Reflecting on … whether or not to correct students’ speech patterns.

The great difficulty of teachers … is that they have to fight against the evil habits of speech contracted in the home and street.”  (Newbolt Report, 1921).

The Newbolt report predated the adoption of Received Pronunciation as Standard by the BBC by one year.  It reminds us of a time when linguistic discrimination was rampant and local dialects both frowned upon and judged.  The poem I most vividly remember learning at school is “Six O’Clock News” by Tom Leonard.  It simultaneously introduced me to two powerful ideas: that the dialect I heard spoken around me was not “normal” but sounded distinct and strange to the vast majority of British people, and that people received strong messages about the “right” and “wrong” way to speak that were far from culturally neutral.

In many ways, it is easy to think that we have moved beyond this era, with accents and dialogues being celebrated rather than shamed.  However a 2013 survey by ITV’s Tonight programme found that judgements about people’s speech patterns remained prevalent.  Famously, a Devonshire accent was judged as most friendly, a Liverpool accent as least trustworthy and the constructed voice of received pronunciation continued to be rated as the most intelligent-sounding accent of all British dialects.  The same survey found nearly a third of British people believed themselves to have been discriminated against because of their accent.  In an informal review of my students, sadly all of the students with a strong accent reported being teased or mocked for their way of speaking at some point in their school careers.  This is clearly unacceptable and needs to be fought.  However there is far more to speech than simple accent; patterns of sentence construction, choice of vocabulary and the role of slang all pose challenges to the speaker and listener.

The dilemma I find as a teacher is how to deal with students’ informal speech patterns and vocabulary that is not “standard English.”  I often reflect on whether, in correcting such speech, I am not falling into the old trap of forcing a dominant mode of speech upon people who are already struggling to express themselves, rather than celebrating their contribution.  What is the appropriate response to being told that a particular prime minister was “peng”? (This especially stumped me as I had not, at that point, tracked the change from the irrelevant concept of being physically attractive to the wider use of being ‘good’.)   I found one group of year 9s fiercely arguing about how to describe the Victorians’ reactions to modern policing methods and the catching of Dr Crippen by telegraph.  They knew what they wanted to say but could not agree whether “gassed” was the right word to use or would get them “into trouble”.

The dangers with policing vocabulary and speech are clear:

  • Over-correction of speech can demotivate students and make them uncomfortable sharing their ideas outside of a limited circle. Most teachers are aware of the potentially demoralising impact of tearing apart a piece of extended writing with red pen and spelling corrections, and most recognise a similar issue with verbal contributions. This is particularly likely to disempower vulnerable groups, many of whom already underachieve shamefully in our society.
  • The imposition of a particular vocabulary or pattern of speech may not even be academically justified. At some point many acceptable speech forms were considered to be disreputable slang.  Language grows and changes.  Who is to say that in a decade’s time historians will not happily talk about how “gassed” everyone was about Victoria’s diamond jubilee?
  • Focusing on how students express themselves can lead to a shift away from a focus on their academic ideas and conceptual understanding. If this acts as a distraction from core learning, then we have created a problem for ourselves and our students.

In this spirit, Barnes, Britton and Rosen suggest that all forms of talk should be equally valued in the classroom.  Instead of non-Standard English being corrected, and students’ home cultures being “suppressed” informal talk can be used to encourage pupil participation in discussion.  It certainly feels that this would be a much more empowering approach than that advocated in the Newbolt Report.

However, sometimes the dangers of not giving students feedback on their speech can be overlooked.  As a state school pupil at Oxford University I experienced discomfort at contributing to discussion for the first time in my life.  I found there was a wide range of concepts and ideas that I had encountered in books or articles but hadn’t previously discussed.  Sadly, too often, inaccurate pronunciation of such concepts distracted from the point I was making, and in a number of seminars I found myself reluctant to contribute due to the unsupportive atmosphere.  It would have found it much more helpful to be introduced to complex language in an appropriate way, and it was those tutors who offered appropriate corrections who did most to extend my vocabulary.  In less structured discussions, I frequently ended up remaining in my verbal comfort zone, rather than using appropriate academic language for fear I would get it wrong.  In this sense we have a responsibility as teachers to expose our students to academic language, to teach them how to say words and to offer correction and advice (in a supportive way) when they need it.  I would like our students to go out into the world confident in their speech and ready to engage in debate rather than holding back.

I have also prepared A-level students for interviews (university and apprenticeship) where the quality of their ideas may be hidden by their inability to target their language to their audience.  We could argue for a world in which they would be judged only on the quality of their ideas, rather than the way in which they explain them.  However that world does not seem to exist.  Thus, it is vital to give them the kind of feedback that helps them to select appropriate language and create the impression they want.  With the year 9s we agreed that “gassed” showed an important understanding that the Victorians were excited by policing developments and the work of detectives.  We were able to select alternative language that better expressed the concept in academic language for their feedback, although we did agree that “gassed” would work in an informal setting.

In the past I am conscious that I may have over-corrected students’ verbal contributions and written work, and risked demotivating them.  However, nor do I want to disempower my students by sending them into the world unprepared for the expectations of their audience.  Bordieau’s idea of cultural capital is important here.  If students can recognise, accept and celebrate different ways of speaking whilst having the flexibility to adapt their speech to their purpose, just as they do their writing, then they will have been empowered rather than disempowered by correction or feedback.  As with anything in teaching, there is no simple way to get this right, but on reflection, it feels like a worthwhile goal for which to aim.

Questions that help me to reflect on correcting students’ speech patterns:

  • Is this a technical term that they need help to accessing if they are to develop as an ‘expert’?
  • Is the meaning or purpose of their contribution unclear, in which case will it be helpful to ‘rephrase’ or offer advice?
  • Are my students exercising choice over how they present themselves orally, or are they limited in their choice of language? If the latter, what is the most supportive way I can extend their reach?

Interested in further reading?  I’ve reflected a lot on this one and found Coultas a helpful introduction to different viewpoints:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

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