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Raising the standard

It's not the when, it's the how: Sue Palmer tackles the dialect of our national institutions.

Standard English - that phrase so beloved of the authors of the National Curriculum - refers to a particular dialect of the English language. Linguistically speaking, all dialects are equal, so there should be nothing to choose between Standard English and any of the other dialects of English (characterised by a consistent grammar and vocabulary) which are spoken in these isles. Socially speaking, however, some dialects are considerably more equal than others. By historical and geographical accident, the dialect which we now call Standard has become the dialect of our institutions: government, the law, education.

It is not surprising, then, that the National Curriculum seeks to ensure that all children have access to the standard form of English, which will enable them to move freely within our society. And it would be a strange teacher who wished to deny pupils this entitlement and thus disadvantage them in every type of formal social situation.

The problem is not whether we should teach our children Standard English, but how. When children constantly hear non-standard grammar spoken by their parents, their peers and their heroes in the media, over-zealous or insensitive approaches to teaching standard forms could result in alienation or offence. It is yet another area where primary teachers can find themselves tip-toeing over broken glass.

There are a number of mind-sets that can help. The first is to remember that "non-standard" is not the same thing as "sub-standard". If all dialects are linguistically equal, varieties of English which differ from the standard form are not incorrect, merely different. This means we can concentrate on alerting our pupils to ways in which the language they speak is different from Standard English. We can explain why Standard English is useful, and ensure they know the standard versions. We can expect them to use the standard form of the language where it's appropriate - in written work and when speaking in relatively formal situations, such as in class. (Where it's appropriate - as in informal playground conversations between pupils who share a dialect or adolescent argot - we should keep our noses out, and let the English language continue its remarkable development.) We should also stop worrying about accent. Standard English can be spoken in any accent, as James Naughtie, Andy Kershaw and Janet Street-Porter demonstrate admirably on radio and TV. As long as pronunciation is clear so listeners can hear and understand the speaker, accent is irrelevant. Clarity of pronunciation then becomes a matter of good manners for a good reason, rather than a question of cultural imperialism.

It's also important not to confuse Standard English with formal English. Many people (including teachers) speak Standard English all the time, varying degrees of formality depending upon the circumstances. At its most informal, standard English is probably not that far removed from the way most pupils speak - just a few key grammatical differences.

Bearing all this in mind, here are nine ways to tackle the teaching of Standard English: 1. Encourage interest in language in general - word origins, shades of meaning, figures of speech, and so on - so that investigation of Standard English is just another interesting aspect of language study.

2. Teach some grammatical terminology. It helps you and your pupils to talk about language, so you can point out grammatical differences.

3. Listen for the key non-standard grammatical forms used by your pupils, and keep a note of them. When discussion of Standard English crops up in class, you can draw on this list for examples of non-standard usage and provide the standard versions. (Don't mention to pupils where you got the examples. ) 4. Video episodes of regional soap operas for pupils to spot and discuss dialect differences. If the issue of Standard English is a sensitive one in your classroom, it can be less threatening to start by looking at dialects well removed from the pupils' own.

5. Set a good example! To become familiar with standard grammatical patterns, children need to hear them frequently, and for some children the only consistent model of spoken Standard English is their teacher.

6. Encourage reading. Good children's books provide a consistent model of written Standard English, and many famous dialect-speakers vouch for the importance of their reading in alerting them to the standard forms.

7. Watch out for non-standard English in the direct speech of fictional characters (Pod and Homily, for instance, in The Borrowers and Les in Terry on the Fence). Discuss their speech to help alert children to non-standard forms; discuss why the author made these characters non-standard speakers to alert them to the importance of being able to switch to Standard whenever they want to.

8. Take an interest in the children's own language, including modern slang - it's often expressive, vibrant language, and provides many starting points for talking about language in general. Slang is a sort of jargon specific to certain groups, usually defined by age. Try compiling a Chronicle of Twentieth Century Slang by interviewing parents, grandparents, etc.

9. Help children recognise and celebrate the dialect of their own region or ethnic group: invite dialect speakers into school, seek out dialect stories and poems. Appreciation of language variety is a great starting point for any language teaching. As my granny would put it: "When tha gets down to it, our Sue, folks is all t'same, an' they're all different . . . and that's what makes t'world go round."

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