Education

Should We Correct Our Pupils’ Speech?

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We’ve all had it. About twenty minutes into a lesson a small hand is tentatively raised.

“Miss Brown, can I go toilet?”

“No. You can go TO the toilet. You can’t go toilet.”

Any of my ex. pupils will recognise that as my standard response. It didn’t matter if the child was in Year 1 or Year 6 – they were expected to use standard English in my classroom. It’s worth mentioning at this point the exception to that rule (because there is always at least one exception.) When children arrived in my class with no English, as they very often did, then I would, to begin with, accept “toilet” as a request to be excused but would model standard English in my response, “Yes, you can go to the toilet.” Other than that, all children were expected to use standard English. We spent one registration saying the word, “ask” over and over again because of the number of children who had started saying, “arks.” Actually, we spent most that registration saying the word “mask” and working up to dropping the “m.” To some it sounds pedantic and Dickensian but I know of one head teacher who didn’t give a job to a candidate because in her lesson she’d said to the children, “I want to arks you something.” Right or wrong, that is how plenty of employers think.

I raised the issue in a staff meeting following a series of observations that had left me with concerns about the standard of some teachers’ English. I argued that, given the number of children in the school who were learning English as a second language, and given the fact our children would be assessed on their ability to write in standard English it was our duty to model it in the classroom. This meant no more “ain’t,”, “pass me them scissors” or “yous lot.” At the time I didn’t consider this a particularly controversial request. After all, demonstrating the correct use of standard English is one of the Teachers’ Standards. However, this announcement was not well-received. It started with a few questions about why staff couldn’t “be themselves” with their class and then escalated into me being told I was “having a go” at working class staff and, in one case, that I was being racist.

It isn’t racist and it’s not “having a go at working class staff.” I don’t care how teachers speak at home, or pupils for the matter, but in school we set high expectations and that includes the use standard English.  If we truly believe that education is the great equaliser then we have to ensure that a pupil’s background in no way limits their life chances. I presented this case in the staff meeting, arguing that it would only be a matter of years before the children in our school would be competing for jobs and university places with children from far more privileged backgrounds. If a child from Edmonton is going to have the same chances as a child from Sevenoaks, then they need to know how to use standard English. There is an assumption that standard English means speaking with an RP accent – it doesn’t. It is a shared grammar, spelling and punctuation. When you hear Sean Bean or Ray Winstone interviewed, they use standard English. This isn’t about changing people’s accents or discriminating against particular backgrounds.

But am I fighting the wrong battle? Only 15% of the UK population, the wealthiest 15% I might add, use standard English in its entirety (Trudgill 1999). Should I not be fighting for children to have the same opportunities no matter what form of English they use? After all, language is fluid and constantly evolving and many would argue that it’s more important that children feel able to communicate confidently than worry about verb tenses. Would the worry of being corrected have put some children off speaking up in my class?

I put it out to Twitter. The poll is running for another 4 hours so feel free to get involved. With only 47 votes, this is not exactly the most scientific study but, out of those who responded, 74% believe that we should insist on standard English. One teacher got in touch and raised the issue that, like all policies, this would only work if the school insisted on it from Reception. Enforcing standard English in upper KS2 becomes an almost impossible task if it hasn’t been taught previously.

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I will leave you in the hands of the expert, David Crystal. This man taught me how to write. Most of my time studying English was spent reading through his vast body of work and it is my firm belief that “Rediscover Grammar” should be on every teacher’s bookshelf. It is only right he has the final word.

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9 thoughts on “Should We Correct Our Pupils’ Speech?

  1. Interesting post. I think that as we allow for different pronunciation of words from north to south maybe we should be more tolerant of multicultural influence on the language as well. The “axe” instead of ask grates on me too but as a scouser who spent 11 years working at Buckingham palace I’m more than aware that My pronunciation of certain words sounds equally as foreign to some. Where grammar is concerned I try to teach my kids the right way but I’m sure that they will use what they hear from their peer group.
    When I was at school I would always say “I wasn’t doin nothin” in response to a teacher knowing full well it would be corrected as I wanted to sound like my friends. In short I think you’re fighting a losing battle, wether it’s worthwhile or not I don’t know.

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  2. In schools as a teacher we have a duty to educate. I would argue that we need to explain WHY we teach what we do and not just take it for granted that our pupils understand WHY!?… So with standard English, we need to explain what it is and why it is used and that most often our spoken language will differ. Then explore things like double negatives and such sometimes used in popular songs eg “It ain’t necessarily so” and many more…can’t think of any just now!
    So I think you are right to correct and your reasons are valid but we also need to explore why other forms are used more often. Can anyone tell me when “I was like… ” came into common use.? It happens to be one of my pet hates but it is now so common, I guess ” I am just like grumpy or somit”

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  3. I teach high school (secondary) in the states. We have this problem as well. I teach French and the not standard English hinders students abilities to understand the grammar aspects. However, my main point, as a foreign language teacher, is if you can be understood you’ve communicated. Therefore, I tend not to correct English. Even though it kills me when children say, “She don’t care.” UG!

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  4. I think you should correct English when it is not natural for native speakers. For instances, my Polish students always say “Go on PE” instead of “Go to PE”. (I live in Poland and work at an international school.) Or if my ELL students use the wrong gendered pronoun, I always correct them. But when I taught in the States, I didn’t correct non-standard English grammar in speech. Although I corrected it in their writing, and gave grammar lessons on particular grammar where my students made common mistakes, I didn’t like policing their speech. It felt weird, and didn’t do much to change their speech patterns anyway.

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  5. The wonderful David Crystal makes a good point in your video about ‘standard English’ being a ‘minority dialect’. He says we judge it to be ‘correct’ because it’s the version we hear on important occasions, on the BBC etc.

    I’d say it’s right to point out to your students when different forms of English are appropriate, to help them pronounce ‘ask’ as you do, so that they have the ability to produce ‘ask’ rather than ‘axe’ in a job interview situation, if it’s the kind of interview where they will be judged. But things may have changed by the time they grow up. ‘Axe’ was once the ‘standard’ English pronunciation. It may shift that way again. Who knows. https://makingnoiseandhearingthings.com/2013/02/12/ask-vs-aks-let-me-axe-you-a-question/

    English is a fluid thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I absolutely agree. It is important to correct wrong speech. Not just as a teacher. If you are at home and your child speaks improperly and you don’t correct it, she or he (yes, I try to be a gentleman here) will get used to the wrong expression. The matter of pronunciation is the same. You’re there to educate and to guide. So if the way of pronunciation (because in that area, there are always more than one accepted ways to pronounce something) is not accepted, you should correct it.
    Especially in todays world, when you can see short message expressions of chats and Tweets in a school essay. Students have to be told, that there are proper ways to express yourself. I don’t say, never use “social media expressions” but there is the right place and time for it. Language doesn’t just convey information. It contains tradition, culture and and much more. So yes, please correct your students and don’t get lazy just because they make a mistake over and over again. This is part of the job, even if it’s sometimes an annoying and boring one.

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