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.
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.