I try to use gender-inclusive language when possible in my own speech (though I’m definitely still working on it!), but, until recently, I had never talked with my students very directly about the topic or taught an entire lesson about it.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been more intentional about using gender-inclusive language when talking to my students, especially by using “they” as a singular pronoun. For example, instead of telling my students something like, “Talk to your partner and tell him or her what you think,” I might say, “Talk to your partner and tell them what you think.”
When I first started using the singular “they” more intentionally in class, especially when it was written down, I wondered if any of my students would notice it or ask if it was a mistake or something. But nobody said anything.
Last week, I decided to use the topic of gender-inclusive language as a lesson in class. I started out by showing the students this chart I made:
I thought that talking about these job names would be an easy way to introduce the idea of gender-inclusive language. I asked my students to think of the gender-inclusive term that would go in each blank spot before I revealed the answer. They had a little more trouble with this than I thought they would, but after I told them the gender-inclusive equivalent for each one, they said, “Oh, yeah!” They had heard the words before, but for some of them, I think this was the first time they had consciously thought about these words as gender-inclusive terms.
Here is the completed version:
After that, we talked about pronouns in English and how “they” is typically used to refer to a group of people but that sometimes we use it to refer to just one person. I gave them a few example sentences to show them how it worked.
Two of my students were skeptical—one said, “That looks so weird!” and another asked, “Is that really correct?”
It was a little funny to me since I know that they’ve heard “they” used as a singular pronoun at least a few times (if not more) since I know that I occasionally use it in class. But I think this was the first time they had consciously noticed it, so it seemed strange to them. And, as English learners, they’ve probably had several textbook lessons in the past about how “they” is only a plural pronoun, so they’ve been trained to think about it that way.
I explained to them that, although there are some grammar textbooks and some teachers who sometimes say it’s wrong, the singular “they” is pretty commonly used in everyday English.
They seemed to believe me a little more when I told them that singular “they” has been used throughout history by famous authors (such as Shakespeare) and that, in 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary changed its definition of “they” to include it as a singular pronoun.
I think that the reaction of those two students is a good demonstration of how language acquisition works. Sometimes when we consciously think about and analyze a particular language form (especially one that’s new for us), it seems weird and maybe even wrong. But if we get exposure to it again and again over time, after a while, it just becomes normal. If those students keep hearing “they” used as a singular pronoun, eventually it will just seem normal to them. (Like how some native English speakers don’t bat an eye when hearing a sentence like, “Someone forgot their jacket,” but when they consciously think about the concept of using singular “they,” they insist that it’s incorrect.)
With my class of all native Spanish speakers (mostly from Mexico), I also introduced the word “Latinx” and asked them if they had heard of it. Only one student in my class of 18 said she’d heard the word before. I was a little surprised but not too much since I’d seen these survey results from the Pew Research Center that only 23% of U.S. Latinos have heard the term “Latinx” and only 3% use it.
I explained a little bit about why some people might choose to use words like “Latinx” and to use “x” or “e” endings on nouns or adjectives in Spanish (instead of the masculine “o” or feminine “a”). It seemed like it was a new concept for a lot of my students, but they were intrigued.
The next day, we read an article that went into a little more detail about gender-inclusive language in both English and Spanish. Again, my students seemed very interested in the ideas, and we had a good discussion about why people use it and whether we think these language changes will last over time.
My Students’ Reactions
Honestly, I had been a little bit nervous before doing this lesson in class—mostly nervous about the topic of gender-inclusive language in Spanish. I had heard that some Spanish speakers view terms like “Latinx” as a kind of cultural imposition from English speakers in the United States. (But I think there’s also some controversy about where exactly the term came from, and some argue that it did originate in Latin America.) Obviously, I didn’t want to come off as though I were trying to tell my students how they should speak their own native language. But I don’t think any of my students perceived it that way. They mostly just seemed intrigued by the ideas and interested in talking about the topic.
And in English, too, the topic of gender-inclusive language can be controversial for some. But our in-class discussion went very well. One student said that she didn’t like the idea of using gender-inclusive language, but everyone else seemed to have a positive attitude toward the idea or at least a neutral attitude. Of course, throughout our conversation in class, I framed the topic just as something that was good to know about and an option for them to use—I didn’t want them to feel like I was telling them they had to use certain language forms.
A couple of students even directly thanked me for talking about this topic and said that it was helpful to them. One of my students said that one time when she was at work, she referred to a customer (who appeared to her to be a man) as “sir,” and the customer responded, “I’m not a sir.” She felt bad about her mistake but was also confused by the situation.
But after learning in class about singular “they” and other gender-inclusive language, my student told me she understood better why the customer might have corrected her, and she said that learning about these ideas would help her to avoid making similar kinds of mistakes in the future.
It was a good reminder to me that our job as English teachers is about more than just teaching language but is also a way to promote more understanding between people. Language is powerful!
If you’re thinking about talking about this topic in your class, you can click here to download my materials—a PowerPoint presentation and two versions of an article for students to read. And then leave a comment to let me know how it went in your class!