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Lesson Plan

Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" and Beyond

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Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" and Beyond

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Five 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Renee H. Shea

Rockville, Maryland


National Council of Teachers of English


Student Objectives

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • develop critical reading strategies.

  • discuss and evaluate the impact of language on identity formation and self-esteem of several writers.

  • expand their awareness of the role language plays in identity formation.

  • write their own literacy narratives.

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Session One

  1. Ask students to spend about ten minutes brainstorming a response to this prompt:

    What are the different "languages" you use? When and why? Consider both reading and writing, and don't forget about email! If you speak another language, include it (or possibly them if you know more than one).

  2. Encourage students to read their responses aloud.

  3. As they do, keep track on the board or on an overhead transparency of the different "languages" they are describing.

  4. Discuss the interaction of language usage and choice with audience and occasion by focusing on the examples the students have provided.

  5. For homework, ask students to write a journal entry that describes a time when someone made assumptions or even a judgment (negative or positive) about them based on their language usage (written or spoken). For those who say they've never had such an experience, suggest writing about a situation they've observed involving someone else.

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Session Two

  1. Open the class by asking volunteers to share their journal entries.

  2. Look for similarities among the experiences students describe, and discuss them as a group. Ask whether they notice stereotypes at work in the situations they describe.

  3. If students have access to the Internet, introduce Amy Tan by sharing audio and video clips of her talking and reading. Biographical information about Amy Tan can be found at Bookreporter.com.

  4. Hand out copies of "Mother Tongue," and read the first two paragraphs aloud.

  5. Discuss why Tan opens with an explanation of what she is not.

  6. Read the next two paragraphs. Ask students to explain what Tan means by "different Englishes."

  7. Shift the discussion by asking why Tan speaks a "different English" with her mother than with her husband. Ask students to consider whether doing so is hypocritical.

  8. Assign the remainder of the essay as reading for homework.

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Session Three

  1. Divide students into groups, and assign one of the following questions to each group:

    • What point is Tan making with the example of her mother and the hospital?

    • What point is she making with the example of the stockbroker?

    • Tan says that experts believe that a person's "developing language skills are more influenced by peers," yet she thinks that family is more influential, "especially in immigrant families." Do you think family or peers exert more influence on a person's language?

    • Why does Tan discuss the SAT and her performance on it?

    • Why does she envision her mother as the reader of her novels?

  2. After about 15 minutes, ask each group to explain their responses to the questions. Encourage them to support their responses with specific reference to Tan's essay.

  3. Ask them to write notes and ideas in their journals using the Literacy Narrative Assignment. Stress that students are only gathering ideas. They are not creating the polished essay at this point.

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Session Four

  1. Open by discussing the assignment itself. Explain that a literacy narrative tells a specific story about reading or writing. Tan's article is essentially a literacy narrative because it discusses events about language use from her past (whether good or bad) and reflects on how those events influence her writing today.

  2. If desired, ask students to choose examples from the essay that connect writing from Tan's past to her present.

  3. Pass out copies of the Essay Rubric, and discuss the required components for the finished paper.

  4. Discuss the possibilities that students raised in their journal entries.

  5. To begin developing ideas further, ask students to use the Venn Diagram to map and compare the two "languages" that they will explore in their essays. Ask them to think creatively about the qualities and characteristics of the "languages."

  6. Allow students time to work on their literacy narratives in class.

  7. Assign a draft of the literacy narrative as homework; each student should bring his or her draft to the next class session (on a disk if you are working in a computer lab, or a printed copy otherwise).

  8. Additionally, if you are not working in a computer lab, ask students to bring a pencil, a black pen, and a blue pen to class.

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Session Five

  1. Begin with a discussion of the problems students are encountering with the assignment.

  2. Brainstorm ways to address one or two of the challenges.

  3. Remind students of the criteria for the assignment in the Literacy Narrative Essay Rubric. For the peer review, ask students to compare the drafts that they read to the characteristics described in the rubric.

  4. Explain the organization of the peer review:

    • Each student will read three papers, each written by someone else.

    • On the first paper that you read, make your comments with your black ink pen or in bold.

    • On the second paper, make your comments with the blue ink pen or in italics.

    • On the third paper, make your comments with your pencil or with underlined letters.

    • Finally, you'll return to your own essay and read over the comments.

  5. Arrange the students in small groups of four, having students rotate the drafts among group members as they read and respond. Adjust groupings as needed to accommodate the number of students in your class.

  6. Once students have read and responded to all the drafts, discuss questions, comments, and concerns students have as they prepare to revise.

  7. Encourage students to pay particular attention to comments that all of their peer readers agreed upon when reading their drafts.

  8. For homework, have students create their final, polished draft of the literacy narratives. Collect the papers at the beginning of the next session.

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  • To explore a more controversial response to language usage, students might read "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is" by African American author James Baldwin. Written before the term "ebonics" came into usage, it is a brief but highly political argument about the link between language and identity and the damage school systems can cause by privileging one language (or dialect) over another. It can be found in the New York Times archives (29 July 1979, page E19).

  • Students also might examine a passage from the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, or another author who includes Spanish in his or her work—without translating it. What is the effect on a reader who does not know Spanish? What might be the purpose of an author making the decision to write whole sections in Spanish?

  • To pursue the link between power and language, students might read the poem "Parsley" by Rita Dove. It explores the historical incident in which the Dominical Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo used the pronunciation of the word "parsley" to separate Dominicans who speak Spanish from the persecuted Haitians who speak a French Creole (a topic Edwidge Danticat takes up in her novel The Farming of Bones).

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Observe students for their participation during the exploration and discussion of Tan’s essay and their own language use. In class discussions and conferences, watch for evidence that students are able to describe specific details about their language use. Monitor students’ progress and process as they work on their lilteracy narratives. For formal assessment, use the Literacy Narrative Rubric. Ask students to complete the Student Self-Assessment to reflect on their exploration of language and their literacy narratives.

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