From We Need Diverse Books: How Educators Can Talk About Inclusive Language With Young People
If you’re a supporter of diversity in children’s literature, then you understand the power of story to empower and affirm all identities. But do changes to the smallest bits of those stories—words, format, punctuation, letters—matter just as much?
Nikotris Perkins, a senior strategist at UBUNTU Research & Evaluation, says emphatically, yes. “These aren’t small changes,” she tells We Need Diverse Books. “These are huge changes. Language is powerful. Words are powerful.”
Bruce Peng, director of the linguistics program at SUNY Oswego, agrees. He explains that his trans students’ persistence in correcting those who call them by the incorrect pronoun is about them “trying to communicate who they are and gain respect and recognition for their identity.”
Tiny tweaks to words do have the power to both affirm and include. Recognition of a person’s identity on paper can have a powerful ripple effect on how others view them—and how they view themselves.
Some recent examples of these inclusive language shifts include:
- The use of X or @ to indicate gender-neutral identifiers — “Latinx” for example
- Capitalizing Black when referring to race
- Unhyphenating terms such as “Asian American” and “African American”
- The singular “they”
- Not italicizing non-English words
So how do we talk to students about how these changes happened, why they matter, and how to make decisions in their own writing about what conventions to follow?
We spoke to a few experts on the topic and offer four strategies you can use to educate your students (and yourself):
In linguistics, contrastive analysis is the systematic comparison of two languages to identify their similarities or differences. While often used by TESOL educators to improve their instruction and predict learning difficulties, all teachers can use this technique to explicitly address newly accepted grammar and language conventions by comparing the old to the new.
Students are able to clearly see what has changed, determine whether any meaning has been lost, and understand the deliberate reasoning behind the change.
By middle or high school, students are likely already seeing terms like Latinx or preferred pronouns on social media; some may not know a world in which their identity is a hyphenated one.
By showing students the previously accepted conventions and asking them to share in their own words why the change occurred, students can flex their research muscles to understand and articulate why and how terms like Latinx rose to more popular use.
Heidi Gramlich Bryson, a K-12 teacher librarian, suggests pairing students and assigning each pair to research a particular convention or word that has changed over time. The groups can then present their findings to the class during which the teacher can point out the common threads of social change that account for these shifts.
Teachers can ask students to keep pointing out these words and conventions throughout the year as they run across them in their reading. Keep a running list or tally on a flipchart paper and use it for periodic review.
Read on for the full article How Educators Can Talk About Inclusive Language With Young People on We Need Diverse Books.
Connect with We Need Diverse Books on Twitter.