Empowering speech, challenges on ‘correctness’ and some questions for sociolinguists.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called ‘Modelling good speech: Let’s talk properly‘ and, on a whim, I recycled it very recently.  It’s very much a ‘from the hip’ kind of blog but, nonetheless, most of the responses I get are positive, including from English teachers.  However, there has always been some heavy – even angry – criticism including most recently from various people including sociolinguists like Rob Drummond and commentators like Oliver Kamm from The Times.  I have just found this article that pretty much rips my blog apart on a blog for English Language A level students  – it captures some of the negative responses: http://englishlangsfx.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/language-discourses-issue-of-proper.html.  I tend to filter out the outrage but it’s impossible to be criticised so robustly and not take notice.  So, as promised in my twitter exchange with Rob, Oliver and James Durran, here is a follow-up. I have genuine questions.

The context for my original post was working in a very mixed school where the range of speech modes was huge and where the issues of disadvantage and empowerment were evident daily.  One example I often think of was hearing a successful academic student with a key leadership role giving a report in assembly after a very special school trip.  This was, without question, an occasion for formal speech where a formal speech code would have been appropriate, not least because he was a significant role-model. Through-out his speech he used ‘done’:  “We done a trek; we done a trip to the market; we done a presentation”.  He was an EAL student having arrived from another country some 10 years before but my instinct was that, since he had been in that school for six years, we should have done a better job in teaching him the formal speech code that would have led him to say ‘we went on a trek; we gave a presentation’ and so on.

My sense is that, without that fluency and self-awareness, this student will be undermined and undeservedly disempowered in the real world where formal speech carries significant value. Is that wrong?  It was also my strong feeling that a major reason this student had not yet fully mastered appropriate formal speech was that, throughout his time in the school, teachers had been reluctant to address the issue on a day to day basis for fear of being insensitive or denigrating his default speech mode.  I discussed it with him explicitly – because he had interviews to prepare for.  He saw it as a failing of his education that he hadn’t been taught to ‘speak well’  – as he put it – even when he wanted to and he was concerned that the habits were now hard to break.

Another context is that the Speaking and Listening component of English GCSE, while it remained, had yielded startlingly good results, catapulting the school into the top 5% of value-adding schools for English GCSE overall.  Did this match their actual confidence with speaking in general or their underlying skills with English language? No.  It was an illusion generated by intensive scripted rehearsal with serious consequences – because there had been no emphasis on building authentic confidence with formal speech.

In response, we introduced a wide-reaching oracy programme to address the issue with structured speech activities across the curriculum. Project Soapbox – giving every KS3 child an opportunity to make a public speech – and poetry recitations were becoming a feature of school life alongside more regular opportunities for debates, presentations and student-led teaching episodes.  More simply, we were trying to develop a culture were students gave more extended verbal answers in class and, yes, where certain common ungrammatical phrases were challenged/redirected/corrected.

This has nothing to do with dialects or accents.  I used to work in Wigan where accents were so localised that, even as a Southerner, after three years I could tell if someone came from Leigh, Wigan, Skelmersdale or St Helens. It was part of everyday chatter that accents and phrases were discussed. My own use of English was a constant source of banter with students.  Some students would use phrases like ‘ave for t’ go for t’ get bus’  (affott go fott get bus). That’s the kind of linguist diversity that we should all embrace.  But those students could also say ‘I have to catch a bus’ if they needed to; if they chose to. My use of ‘properly’ is only meant in reference to that context when students simply make mistakes in relation to a formal code that they themselves are seeking to use.

However, as a result of this debate, I understand that it is important to be very clear about context and terminology and I regret the rather flippant approach taken in my original post.   It was meant as a provocation but that now seems inappropriate and certainly open to misinterpretation of the intentions.  If there is a bit of an us/them element, the ‘us’ is anyone who is fluent in using formal English appropriate to any formal setting whenever they wish; the ‘them’ is anyone disempowered by not having full access to that code.  My intentions are good – despite the dismay and disapproval my post generated for some.

I am keen to understand how we can move forward with this vitally important agenda whilst also taking account of sociolinguistic factors.

I wonder if we could all agree on some things:

  • Language is constantly changing so any sense of ‘correctness’ could only ever be temporary in a very specific context and, as such, is problematic.
  • There are multiple forms of language that make up what we call English, each of which has value; the relative value placed on any one code is arbitrary and driven by social factors, snobbishness and so on.
  • The speech of those in positions of power should not, on principle, dictate what is correct or proper for everyone in their everyday speech.  ‘Correct’ and ‘proper’ have no value at all as terms for language in general.
  • At any given time, de facto, there is a widely accepted formal speech code that can be defined through common grammatical rules and vocabulary albeit with wide- ranging, constantly evolving alternatives.  This code is aligned to written Standard English and the common speech mode of those in powerful privileged positions and, as such, is, de facto, empowering, whether we like it or not.  It is important for children and adults to have access to this speech code and to be able to use it in the appropriate context – or at least have the capacity to choose to use it.
  • We are never talking about or privileging certain accents: formal speech, however it is defined, can be and is spoken in any accent.

In order to have a discussion about speech amongst a group of educators or with our students, it is useful to have some terminology we can use to describe a situation where one form of speech might not be appropriate  – i.e. where, as a teacher, you might suggest that your student says something in a different way.  I find it hard not to say ‘incorrect’ –  but I understand why people might object.  Do we ever say speech is inaccurate, incorrect, ungrammatical, inappropriate? Is language really that fluid? Do we always have to add the tagline, ‘in this particular context’.  Can we not agree that, if we are talking specifically about teaching students to use the prevailing formal speech code, then some structures are ‘correct’ in the context of that code – or is ‘ungrammatical’ better as I’ve seen Oliver suggest? Or is ‘inappropriate’ always the best term?

Let’s use some specifics – avoiding my flippant pet-peeves, which, I readily acknowledge, simply reveal my prejudices and snobberies.  I’m also avoiding phrases that might be associated with friends chatting.  I’ve never said anything to suggest that we’re trying to mandate how people speak to each other outside a formal speech context. These are all things I’ve heard said in school/classroom context:

  • We done an experiment.
  • We was writing a story.
  • How much people was there?
  • What was you saying about it?
  • She done excellent in that performance.

Is nothing in speech ever wrong?  Is it never wrong in a school classroom context?  Or is it simply inappropriate?  Do I, as a teacher, have the right to determine that, in my classroom, we use formal speech codes and set some parameters for appropriateness? Or, does a school  – supported by a Headteacher or school policy – have the right to assert that, in all our educational interactions, we use formal speech codes?  If so, what do we do and say when students use other codes – or simply make mistakes when trying to use the formal code, assuming we can tell the difference?

If we agree that we want to empower all our students with the ability to use formal speech when they choose to, isn’t it much harder to achieve in practice if we are often inhibited by the need to be sensitive to and give value to linguistic variations at the same time?  Isn’t it easier to say that, at school, this is how we all speak? Why? Because, in life, it will empower you and we need to give you as much practice as possible.

This is especially difficult to manage when we have learners of different kinds to cater for:

  • First language English speakers simply improving their vocabulary and fluency but living in a world dominated by formal spoken English
  • First language English speakers who routinely use a different code in their home life and peer group associated with their family/social origins
  • First language English speakers who switch codes routinely between home and school and peer group but predominantly use a local speech code with wide ranging alternative uses of grammar and vocabulary, independent of social background
  • ESOL/EAL speakers who are new to the country and want to learn formal English or  to match the form of language they use in their native language.
  • 2nd generation EAL speakers who predominantly speak in English learned from other EAL speakers in their peer group and at home.

If I’m learning to speak more fluently, simply as a first language speaker, I’d hope my teachers would give me appropriate direction. However, what if they find it hard to challenge my ‘errors’ (if that’s what they are?)  but not those of other members in the class where they are not short-term errors but routine parts of their everyday speech? Or is this just down to my parents and off-limits to teachers unless, very literally, I am giving a speech?

If I learn French, I don’t want to learn the equivalent of ‘we done an experiment’ or ‘she done excellent’.  I don’t want to be told that is fine – except in a formal context. I want to learn a grammatically accurate form I can use anywhere. This was the point of me citing the David Sedaris story  from ‘Me talk pretty some day’ in my blog. ‘He nice, the Jesus‘ is funny.  It makes light of the challenge of language learning – it’s good comic material.  There’s always a sense that learning a language is aimed at a particular form of it in the main, especially at the early stages. That’s sensible enough isn’t it? If that is right for me learning French, why isn’t it right for an EAL student?  For them, isn’t it more helpful if, at all times during the school day, they are being directed towards a certain speech code if they simply want to learn to speak formal English as well as they can?

If my son said something like ‘I’m going shops now, innit’, as his parent, I would challenge him on that.  Is that not my responsibility as a parent to guide my child’s speech? Is there a line between ‘teaching to speak’ and ‘teaching to speak well’? Would any of the sociolinguists  I’ve angered handle this differently?  Is there a line where language becomes slang or falls below a standard that is appropriate even at home? Who decides?  And is it right that I have a different set of rules for my children compared to my students – if we share the goal that all of them must conquer the challenge of using formal spoken English with fluency and confidence?  I worry a lot that we’re simply fuelling a divide here.  Formal language for some but not for all? I’m ok, my kids are ok but you don’t need what we have? To me, that really is patronising and disempowering.

If your answer is but of course we also teach formal language my questions are about the practicalities.  It’s quite a subtle message to give consistently that ‘it’s not wrong, it’s just inappropriate’ and I can imagine that slipping quite often even if the intent is there amongst teachers working with the best intentions.  Surely that’s less of a problem than saying nothing and accepting any form of speech you hear – even when your instinct is that it’s inappropriate for the context?

My overriding sense is that, given the complexities of teaching a diverse group of students, it is legitimate and pragmatic to assert that, whilst recognising diversity in all manner of ways, we want all students to learn to use formal speech codes and that, therefore, a school needs to focus on it and reinforce it in every in-school context.  I accept that calling this ‘speaking properly’ is unhelpful if the wider diversity message isn’t also strong.  However, we have to be realistic about the pace of social change.  It might be important to challenge the power structures around dominant language codes and to  champion greater diversity and confidence with multiple speech codes – but that’s the long game.  An academic debate about sociolinguistics and the injustice of language snobbery is no use to a student wrestling with formal English if, as a result of institutionalised awkwardness, they never master it – and meanwhile, the students down the road are walking tall because they can switch codes with ease with all the advantages that brings.

I hope that’s a helpful contribution.  More questions than answers.





  1. This is interesting as I think you are both arguing for the same idea, but have taken very different starting points. This has led to an intransigently oppositional rhetoric on both sides.

    It is, of course, quite possible for higher order communication to occur whether a speaker is using a standard or non-standard form. For instance Tom’s concerns about the high attaining EAL student’s report back in assembly is around the lack of development of his comments as much as the use of ‘done’ as a multi-use past participle. And I am sure that Nick would want all students to be able to articulate higher order thinking in whatever language variety they choose.

    I, therefore, find myself in the difficult position of agreeing with you both.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hey – see how easily discussion of language makes us worry about lexical choice. I meant ‘rhetoric’ as the mode of communication and ‘oppositional’ in that you don’t currently agree.

        The answer is fairly simple: we need to give students access to a range of linguistic codes whilst ensuring that they retain their own. We need to ensure that students don’t feel that their is any hierarchy of codes, however understand that society judges us by the code we choose.

        Therefore I know that SE is in no way superior to any other dialect, however I also know that having access to SE will make life easier for my students. Therefore, as with the rest of what I do as a teacher, I provide positive models – ‘it might sound better if you say it like this’ – rather than suggest that they abandon their way of saying it.

        And if that leaves me open to criticism by sociolinguists then so be it as I probably agree with them wholeheartedly.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good clear arguments there, thanks.

    By way of entertainment, here’s an actual conversation between my mother (then 93 & suffering from Alzheimer’s) and the manager of a care home offering her a place:

    Manager: When you was working, what job did you do?
    Mother (trying to be as argumentative as possible): Were. Not “was”. “When you were working …”


  3. This is a very interesting response and one that I can find a lot more common ground with than the original post. I should have copied you in to Nick’s guest blog as it was featured on my blog and I posted it for him, so apologies for not doing that in the first place.

    The line near the end where you say “An academic debate about sociolinguistics and the injustice of language snobbery is no use to a student wrestling with formal English…” is one that I’d still take issue with, because I think that is exactly the debate we should be having with all students from the start of KS3 (if not earlier). The fact that we often don’t is perhaps a reflection of the stripping down of the secondary English curriculum and the removal of what I would see as genuine language study from much of years 7-11. Where such debates are kicked off and where some introductory linguistics work is done with students, I think we can see a benefit: students can explicitly discuss style shifting, accent, dialect and sociolect, appropriateness, register and all those other concepts that we are now discussing. What better way to draw attention to it than studying it and interrogating it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah. Thanks Dan. That’s a good point. I agree – my point was meant in relation to us having the debate as teachers at one remove from the students. It didn’t occur to me to think about this as a debate with students. You’re way ahead of me there. Yes, if we’re having these discussions at KS3, then the formal speech development element would have a strong healthy backdrop. It’s a question of time in the curriculum and teachers having the required knowledge to handle the debate in a way that generates the response you describe. Thanks for the response.


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