Modelling Good Speech. Let’s talk properly.

We’re building momentum in our drive to make the art of rhetoric a cornerstone of our approach to teaching and learning.  One aspect of that is a strategy to address common issues with student speech.  I think we need to be very explicit about the quality of speech we’re aiming for and not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of squeamishness that often accompanies this issue.  It’s not snobbish or elitist to assert that there is such a thing as talking properly in English.  Allowing students to go through school without teaching them to speak correctly is actually where the elitism lies; students who can learn formal speech codes at home have a huge advantage over those who can’t.   Of course, alternative modes of speech, different dialects and accents all add to our rich cultural mix. But let’s be clear: every child should be able to speak in standard formal English in the appropriate context if we’re serious about equal opportunities and narrowing gaps. Many of our students are highly articulate but that’s probably as much a function of their family context as a product of what we’ve done at school.  We need to explore ways of getting everyone up to the same standard. 

The Armstrong and Millar RAF sketches do a good job of juxtaposing incongruent accents and vocabulary, to great comic effect.  This makes a good introduction to an assembly. (The video here is the only one without any swearing. I did the research!) But we’re not talking about sounding posh; we’re talking about talking properly in any accent.  Similarly, we’re not necessarily talking about the developmental stages of speaking English as an additional language. That’s a different challenge.   This excerpt from the hilarious David Sedaris book ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ shows how silly we can sound speaking badly in a different language, using translations from his experience of learning French at a language school in Paris.

Screen shot 2015-10-31 at 19.00.43
David Sedaris; Jesus Shaves from ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’. Read the full story here:

Here I am focusing on native speakers of English and the way they talk.  Actually, I should say – the way ‘we’ talk, because this applies to staff as well as students. I think all members of staff in a school should think about their use of speech and take steps to make sure they are modelling good formal speech as often as possible.  That is harder for some than for others but it needs to be done. The ubiquity of poor speech as used by X Factor judges or Match of the Day pundits is problematic; we need to make a big effort to raise students’ awareness of correct speech patterns and give them opportunities to practise.

Here are some of the common speech errors that I think we need to focus on:

I done it; we done lots of great activities in Year 7:  I did it; we did lots of great activities in Year 7. 

You was; we was; where was you yesterday?: You were; we were; where were you yesterday?  

I ain’t done nothing; there isn’t nothing:  I haven’t done anything; there isn’t anything

I could of, we shouldn’t of.  I could have; we shouldn’t have.

We done brilliant; you done excellent; We did brilliantly; you did very well. ( I just heard ‘the boys done exceptional second half‘ on MOTD! Not ‘the boys played exceptionally well in the second half’.

He ran quick; she ate slow; she played superb; he didn’t speak correct: he ran quickly; she ate slowly; she played superbly; he should speak correctly. 

I ate too much crisps; how much people is there in London? I ate too many crisps; how many people are there in London? 

There are less people in the queue; there are less chairs in the back row: there are fewer people in the queue;  there are fewer chairs in the back row. 

Michael and me went cinema; me and Iman got picked. Michael and I went to the cinema; Iman and I got picked. (Simple check: I went to the cinema – never ‘me went to the cinema’)

Please give it to Jim and I: Please give it to Jim and me. (Check. Please give it to I?? No!) 

Want to go shops? We’re going library. Do you want to go to the shops? We’re going to the library. 

We need to write a report,  isn’t it; We need to write a report, don’t we – or simply: we need to write a report. 

I could go on but if we tackle this list, we’ll be onto something.   I do have a few more picky concerns: These are personal bug-bears of mine where it seems that the correct versions are being lost; the incorrect versions almost dominate, as far as I can tell. They are pronunciation issues that they can sometimes even get wrong on Radio 4 – if you can believe that!

controversial/controversy:  These should be pronounced differently:  controVERsial and conTROVersy – not controVERsial and controVERsy.

dissect/bisect. Dissect is linked to disperse, disappear and dispute. It means ‘cut apart’ and should be pronounced DISSect.  However, all too often, dissect is made to rhyme with bisect.  Bisect is linked to binary, biped, bicycle; it means ‘cut in two’.  But Dissect is not DIE-sect. It is DISSect.

We’re not going to succeed by trying to push on all of these issues at once. We’re going to focus on three or four common errors and, when students give answers in class, make speeches or presentations, we’ll ensure that they’re corrected if they make mistakes.  It’s important to emphasise the idea of switching codes; that the way we talk to our family and friends may not be the way we talk in a professional context.  That way, it can be less judgemental or personal to correct someone’s speech.  Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for members of staff whose speech routinely contains some of the incorrect features.  The students might well challenge staff if they make the same mistakes we’re trying to tackle.  We’ll need to see how that goes.

We can all have a bit of a laugh decoding the banter.  Here are some examples from my time at Holland Park:

  • That’s liberties Sir man; innit I’ve done my work..What are you lying for man..look at all my writing. (Two sentences…)
  • That’s Deep…allow it man…I swear down man, that’s a liberty. Libs! (On being given a detention)
  • IS it! Is it that I did that? Am I talking? No. No, I am not talking. Teacher’s a fool man. Swear down. Get me. (On being asked to stop talking in class)
  • You got bare chips man. Allow me some….
  • Leave him man; He’s safe; allow it. ….(A noble act of protection )
  • That is Deep. That is Sick. That is Bad. That is Dark. He is Salt/Beef/Butterz. (Various!)
  • I told him blatant. Dis me: Don’t come to me; don’t even try that. Get me. Dis him: Safe man, safe. I’m joking you. Dis me: Safe,safe, Allow that. (Reported speech)

But, unless those students can also express themselves fluently using proper English when they need to, it’s not actually very funny at all!


  1. In Australia, we do say controVERsy. I do a task with various pronunciations of words, and one they find unusual is conTROVersy. (Jimmy Fallon uses conTROVersy – his argument is that his show airs in England!)

    Otherwise, I totally agree with making kids speak in formal, standard English and in complete sentences in class. My current annoyance is dropping ‘to the’, as in your example ‘Want to go shops?’ I don’t know where this has come from and it is so irritating to correct. That, and using ‘is it?’ as an answer to everything. ‘Miss, what are we doing today?’ ‘We’re writing an essay.’ ‘Oh, is it?’ NO! WRONG! So annoying!


  2. I’m a big fan of your blog and of your ideas on teaching, Tom, but on this issue I think you’re wide of the mark.

    Firstly, as you rightly acknowledge, some of your ideas are simply good old fashioned prejudice, or ‘personal bug-bears’ if you prefer. The fact that variety exists even on that most august of broadcasters, Radio 4, should tell you that ‘correctness’ is very nebulous idea and usually has a lot more to do with power than with language.

    I suppose the thrust of your error is a common one among non-linguists; it’s the odd idea that speech is somehow an aberrant form of writing and if only people would talk using standard written English the world would be a better place. But spontaneous speech just doesn’t work like that. If you don’t believe me have someone record and then transcribe you and your senior colleagues talking in a professional context (of course you’ll need to be unaware you’re being recorded to preserve the validity of the experiment). I think you’ll discover that even the speech of headmasters is a messy affair full of false starts, interruptions, ellipsis and so on.

    Look, there is a lot to commend in your post: the desire to equip young people with a sense of appropriateness; the acknowledgment that speakers code-switch; the importance of formal public speaking (often under valued in schools) etc. Your mistake is to conflate this with silly rules like less/fewer and an odd assertion about how to pronounce ‘dissect’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for an ‘anything goes’ attitude; lots of your examples have real merit because they enable clarity of communication, but before rolling this out as policy, please think about what is going to help your pupils speak appropriately in context and what are just your own personal irritants.

    Do read David Crystal, Oliver Kamm and others on this issue. You could start here

    Oh, and it should really be ‘Imam and I were picked’; ‘to get’ is rather informal in the passive voice, don’t you know?


    • A response from KB @nurturingall Via Twitter:
      Tom is right on the mark on this one.

      I do not even know where to start. Whilst variety should be encouraged, there is a time and place for each one. A presenter asking a contestant on an international programme, ‘Was you surprised?’ causes confusion for viewers particularly those in other countries and for our home students.

      Then there is the fine point that a student telling a teacher: ‘That’s liberties Sir man; innit I’ve done my work..What are you lying for man..look at all my writing.’ is plain rudeness. No parent would like to see their child speaking to a teacher like that. If this is unacceptable to parents, it should be unacceptable to the school.

      Some people would argue that not teaching students when to use standard or non-standard English is doing them a disservice and elitist. This could also be interpreted as, ‘I do not expect any better from you.’ Surely, we are better than that.


  3. Usually like your stuff Tom but this is way off. As a Scot who has taught in London I find it very annoying to have my speech corrected to fit proper English. Mainly as people are ignorant that most Scottish people use aspects of the scots language.

    Language is supposed to change and develop. That is one of he strengths of English across the world. Your just asking the kids to change to suit south east English prejudices. Sad way to do things. I wouldn’t have liked to be a child in that school would have been very alienating.


    • I used to teach in Wigan; regional dialects/accents were part of the culture. I’m fully aware of that issue – but still students learned to speak proper formal English. If you knew my students you’d see how big the gap is between those who can use formal speech modes and those who can’t. If we want to empower all students to have the widest opportunities, we can’t ignore this. It is far more alienating to grow up not realising that ‘we done excellent’ or ‘how much people was there?’ are grammatically incorrect. They aren’t regional accents; they’re just bad English. It’s not the same at all.


  4. Tom,

    Thanks for taking the time to engage on Twitter today.

    This is a fascinating blog and there is a lot to commend here I think. The desire to equip pupils with a command of standard English in situations where it’s contextually appropriate is one of the most powerful things schools can do. And I love the idea among your 10 ‘silver arrows’ to get pupils to respond to questions in full sentences as a precursor to writing. I’ve tried to adopt it in my own teaching and the kids are slowly starting to do it unprompted, so thanks for the tip!

    If I have an objection, and it’s a minor one, is that, as Peter says in his reply, you sometimes lump together your own personal bug-bears with more serious ‘transgressions’ that might actually inhibit communication or disempower a pupil if they used it in a context where it was inappropriate. We all have our own pet hates (I’m a fan of the Oxford comma; hate the fact that ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ now seem to mean the same thing; get a bit worked up – like you – about nominative and accusative pronouns) but to proscribe certain pronunciations and constructions, including those widely accepted, seems to cross the line into something else. The insistence that we distinguish between fewer / less, for example, always seems to me largely predicated on the desire to feel superior as we queue in the ’10 items or less’ checkout! Many of your other examples have much more merit: did / done, for example, might actually inhibit what speaker means to say.

    As Peter also notes, do remember that speech isn’t a deviant form of writing. It is every bit as ‘grammatical’ and follows its own rules and conventions. The sort of speech acts – presentations, debates etc – that demand the type of hyper-correctness you’re talking about aren’t really ‘speech’ at all but something more akin to reading a script aloud.

    So, I wish you the best of luck with your initiative. I’ve no doubt it stems for the noblest of intentions.

    (And I hope Jermaine Jenas accepts your invitation to HGS! He always strikes me as one of the more articulate pundits, but I’ve got to admit he’s a serial offender when it comes to ‘The boy done good’!)


    Liked by 2 people

  5. controversy/controversy – dissect / dissect

    Either pronunciation is acceptable. – from pronunciation website Emma Saying, gives both pronunciations for both words, but specifically highlights contovERSy as being the correct British pronunciation. Numerous people in the comments section of the video have pointed out that contROVersy with a stressed second syllable is a snobbish fad that has been on the rise recently – I couldn’t find much to support that, beyond the fact that the only news article on the issue can be found on the Telegraph’s website (read into that what you will, but they’re never ones to miss a good linguistic panic).


    • I should have made it clear that these are things I hear/perceive as errors. I fully accept that they are niche concerns. It’s a fad. I grew up hearing my mum yell at the Radio 4 presenters when they said controVERsy in the 70s. It’s now virtually ubiquitous so all those websites include it as a correct alternative. It’s not though; not in my book! It’s just a capitulation in the face of mass usage; and so language evolves. 🙂 Maybe, one day, ‘was you nervous’ will be widely accepted too. I know – it’s not the same thing.


  6. So often we think of vocabulary building as primary school issue but in my experience a really focused vocabulary building programme at secondary level can have a very positive impact on attainment, especially when the taught words can be used across the curriculum rather than in specific subject areas. Teachers often take it for granted that children understand their language and references but often they don’t and are too confused or embarrassed to ask. Teachers and TAs need to model both clarity and curiosity when it comes to language. I often ask students and colleagues to clarify their meaning as teen talk changes all the time as does adult language. I think that it’s also important that teachers are able to monitor themselves, in terms of how much they talk, how much jargon they use and how much they listen. Being concise and clear is a skill worth developing.


  7. […] Yesterday we published this document, sending it out to parents. Since working with Martin Robinson on our Trivium-fueled curriculum, Rhetoric has been high on the agenda.  We appointed a Director of Spoken Literacy – Andrew Fitch, our 2 i/c in English – and he has produced some superb guidance for structured speech events in the classroom – as captured here. We have also promoted the idea that teachers should teach student to speak properly – very explicitly, as captured in this post. […]


  8. Perhaps you should start with;
    Your – possession,
    You’re – you are – a favourite bugbear of mine,
    There – some where away from you,
    Their – showing ownership and,
    They’re – the plural of You’re

    But I suspect these may be more focussed towards the written word rather than the spoken word. Still, it wouldn’t harm to at least recognise these differences.

    Liked by 1 person

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