Let’s, like, stop being so judgemental about language

Taking a harsh approach to oracy doesn’t help students’ development and could even hamper it, argues Nina Kewin

Nina Kewin

oracy schools

Oracy is experiencing a revival across the education sector, with its value and potential impact increasingly recognised and celebrated. 

At the same time, unfortunately, some schools feel the need to isolate, denigrate and even ban the perceived misuse of the word “like”.

Let’s be honest, a lot of us will have had conversations about this before.

Quick read: Pupil talk: 6 questions to see if you are getting it right

Quick listen: How misbehaviour can be a sign of language disorder

Want to know more? How learning discussion skills can deliver social change

Many of us will have chastised a child for using “like” in a non-grammatical way. 

In 2010, actress Emma Thompson advised pupils at a school she was visiting that she would never use “like” or “innit” when speaking because, in her view, they would sound “stupid”.

“And you’re not stupid,” she confirmed. How reassuring.

Voiced pauses, or fillers, as they’re often labelled, are commonplace and perfectly normal. 

I have a distinct memory of something similar happening in my English lessons as a student. My teacher had a habit of using the phrase “in effect” during explanations and discussions.  

This often meant that he used false starts, correcting himself occasionally and ensuring his sentences were less than standard or complete. Did it reduce his articulacy or dilute the meaning of his address? No. It made me far more curious and attentive. I hung on to his every word.

He was, either consciously or subconsciously, demonstrating that he was thinking. Purposeful oracy within the classroom is unscripted and often impromptu – if not, we as professionals could just pop on a YouTube video and enjoy a cup of tea.

Justice and ‘word jail’

I am not saying that we should all start to pepper our conversations with “like”. But I am asking the question: is a pupil’s use of the word so detrimental to the quality of what he or she is saying?

Does it really make them sound “stupid”? Could it be, instead, evidence that a pupil is actually thinking and taking a moment to work out an improved way to say something? 

A Bradford primary school that banned "like" sends the word to its displayed “word jail” because, according to headteacher Christabel Shepherd, often the children “haven’t made a sentence at all”. 

But if we quantify oracy as simply a series of sentences, we are missing the point. Pupils can practise reading sentences aloud – but thinking and resilience are, arguably, in greater need of development: skills that grow as pupils respond confidently but spontaneously when challenged.

I have taken steps to prioritise focused oracy in my classroom and I have observed that, for many children, not speaking can be the greater fear.

A silence of five seconds can feel like an eternity when peers are listening. The word “like” – among others – can provide a momentary safety net in a pressurised situation.  

If a parent took their child’s stabilisers off their bike before the child felt ready, that child’s confidence would be damaged and the outcome could be over-dependence on something they may not otherwise have needed. 

The analogy is a simplistic one but we know that if we gradually remove linguistic support systems instead of banning them, children learn to be independent. Could we treat “like” in the same way?

Just as we encourage drafting for written pieces, let’s get our pupils talking with confidence first, and “like” may eventually disappear. It did for me.

Plus, there are many other fillers, used by adults and children alike, that send other negative and unhelpful signals to an audience. Step forward “basically” and “obviously”. Maybe we do need a word jail after all.

Nina Kewin is a lead practitioner at St Christopher’s C of E High School in Accrington

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Nina Kewin

Nina Kewin is a lead practitioner at St Christopher’s C of E High School in Accrington

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