Should you correct your pupils’ speech?

Policing non-standard English when pupils talk might seem to be a good way to standardise how they write, but the practice could do more harm than good, researchers suggest
13th September 2022, 4:51pm
Should you correct your pupils’ speech?


Should you correct your pupils’ speech?

We know that classroom talk matters. 

Research has shown that the talk children experience at school has consequences for their learning and cognitive development. Pupils who participate in academically robust classroom discussion - what researchers often refer to as “dialogic talk” or “dialogue” - make greater progress than their peers who have not had this experience. 

In England, gains in achievement have been greatest for pupils from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, underlining the importance of dialogic talk to social mobility.

However, several challenges confront teachers who seek to promote dialogic teaching and learning, such as pressure from high-stakes standardised testing and a broader discourse that is belittling classroom interaction in favour of teacher-dominated classrooms. 

In new research published in Literacy, we investigate an additional challenge, namely that educational policy and prescriptions around “standard English” are undermining attempts to encourage dialogic talk. 

Various policies can pressure schools into policing pupils’ spoken language, often with the justification that “improving” talk will lead to the “improvement” of writing.

But does correcting pupils’ spoken language actually improve their writing? To what extent does children’s spoken dialect influence their writing? And what consequences might language policing have for pupil participation and learning? We set out to address these questions in our research. 

To do this, we looked at primary school children’s writing, ran interviews with teachers and focus groups with children, examined video recorded literacy lessons, and analysed Ofsted inspection reports and government language policy.

So, what did we find? 

What is dialogic talk?

First, some context. We mentioned earlier that we know that dialogic talk contributes to pupil progress. But what exactly is this type of talk?

Dialogic talk involves active pupil participation in the co-construction of knowledge. Teachers probe pupil responses, pushing them to extend and clarify their thinking. Pupils listen carefully to each other and to their teacher, and seek to build on, challenge, or clarify others’ claims, and offer alternative explanations. 

Significantly, reasoning is valued over “correct” forms of expression, providing pupils with a safe space within which to hone their ideas. Pupils think out loud using the language in which they are most confident. For many, this will be their local, non-standardised dialect. 

‘Standard’ English: myths and misconceptions

Competing with the proven benefits of dialogic talk are policy demands for teachers and pupils to speak in ways deemed to conform with standardised English and subjective notions of “appropriateness”, “clarity” and “articulacy”.

The use of spoken standardised English is framed as a legal requirement for teachers to model and promote, is a core aspect of curricula content, and is something Ofsted have long deemed to be an indicator of high-quality teaching (as demonstrated in our previous work). Throughout these policies, written and spoken grammar are conflated, and “standard English” is framed using evaluative adjectives such as “correct” and “proper”, rendering “non-standard” English as “inappropriate” and “incorrect”. 

These prescriptive ideas about language inevitably come to be reproduced in schools, where teachers feel compelled to police non-standardised grammar in classroom talk, often with the assumption that this will lead to improvements in writing. 

Yet, there is simply no evidence that the policing of speech will help children conform to the conventions of written standardised English.

Does non-standard spoken grammar transfer to writing?

Moreover, as our research has shown, features of spoken dialect grammar are relatively infrequent in pupils’ writing. We examined the English books of 65 Year 5 and 6 pupils in two schools in London and Leeds (approximately 140,000 words of writing) and found that non-standardised grammar occurred at an average rate of just over one instance per thousand words. Most of these occurrences related to subject-verb agreement (for example, “His parents was really wealthy”) and past/past participle forms of irregular verbs (for example, “Now the siren has went off”). 

This indicates that if teachers want to develop pupils’ command of standardised grammar in writing, the verb phrase (a part of a sentence consisting of a verb, or main verb following a modal or one or more auxiliaries - for example, “can see” or “had been waiting”) will be a key area to focus on.

In line with previous research, some of the forms routinely corrected in pupils’ speech did not occur at all in their writing, and so should not be a focus of attention where the aim is to develop pupils’ literacy. Among these was the use of “ain’t” (for example, “I ain’t got any”), which is clearly identified by young people as a feature only of speech.

Nonetheless, teachers we interviewed in Leeds felt that their pupils’ spoken language did affect the quality of their writing, explaining that they would correct their pupils’ speech as well as their writing, at least on some occasions. Pupil focus groups reciprocated this, with pupils commenting on teacher corrective strategies, including one teacher who had instigated a “ban” on words that were symbolic of spontaneous speech, such as “like” and “basically”.

In particular, the teachers highlighted non-standardised “was” (as in, “Her eyes was shining”) as a “huge” issue that comes through “massively in writing”. Yet, we found this form to be relatively infrequent in their pupils’ written work (less than one per 1,000 words), and thus not a significant barrier to pupils’ developing literacy. 

Non-standardised “was” is regularly highlighted as a “problem” and has long been vilified in government-designed policy, being flagged as a common “non-standard” form that teachers should draw attention to and correct. 

As one teacher told us: “You have to use ‘was’ and ‘were’ correctly, and if you’re not, the children use ‘was’ and ‘were’ incorrectly and then they write it down incorrectly and then they’re suddenly not writing standard English and then they’re not at age-related expectation”.

Clearly, teachers feel under intense pressure to monitor both their own and their pupils’ speech, based on the incorrect assumption that non-standardised speech directly influences writing.

What are the consequences of language policing?

But far from improving pupils’ writing, we found that attempts to control and correct pupils’ speech are actually likely to close down interactions and limit opportunities for dialogic teaching and learning. 

Pupils need space to process information and develop their ideas during challenging classroom discussion. As one pupil told us, “sometimes you’ve got to like… think”. 

In these moments, pupils’ speech will inevitably include hesitation and fillers, as well as features of their local dialect, where these are part of their everyday language. Policing these elements of language sends a message to pupils that their home dialect (which has strong links to their identity) has no value in the classroom. This may be detrimental to their confidence, motivation and sense of self.

When it comes to writing, correction of non-standardised forms without clear and detailed explanations are unlikely to work and may be detrimental to pupils’ confidence or lead to confusion and hypercorrection (for example, “She was were was hiding”). 

A more powerful approach may be to conceptualise grammar as a series of choices to be made, as opposed to prescriptive and tightly regulated rules.

How can we exploit the power of talk for learning?

What, then, does all of this mean for teachers?

Despite the attention it receives, spoken dialect grammar is not a major issue in relation to developing children’s writing. Yet the narrative that spoken dialect is a “problem” is driving policy and practices that are detrimental to classroom talk and pupil learning. 

This must be urgently addressed if we are to exploit the full potential of talk for learning and for addressing educational inequities.

To facilitate this, language itself should be a topic for dialogic discussion in schools. Pupils should have the opportunity to learn about their local dialect and its relationship to standardised English and be encouraged to reflect on their language choices and abilities. 

Valuing the dialects and languages pupils use at home and making them a legitimate object of study is likely to develop pupils’ confidence and make them more likely to participate in class discussion. 

Likewise, teacher professional development should include ”knowledge about language” so that teachers gain an awareness of the full potential of spoken language, and, importantly, how language connects with broader social and political structures around inequality and power. Because, ultimately, ideologies about language are never just about language.

Julia Snell is an associate professor of English language at the University of Leeds.

Ian Cushing is a senior lecturer in English and education at Edge Hill University

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