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Mother Tongue Critique Essay Writing


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Lesson Plan

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


Grades9 – 12
Lesson Plan TypeStandard Lesson
Estimated TimeFive 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author




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.

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Discussion Questions for "Mother Tongue": Have students discuss Amy Tan's essay in small groups, using these discussion questions.

Literacy Narrative Assignment: This handout describes an assignment in which students write a literacy narrative exploring their use of different language in different settings.

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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

Wheeler, Rebecca and Rachel Swords. "Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom." Language Arts 81.6 (July 2004): 470-480.


Delpit, Lisa, and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy. 2002. The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. New York: New Press.

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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.



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.



Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.



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.



Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.


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Resources & Preparation


  • Copy of "Mother Tongue" by Amy Tan

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

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Grades   K – 12  |  Student Interactive  |  Organizing & Summarizing

Venn Diagram

This interactive tool allows students to create Venn diagrams that contain two or three overlapping circles, enabling them to organize their information logically.


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Instructional Plan


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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Related Resources


Grades   9 – 12  |  Lesson Plan  |  Standard Lesson

Dialect Detectives: Exploring Dialect in Great Expectations

Great Expectations is rich in dialogue and in the dialect of the working class and the poor of Victorian England. What does Dickens reveal about his characters using dialect?


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Grades   K – 12  |  Student Interactive  |  Organizing & Summarizing

Venn Diagram

This interactive tool allows students to create Venn diagrams that contain two or three overlapping circles, enabling them to organize their information logically.


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Grades   8 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  February 9

Author Matt de la Peña was born today.

Students use an essay by de la Peña as a model for writing their own literacy autobiography.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  August 5

Author Amy Tan was born today in 1952

Students watch an excerpt of an interview with Tan and apply some of her principles to writing a story of their own.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  August 2

James Baldwin was born today in 1924.

Students read and respond to an essay by Baldwin, commenting on the contemporary resonance of his ideas.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  February 9

Author Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944.

After students read the novel The Color Purple, dialect is discussed and students write a short piece of fiction or poetry using the dialect of their peer group.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  May 1

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is in May!

Students consider the portrayal of Asians in popular culture by exploring images from classic and contemporary films and comparing them to historical and cultural reference materials.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  December 9

Author Joel Chandler Harris was born in 1848.

Students study how regional dialect is written phonetically by reading a segment of Harris' story, as well as two others, and compare them using the Interactive Venn Diagram.


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Grades   8 – 12  |  Professional Library  |  Book

Amy Tan in the Classroom: "The art of invisible strength"

Offers high school teachers an activity-based approach to teaching the works of Amy Tan, especially The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate.


Grades   K – 8  |  Professional Library  |  Journal

Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom

This article shows how to affirm and draw on the dialect diversity of students to foster the learning of Standard English.


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Unlike most of the other literature you’ve read for class, “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan is short and pretty easy to breeze through. But now you have to do a literary analysis on it–and suddenly its short length seems like more of a burden than a blessing.

Fortunately, there are several different literary devices you can concentrate on for your literary analysis. I am going to show you a few of these devices and give you some awesome tips on how to incorporate them into your analysis of “Mother Tongue.”

Symbolism in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Image by Steve Johnson via flickr

Symbolism is when an author uses an object, person, or place to represent a deeper concept. Even though language is not an object you can hold, Amy Tan still uses language to symbolize different, more ambiguous concepts.

Tip #1: Think about Tan’s use of different Englishes and what they symbolize for her.

Tan talks about a few different types of English and in what situations she uses them, but each English form symbolizes something different to her.

What we would call “proper English” symbolizes both Tan’s acceptance into American society and a separation from her mother. Tan highlights this dichotomy when she writes about giving her speech, saying the “proper English” words that she was using felt strange to say when her mother was in the room.

Tan says she uses “simple English” around her mother, and while this isn’t the same form that her mother speaks, it symbolizes the bond between her and her family. She says even her husband started speaking this kind of English together and that it has come to represent intimacy.

Tip #2: Write about Tan’s mother’s use of English and what it symbolizes.

Tan is very attached to her mother’s English to the point that she doesn’t want to refer to it as “broken.” To her it symbolizes home because it’s the English she grew up with. She says it provides imagery and emotions that standard, grammatically-correct English cannot.

However, Tan’s mother’s English also symbolizes the limitations of immigrants in America and the challenges they have to face to be accepted. She alludes to several instances where people, even a doctor, would not take her mother seriously because of the way she spoke.

Structure in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Every piece of literature, whether it’s an epic novel or a haiku, has some sort of structure–which is simply the organization of the material.

Tip #3: Even though “Mother Tongue”is a short story, analyze its plot or progression.

I hesitate to use the word “plot” in the case of “Mother Tongue” because it doesn’t seem to have much of one, at least not in the traditional sense that most fiction stories do. But it does have a loose progression.

Tan talks about growing up with different forms of English and how that affected both her childhood and adult life. She talks about the challenges her mother faced with her “limited” English. Finally, she wraps it up nicely with a note about how she now uses those various forms of English in her career.

Tip #4: Write about the changing views of Tan on language.

Tan mentions several different emotions when talking about her mother’s English. She goes from being ashamed of her mother’s speaking–feeling that other people will judge her family–to being proud of the rich culture behind her mother’s English.

Tip #5: Think about the essay’s structure and how effective it is for the story itself.

Spend some time evaluating the essay’s structure, and analyze whether it is right for “Mother Tongue.” Would it have been better as a novel or a poem, or is a short narrative the way to go? Does the story feel complete as is? Does it drag on too much? All of these questions will help you pinpoint the essay’s effectiveness.

Tip #6: Explain how Tan’s love of language shows throughout the story.

Near the beginning of “Mother Tongue,” Tan says, “I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language–the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth.”

Remember this quote as you read through and relate the rest of the content to this idea.

Tone in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

In literature, tone is the feeling an author conveys to the audience. There can be one tone throughout the entire piece or many different tones. Tan does a great job incorporating several different tones into such a short piece. Now all you have to do is analyze them.

Tip #7: Hone in on the different tones throughout the story, and write about them.

From guilty to gracious, annoyed to appreciative, Amy Tan uses a few different tones throughout “Mother Tongue.” Identify these tones and explain how they are employed (the language used to convey the tones), and what effect it has on the reader.

Tip #8: Analyze the tonal shifts.

Because there are quite a few different tones in this short story, they transition from one to the other. A good literary analysis might explain these transitions, and how they affect the structure of the piece. How do each of these shifts in tone help move the reader along in the story?

Tip #9: Think about the overall tone of “Mother Tongue” and how that tone is created.

Just because there are several tones throughout “Mother Tongue” doesn’t mean that there isn’t one overarching tone. In fact, Tan uses the same tone in the beginning and end of her story–the reader starts at a homebase, sees the journey Tan is leading them on, and returns right back to where they started but with more insight than before.

This progression is typical of many stories, both long and short, but in this case you can apply it to tone as well. Be sure to focus on specific language, punctuation, and imagery used to create the overall tone.

Tip #10: Tan says that she has always been rebellious. Write about how this shows in the tone of her writing.

When writing about becoming an English major in college, Tan said that she had always been rebellious. How does she use language in the rest of her story to portray this rebelliousness?

(Hint: Think about how she defies modern language standards and refuses to call her mother’s language “broken” or “limited” without putting those terms in quotation marks.)

Final Thoughts on “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Image by Gideon Tsang via Wikimedia Commons

Though “Mother Tongue” is a very short narrative, it’s rich in content. Symbolism, structure, and tone are only a few literary devices you can use for your analysis, but they are the ones that’ll help you get the most out of your analysis.

It’s not about how long a story is, but rather about its content.

To see how other students have handled their analyses, check out these example essays on “Mother Tongue.”

MLA Citation for “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The McGraw Hill Reader: Issues Across the Disciplines. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 62-67. Print.

Hopefully this list leaves you feeling like you’re no longer short on ideas for your analysis of this short story. After you’ve written your literary analysis, and you don’t feel very confident in it, pass it along to one of the Kibin editors. They’ll help you make Amy Tan proud by assisting with proper language and other editing.

Good luck!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

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