“Stepping Stone” versus “Stepping Stool”: When does a language variation help or hinder meaning, and who gets to decide?

“We call for a new paradigm: a translingual approach. This approach sees difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening,” write Horner, Lu, and Royster in “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (303).

Overall, the translingual approach resonates with me on a philosophical level, and in fact, I realize that it may be the natural secondary pedagogy represented in my teaching materials project—the class dictionary project. In the above quote, I love Horner, Lu and Royster’s focus on the production of meaning, as well as the fact that they put equal emphasis on the writer/speaker as they do on the reader/listener.

That said, there was something also about the readings for this week that I found a bit unsettling and I’m working on further defining for myself what that is. Perhaps it is just the concern that the translingual approach, though I find it theoretically exciting and empowering, seems to become next to impossible to apply in the classroom, especially with regards to the issue of assessment. In theory, I love the idea that “the possibility of writer error is reserved as an interpretation of last resort” (Horner, Lu, and Royster 304), but what does this really look like in practice? For *expert* writers who are making particular linguistic choices, I love this idea. (In fact, I would love to see academic articles written in a larger variety of registers and Englishes.) But as teachers, can we really assume that a student has made a choice rather than an error? Without the idea of a standard, how can we know the difference in order to identify appropriate teachable moments?

The few examples used by Horner, Lu and Royster felt quite unsatisfying. Should we consider “stepping stool” and “spills out” to be as effective at communicating (with a general audience) as “stepping stone” and “spells out” (310)? Considering the first example, the change from “stepping stool” to “stepping stone” makes a lot of sense to me. In this change, the meaning is intact. And indeed referring to a stepping stool feels more modern and relevant in today’s urban context than a stepping stone (after all, how many of my students have stepped on a “stepping stone” or even seen one? How many readers have?). Yet, I can’t say the same for the difference between “spills out” and “spells out,” which I think for most readers would have very different meanings. Of course I am making an assumption right here that is based on my linguistic community; I’m aware of this assumption, but I think that gets us into the heart of the argument – don’t I as a teacher and as a more experienced writer have more of a sense of how things will “land” with a reader than my students, who are novice writers? Certainly we want to teach them to think carefully about their particular audiences for each writing/speech act, but don’t we have a responsibility to also help prepare them to write for a general audience? And aren’t we more equipped than them to know the expectations of that general audience?

Certainly many expressions are “dead” in the sense that they have virtually no connection to what they originally denoted. For these, perhaps modification – especially if they are modifications to something that makes more sense (like “stepping stone” to “stepping stool”) are to be celebrated as language innovations. Yet many changes I think are more likely to lead to confusion, and assuming our students are not in need of instruction may deny them from a valuable learning opportunity. For example, I want to consider another expression that I often see written/spoken in two different ways. I have heard many people say “flushed out” when I would use “fleshed out.” This language variation strikes me as quite similar to the second example above. If we are using the expected meanings of the words, to “flush” something out would seem to mean the reverse of to “flesh” something out – the first appearing to mean “to get rid of,” and the second appearing to mean “to expand upon and further develop.” The expression “fleshed out” makes sense to me because I remember taking a drawing class where we would first complete a figure sketch and then “flesh it out” by making it into a more fully developed drawing: literally add flesh to the sketch/skeleton. Because I knew where the term came from, the expression was not mysterious and made perfect sense. At what point, then, is it my job as a teacher to teach my students where expressions came from and how they came to mean what they mean to many reader/listeners today rather than assume that a modification in an expression, which may result in confusion on the part of the listener, is not an error?

Perhaps in a perfect world, an instructor would get to have an extended conversation with each student about each linguistic choice made to determine if it was intentional or an error and to help them work through how it might be interpreted by an audience, but this is not always feasible. If students know their audience very well—certainly if it’s an audience they know better than me—I would definitely want to defer to their choice. But I think in most cases, our job as instructors is to know an audience’s expectations more than our students. (Is not the point of most communications classes to help students communicate effectively with a broader audience than their immediate linguistic community?) Overall, I think that Horner, Lu, and Royster are on to something really good; a deeper discussion of more writer/speaker examples may have helped “flesh out” what this would look like in the day-to-day decision-making process of offering students feedback and assessing student writing.




2 thoughts on ““Stepping Stone” versus “Stepping Stool”: When does a language variation help or hinder meaning, and who gets to decide?

  1. Hey Jenni,

    I think you raise some really good questions in this blog. Questions that came across in my brain while reading Horner, but did not think to investigate further. I like how you questioned the examples “spills out” and “spells out” and recognized that there may be a problem with not pointing out the error here for the student that may effect the audience. When I came across that line, I did not think about how the different spelling would effect the audience. Instead I thought about how a typo like that could easily be made by a student and I thought about how teachers may jump to positioning the typo and an error. I was more so thinking about the approach that teachers should take when they notice something like this with a student, and how that approach to figure out if that was an error or simply a language difference, should be an approach of conversation. Instead of immediately jumping to the error side of town, teachers should be inclined to have a conversation with the class and discuss the differences and their reaction to what each statement means.

    However, after reading your post I see that the thinking and approach has to go further than jut conversation, because it is the job of teachers to prepare students to be able to communicate effectively to their audience using the language that the audience are familiar with. I also wonder who is to blame for such an error. For instance maybe the student never knew what the correct spelling of the statement was but had heard the statement and wanted to use it. Maybe the community that the student is from used the word often and spelled it that way, but they themselves were never introduced to the true meaning and spelling of the word. And so that was passed down to the child. I have had that happen to me plenty of times, while being around my family and using words incorrectly when I brought them to a different audience. With that being said I do think it is important to think about this theory in practice and have more case studies available for those who want to use this theory with their students.

    Lastly, I too thought about you and your dictionary approach while reading the translingual articles. I thought you had a tool/ activity that was working towards the practice of translingual pedagogy. I wondered while reading last week, if you would think your dictionary activity was a step towards translingual pedagogy and this post answered that for me. I want to use that with my class one day (great activity)! Also, I have always said “flush” instead of “flesh” because “flush out” is what I have been hearing in the professional world. Maybe those who use it don’t know the difference lol.


    1. Thanks for your comment! (I only just saw it.) That’s so interesting that you have always said “flush out” instead of “flesh out.” My guess is that people often say that because “flush out” is a more common combination of words, whereas “flesh out” seems really strange, unless you have the arts background that I discussed. Because the words sound so similar, I’m sure listeners have just assumed others were saying “flush” and so it came to be that. It definitely highlights the fact that we rarely think about the origins of expressions! Perhaps the real underlying pedagogical strategy that can address all of these issues is to encourage our students to be curious about the language they are using–not just in how it impacts their readers, but also in its origin.


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