Should We Correct Our Pupils’ Speech?


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.

First Persons and Fish Pets

89 children have joined my school since September – that is far more than your average Primary school. Out of those 89 new arrivals only nine arrived speaking someChildren, Kids, School, Little, Boys English. The rest had none. Nada. They’ve come from all over the world: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Romania… and those are just the children that have joined my class. This is their first experience of a British school and some of them (particularly the KS1 children) didn’t go to school in their home countries.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a moan, I knew how diverse my school was before I applied – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work there. The fact that there are so many different languages and cultures mixing every day brings out the best in the children who, it has to be said, are wonderful with the new arrivals. There’s always a fight over who will get to be the buddies and then it is with real they carry around a whiteboard with them during the first week to draw pictures to try and explain things to their new, bewildered classmate. They love teaching each other their first language and showing us on the class map the country they were born in.

There is, in Educational circles, a myth that if you throw a non-English speaking child into a class of English speaking children they will just “pick it up”. Sort of through osmosis.  The first issue of this is that in my school most of their peers don’t speak English as a first language. What is far more likely to happen is that the new arrival will find the child/children in the class that speak their first language and then spend their first few days speaking through that new friend.

Even if the rest of the class were fluent in English just “hoping” they’ll pick it up is not how you teach a language. If I wanted to learn French spending 6 hours a day in a room of people that were speaking French would not be the most effective way for me to do that. I would probably learn “hello”, “goodbye”, “lunch” and “toilet” very quickly because those can be understood from the context of conversation but if, after 8 weeks of being in France, I was asked to explain in French how I knew the character in the story was feeling unwell I probably wouldn’t know what I’d been asked/known we even reading a story let alone have enough language to form an answer.

And of course learning to speak English is only half the battle. I have plenty of children that can speak, read and write in English to the point that they can be understood but they’re still learning how to structure sentences. My favourite example of this conversation that I had in my previous school with a 7-year-old boy. He was born in Pakistan but moved to the UK when he was 5.

Me: Does anyone else have a pet?

Boy: Yes. Fish.

Me: Great so the sentence is: I have a pet fish. Can you say that sentence?

Boy: I have fish.

Me: Try again. I have a PET fish.

Boy: I have a fish pet.

Sure enough, when I marked his writing later that day there it was:

fish pet

Fish, Kids, Clip Art, Pink, Cartoon

What could I say to him? “Sorry you’ve used fish as the adjective which is why this sentence doesn’t make sense”? His sentence was incorrect however he’s 7 years-old and doesn’t yet have enough English for me to explain to him why it was incorrect. I wrote the correct sentence underneath but he still doesn’t understand why my sentence is right and his is wrong. He doesn’t have enough experience of English to be able to “hear that it is right.”(Another skill teachers often rely on children having, “Read your work back – does this sound right?” Well, yes to this little boy it did.)

None of this should matter because really I shouldn’t be trying to get children to read and write in English before they can speak it. However, I get paid by the Government to my job and they have decided that my job is make sure all children are writing at National Expectations by the time they are 7 whether or not they speak English yet. Not only that, the effectiveness of my school will be judged by the number of children that meet National Expectations. Their results will be put in a table and my school will be placed below schools where over 90% of the pupils have English as their first language.

So to ensure my school isn’t deemed as a complete failure I don’t just have to teach these children to speak English I  have to simultaneously teach them to write, read and understand grammar rules. They have to be able to use adverbs, contractions, plurals, past and present tense (that one is particularly tricky for children new to English.) They need to have enough understanding about tenses to answer questions on the KS1 Grammar test. Questions like this: SPag1

Of the 22 children in my set, nine of them wrote “go”, six wrote “gone”, three wrote “been” and one wrote “went” (hooray for the one!) The rest left it blank.

The Reading Paper doesn’t provide much relief either. It’s not just that most of the children don’t have enough English yet to actually read the paper, although that is a huge issue, it’s that even the children that CAN access the paper has such limited vocabulary they can’t draw any meaning form it. These children don’t have the points of reference that a child growing up in a more affluent, English-speaking household would have. They don’t know what or where Big Ben is, where the Queen lives or who The Beatles are. They’ve never heard of Shakespeare, Radio 4 or David Cameron… (you have to envy them that last one.) The small amount of English that they have is conversational and based entirely on their experiences; they have such a restricted vocabulary.

They don’t speak English at home so most of my class know the words they need to get through the school day as well as perhaps the names of animals, computer games and a couple of countries. Again this wouldn’t be a problem if it was just about us muddling through the day. However the Reading Test they will take in May means they will have to decode and understand words like: valley, horizon, ashore, drift, exclaim, palm because the Government thinks they should be able to. Words like these, that they do not encounter day-to-day, require explaining. Often with a picture or diagram (although that’s not always possible. I once had a very painful conversation where I tried to explain the word “inappropriate” in the context of behaviour and we had to agree on “not right for school.”)

When I am reading to my class I don’t stop to explain every word because I just want them to enjoy the story so I have to judge whether knowledge of a word is key to them understanding the story. Whilst I am getting them ready for the Reading Paper they can’t just enjoy listening to stories or reading they have to understand every word and give very specific answers to questions about what they have read.

Reading paperThis is a page from the DfE sample papers. Even if you ignore the amount of language a child new to country wouldn’t understand there are other skills at play here that they won’t have had a chance to develop. For example, question 12: “How do you know that Frog was excited?” half a dozen of my children wrote ,”Frog is smiling” which I suppose is a perfectly logical conclusion to draw when you look at the picture (which is one the strategies we teach the children to use to help them when they are learning to read.) The correct answer is actually, “Frog says, “This is definitely our lucky day/this is what I call an adventure.”” Which my class won’t recognise as an expression of excitement because no one they interact day-to-day speaks like that.

This isn’t a post arguing against testing in schools and it isn’t meant to be a list of excuses for why the children in my class won’t score highly on these tests. The argument is about testing children before they have learnt the language the test is written in. This final story sums it up quite nicely. The Man On The Piccadilly Line was teaching his Year 6 set last week and going through the tests with them. One very hard working, conscientious girl put up her hand and said, “I came to this country 3 years ago and I think I have worked hard and I have learnt a lot of English but I find these tests really hard as I don’t know enough English yet.”

There was a petition recently asking for Education ministers to sit the KS2 assessments. Perhaps we should go one step further than that and send them to India and in 12 weeks time they can take the KS2 assessments in Tamil.