oral revision so students could understand rules of punctuation better. However, multiple choice questions still proved a problem as many of the questions featured the SAE answer the SOL was looking for, but also a correct answer in terms of AE. Through the use of basing their assignments in AE and then having them slowly learn to switch over to SAE, Crotteau was able to help all of her remedial students pass the SOL, and urges others to not disenfranchise students by strictly adhering to SAE in the classroom.


Lyman, Huntington. Figgins, Margo A. “Democracy, Dialect, and the Power of Every Voice”. English Journal, vol. 94, no. 5, 2005, pp. 40-47.

In this article by Lyman and Figgins, they go over the undeserved stigmas of dialects in comparison to Standard American English (SAE). SAE historically was a standard of whatever dialect people happened to use in a particular region in order to help immigrants and children better learn the language, but the modern incarnation of SAE came around as a way to mimic the speech used by the powerful and wealthy people within the country. Since the wealthy started conforming to the same speech pattern, people desired to speak like them in hopes of achieving their status, which brought about the current iteration of SAE. However, that historical desire to speak like the rich and powerful in order to become them has morphed into a demand to speak like them. Lyman and Figgins note that it’s wrong to teach students that SAE is superior to their own dialect, and that they are somehow lesser for not speaking it. They argue that not only does the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and College Composition and Communication (CCCC) assert that students have a right to their own voice and dialect, but most of American Literature is famous for the usage of dialect, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. From this, they put out the idea that learning SAE should first start through their home dialect so communication is smoother between students and teachers. Additionally, dialects should be studied and represented in the classroom; one such idea they suggested would be to look at the differences of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as represented in novels of Mark Twain and Toni Morrison. For this particular suggestion, they would have students look at the representation of AAVE in both and discuss the difference between them and choose which shows a more authentic representation of AAVE. By giving the students’ voices a place in the classroom, they feel more validated and invited into the conversation of how and when to switch into SAE.


McConnell, Michele S. Appalachian and Standard English Code-Switching Strategies Among
Primary Classroom Teachers.
Dissertation, Walden University, 2011.

In their dissertation, McConnell researches strategies for codeswitching to Standard American English (SAE) in the classroom within schools in Bledsoe County, Tennessee. McConnell starts with some background on Appalachian English (AE) and the lexical differences that could occur due to a teacher not understanding AE; it’s also mentioned that most educators in the county assume that students are fluent in SAE, which is found to be untrue (2-8). During preliminary interviews with the participating teachers, it was made aware that teachers not originally from the area had a hard time understanding both the students and their parents (and vice versa), which hindered their ability to effectively help students who were having issues with SAE (31-32). Many teachers were interested in learning how to teach codeswitching to their students, and some expressed interest in merely having a guide to AE in order to better understand their students when they spoke in dialect. McConnell gave them codeswitching reference handbooks that helped them teach basic steps to help their pre-school/kindergarten kids learn bidialectalism.


Mettille, Shayla D. The Use of Contrastive Analysis in Codeswitching from Appalachian English
Dialect to Standard English Dialect.
Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2015.

Mettille first introduces a study within their dissertation that examines codeswitching between Appalachian English (AE) and Standard American English (SAE) with 4th grade students by instead using the term ‘informal’ for AE and ‘formal’ for SAE (a 5th grade class also participated as the control group). To set the scene, they establish that this study is taking place in Central Appalachia (an unnamed county in Kentucky to be specific) and the issues that come with the Appalachian dialect, including stigmatization. The study focuses on the use of Contrastive Analysis (the use of dialect to teach the standard) in order for students to effectively learn how to codeswitch between AE and SAE. The teacher participating in the study also happened to be a speaker of a few different dialects as they were both black and Appalachian, so their vast experience in dialect and how to codeswitch between them was particularly helpful in this study. To ease children into the concept of bidalectalism as informal and formal, they were asked to first think of different types of clothes and label them with those two terms. From this, they moved to doing the same with places, and then with language via the use of common phrases. Students then made their own codeswitching charts, and eventually the teacher read them a story in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) so they had access to hear a new dialect and examine how it was different from the SAE on the page. The study found that the 4th graders improved in three out of the four areas (“regularization of past-tense verbs, multiple negation, and subject/verb agreement”) in comparison to the 5th grade control group (120). However, it was noted that the students who improved were successful in codeswitching, as their dialect use when speaking remained unaffected.


Reaser, Jeffrey. “Dialect and Education in Appalachia.” Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and
, edited by Amy D. Clark and Nancy M. Hayward, The University Press of Kentucky,
2013, pp. 94-109.

Reaser begins his essay with some background on current attitudes of teaching dialect in education that conflict with the overarching goals of The Conference on College Composition and Communication (a subdivision of the National Council of Teachers of English), which “asserts that students have a ‘right to their own language – to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses their unique personal identity’” (96). The traditional correctionist attitudes of teachers in the education system focuses mainly on grammar rather than pronunciation as the deviation of the grammatical rules of Standard American English (SAE) are what carries the highest “social tax”. Additionally, teachers have realized that most forms of pronunciation differences don’t have a written counterpart, so students pass onto SAE standards naturally in those situations when writing. Due to this, Reaser contends that students can unknowingly learn rules and pronunciations of SAE while reading “edited English” as well. Reaser goes on to speak of the benefits of codeswitching in order to not incur what he calls “dialectal erasure”.


Wheeler, Rebecca S. Swords, Rachel. “Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture
Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom”. Language Arts, vol. 81, no. 4, 2004, pp. 470-

The article written by Wheeler and Swords mainly speaks upon those students using African American English Vernacular (AAEV), but the methods and observations being used can also broadly apply to Appalachian English. The authors first examine the cultural implications of minority students being told that their dialect is improper and incorrect. Swords became worried when she noticed that the traditional teaching of language arts for Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs) standardized test only helped white children, and those speaking AAEV were significantly impaired both on the test and with their scores. Correction does not work for these students and a new approach using contrastive analysis with codeswitching was implemented. Using this method, students were able to use their own background knowledge of language to impose what was formal and informal speech. Codeswitching is not about “anything goes”, they define it as a way for a child to learn SAE without their original dialect being dismissed as “broken and error-filled” (477).


Yiakoumetti, Androula. “Choice of classroom language in bidialectal communities: to include or to exclude the dialect?”. Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 51-66.

Yiakoumetti starts off their piece by noting the difficulties within the classroom when dialect (labeled as ‘non-standard’) is pitted against the standard language. Non-standard language is inherently stigmatized and seen as “degenerate varieties” of the standard (52). Bidialectal speakers have difficulty in the classroom as they have to learn to sort through informal and formal speech for both dialects, which can cause a problem as students don’t formally learn their home dialect, so they’re confused as to how their dialect and the standard are different. To learn more about language awareness programs in education and how they can affect bidialectal students, a study was set up in Cyprus using two schools (one urban and one rural, although both speak the same home dialect and have to learn the standard at school). Yiakoumetti and other researchers found that both rural and urban children improved in their writing. While rural students lagged behind at first, by the third test they were caught up with their urban counterparts, suggesting that using dialect to help teach the standard within the classroom is especially beneficial to students in rural settings. Overall, students were able to better understand what is and is not the standard by learning it alongside their dialect, which they used to improve their writing in the standard.

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