Standard Lesson

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

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Five 50-minute sessions
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In the essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan explains that she “began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with.” How these “different Englishes” or even a language other than English contribute to identity is a crucial issue for adolescents.

In this lesson, students explore this issue by brainstorming the different languages they use in speaking and writing, and when and where these languages are appropriate. They write in their journals about a time when someone made an assumption about them based on their use of language, and share their writing with the class. Students then read and discuss Amy Tan's essay “Mother Tongue.” Finally, they write a literacy narrative describing two different languages they use and when and where they use these languages.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

NCTE has long held a commitment to the importance of individual student's language choices. In the 1974 Resolution on the Students' Right to Their Own Language, council members "affirm[ed] the students' right to their own language-to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses their unique personal identity." The Council reaffirmed this resolution in 2003, "because issues of language variation and education continue to be of major concern in the twenty-first century to educators, educational policymakers, students, parents, and the general public."

Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords assert that: "the child who speaks in a vernacular dialect is not making language errors; instead, she or he is speaking correctly in the language of the home discourse community. Teachers can draw upon the language strengths of urban learners to help students codeswitch-choose the language variety appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose. In doing so, we honor linguistic and cultural diversity, all the while fostering students' mastery of the Language of Wider Communication, the de-facto lingua franca of the U.S."

This lesson focuses on ways to investigate the issues of language and identity in the classroom in ways that validate the many languages that students use. To help students gain competence in their ability to choose the right language usage for each situation, explorations of language and identity in the classroom are vital in raising students' awareness of the languages they use and the importance of the decisions that they make as they communicate with others.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
  • 10. Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Copy of "Mother Tongue" by Amy Tan

  • Blue pens, Black pens, and pencils (optional)




Student Objectives

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.

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.

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

  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.

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.

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.

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.


  • 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).

Student Assessment / Reflections

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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