Lesson Plans

What Did They Say? Dialect in The Color Purple

9 - 12
Estimated Time
Three 40- to 50-minute sessions
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Writers often use dialects to paint an authentic portrait of the location or time period about which they are writing. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is an excellent example of a text that is successfully and eloquently written in dialect. Unfortunately, many students find it inaccessible because they are unfamiliar with the concept of dialects and do not know how to read a book that is written in this way. Students begin this lesson by listening to examples of several dialects and discuss what they learn about each speaker from the recordings. As a class, students come up with a definition of the word dialect and continue to examine its use in Walker's novel. The lesson fosters further interaction with the text using written reflections in double-entry journal and peer-to-peer discussions in literature circles.

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

  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 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.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Harvest Books, 2003)

  • Computer with external speakers

  • Overhead projector (optional)




1. Read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Break it up into reading assignments for your students. At the beginning of the lesson, students should have read at least 50 pages of the book.

2. In this lesson, students will work in literature circles, which are designed to get students talking about a text in a less formal and intimidating environment. Literature circles are small groups where students meet to talk about books they have read. Discussion is guided by specific reading strategies that you assign but is student directed. These groups are especially valuable for students who rarely speak during whole-class discussions; these students often blossom in a group discussion with only three or four of their peers.

You may choose to use literature circles regularly in your classroom, or simply to use them while reading The Color Purple. If this lesson is the first time you will be using literature circles, you will need to assign groups of four to five students each.

3. Another tool students will use in this lesson is a double-entry journal. In these journals, students divide each page into two columns, writing summaries or quotations on the left side and their own personal reflections on these passages on the right.

Have students begin their journals when they start reading The Color Purple. When you introduce the journals, you may want to provide some examples or even model your own journal entry so that students understand what is expected of them. You might also provide students with some questions to serve as prompts, such as:

  • Why do you think the book is titled The Color Purple?

  • What do you think the color purple symbolizes? (This is a good prereading/postreading question.)

  • Compare the father's treatment of Celie to that of her sister Nettie. Why are they treated so differently?

  • How does the journal-entry format of the book help or hinder your understanding of the text?
4. Read "Incorporating Dialect Study into the Language Arts Class" and "Teaching About Dialects." These articles will give you some excellent background information about dialects and their place in a language arts classroom.

5. Visit the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) website. Download five or six dialect samples to the hard drive on the computer you will use for classroom demonstration. When choosing recordings, vary the locations, ages, races, gender, and educational background of the participants. There is a written listing for each recording that will give you all of this information; you will want to print these listings off and keep a list of file names so you know which information goes with which sound file. Downloading the files may take you some time, depending on the speed of your connection.

While you are on the IDEA website, print off copies of "The Rainbow Passage" and "Comma Gets a Cure." These are the text passages that participants read in the dialect samples. Make copies of the printouts for each student in the class or make a transparency to use with an overhead projector.

6. Once you have the dialect files downloaded, test them. Make sure the computer speakers work and are loud enough for the entire class to hear clearly.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Increase their knowledge of dialect by listening to and describing a variety of different dialect examples, as well as discussing why dialects exist, how they are formed, and why they vary

  • Practice synthesizing information by connecting what they have learned about dialects to The Color Purple

  • Develop discussion skills in both large- and small-group settings

  • Practice evaluative writing that also demonstrates comprehension of discussed concepts

Session 1

1. Hand out (or show on an overhead projector) the text of either "The Rainbow Passage" or "Comma Gets a Cure," depending on which recordings you have chosen.

2. Play at least four or five of the recordings that you have selected. At the end of each one, ask students to think about and jot their responses to the following questions:

  • What can you tell about the reader by the way he or she speaks?

  • Where is the reader from?

  • Is the reader educated or uneducated?

  • How old is the reader?

  • What is the reader's race? How can you tell?
3. Once all of the recordings have been played, ask students to share their responses. Ask students to explain why they made the assumptions they did. Your goal in this discussion is to show students what types of inferences are often made about a person based on the way he or she speaks. Questions to consider include:

  • Why do dialects exist? Why do they vary?

  • What can you tell about a person by the way he or she speaks?

  • What influences dialects? Why do they vary depending on the region? the state? the neighborhood?

  • What are the benefits of speaking in dialect? What are the drawbacks?
4. Ask students to come up with a definition for the word dialect and write their ideas on the board. You want to work toward a group definition that reads something like, "A dialect is a variety of a language that is spoken by a group in a particular area or of a social group or class. It can have different pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical structures."

5. For homework, ask students to record a few examples of dialect they find particularly challenging from The Color Purple in their double-entry journals and to focus their responses on what makes these examples so difficult to understand.

Session 2

1. Review the definition of the word dialect that you developed in Session 1.

2. Have students sit together in their literature circles, bringing their copies of The Color Purple and their double-entry journals with them. If this is the first time they are meeting, you will want to give them some guidelines about their participation, including taking notes on what is said (they will need to use these notes for homework), contributing to the discussion, and listening carefully when others are speaking.

3. Tell students that they will be discussing the following list of questions (you may want to have them written on the board):

  • Why do they think The Color Purple is written in dialect?

  • What type of dialect is it written in?

  • How does dialect help your understanding of the characters? How does it hinder it?

  • What, if anything, does dialect reveal about the characters who speak it?

  • What does it reveal about the characters who do not speak it?

  • What passages did they record in their double-entry journals? What did they find challenging about these passages?
Tell students that one participant in each group should record the group's observations, but that each student should also take notes in his or her double-entry journal.

4. While students are talking, circulate among the groups and observe participation, noting whether students are asking thoughtful questions, listening well, responding carefully, referring to the text and using it to support claims, and reflecting on their reading.

5. When there are five minutes left, ask students to fill out exit slips on the day's activities. Exit slips are a way of informally assessing students at the end of an activity. They can be in any format but usually consist of questions such as, "What did I learn during today's class?" and "What do I still have questions about?" Students can complete their exit sheets on notebook paper.

6. For homework, ask students to reflect on their group work by writing in their double- entry journals. The notes from their literature circle discussion should be on the left side and their responses to what was discussed should be on the right.

Session 3

Bring the class back together for a discussion of dialect in The Color Purple. Have students share the answers they came up with in their literature circles and ask them if there are any concepts they still do not understand. Ask them what they have learned about dialects and how this knowledge affects the way they approach the text. This is also an excellent opportunity for students to share the passages they picked out as being difficult and discuss any problems they are having with the text.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe student participation and comprehension during the discussion of dialect. Do they listen carefully to the downloaded samples? Do they share their observations? Do they understand the definition of the word dialect? Are they contributing to the discussion about the origins of dialect?

  • Use your anecdotal notes from Session 2 and the student exit sheets to assess student performance in the literature circles. Are students engaged in the discussion? Are all students actively participating? Do their comments show a growing understanding of the text? Do students draw connections between the discussion in Session 1 and their interpretations of the text in Session 2?

  • Collect the notes from each literature circle group. Do the notes show signs of critical and analytical thinking? Are the brainstormed answers superficial or do they show signs of sophisticated insights and reflections?

  • Assess student comprehension in the double-entry journals using a Check+, Check, Check– system as follows:
    • (Check+) Entry is well thought out and thorough. The writing is strongly reflective. Many interesting items are included in the left column and connections with prior learning or personal life are demonstrated in the right column.

    • (Check) Some reflection is evident in the entry. There are a few items of interest in the left column. Some personal or prior learning connections are included in the right column.

    • (Check–) Little to no attempt has been made to complete the assignment. There are minimal entries in the left column and few or no reflections in the right column.

    Compare the entries from before the literature discussion group with the entries that immediately follow.

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