Saturday 13 February 2021

What is 'standard English'? How should we teach it?

 Standard English is a way of writing. We do it for a range of purposes. There are many ways of writing standard English. There are many themes, 'genres' for which Standard English is suitable. There are many 'genres' for which Standard English is not suitable. We do not speak with Standard English except when we read out loud pre-written scripts. 

Standard English is, as it suggests, a way of 'standardising' English. By that definition alone, it indicates that there are many other ways of using language: virtually the whole of our spoken 'performance' (in conversation, mostly) and many kinds of writing: eg signs, ads, slogans, TV scripts, film scripts, song lyrics, some poetry, drama, social media. 

The people who  devise and teach Standard English are perfectly entitled to devise 'rules' for Standard English. It is a form with a purpose (or purposes) of its own, so they can and do say what is right for that form. However, these are not 'rules' for all uses of English - far from it. 

Where do we find Standard English? In all forms of administration - laws, reports, instructions and the like; in all forms of academic writing, text books and most books of non-fiction; in most - but not all - forms of written speeches eg politicians, written scripts for News and radio and TV presenting. Newspaper and magazine articles are mostly written in Standard English but by no means all: headlines, sub-heads, captions are frequently not and quite often there are passages full of slang, and the ads are not always in Standard English. Most narrations in most books of fiction are written in Standard English. Much of the dialogue tends to be written in SE too, but not all of it. A good deal of characters' thought is not written in SE. 

There is a consensus that schools are places where Standard English should be taught. 

How is this best done? One theory is that we teach it through teaching what I call DfE 'grammar'. I call it that because it's a 'grammar' that is specially devised, simplified and distributed as part of Education policy. DfE 'grammar' is taught in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. It's not taught at Key Stage 3 or 4. It crops up in English Literature and Language lessons at Key Stage 5. I've never seen any rationale for this other than that teaching 'grammar' at Key Stages 1 and 2 enables government to assess teachers (Bew Report 2011). I've never seen any rationale for it to be not taught at Key Stages 3 or 4. 

Most KS3 students learn a foreign language. Most of these will encounter versions of 'grammar' as they do. Some of this corresponds to DfE 'grammar'. Some of it does not. For example, French has a 'future tense'. English does not. In English, we create a sense of the future through using 'auxiliaries', adverbs, adverbial phrases, adverbial clauses and adjectives or other contextual clues. The grammar of the future involves all these contexts. It's not a tense. 

Other ways to learn the grammar of Standard English is through immersion, imitation and invention within the idiom of Standard English. The easiest way to do immersion is through reading for pleasure. Most writing (not all) in children's books is in Standard English. Imitation is a way of writing 'in the style of' the writing. It's one of the most effective ways of getting to know and to use the language and structures of a kind of writing - in this case, done with mostly Standard English. Invention is done by adapting and changing from within the forms and language of a kind of writing: taking eg a fairy tale and changing the setting, the time-frame or the nature of the characters (eg from male to female). 

We can also do explicit observing of Standard English. One way to do this is through comparison. We can look at, for example, ways in which authors begin stories, ways in which authors convince us that we are 'there' in a scene (most often through a mix of dialogue and descriptions of what can be seen, heard, touched, felt or tasted); ways in which writers tell us 'when' or 'where' we are; ways in which writers invite us to wonder about what might or might not happen next. We can experiment with these ourselves. (These are in a sense the 'grammar' of writing, at a level to do with the 'effect' of writing ie how we are 'affected' by it without going into the DfE 'grammar' as an explanation for these. At the same time, we are immersing the children in uses of Standard English.)

We can also do transcripts of spoken language and compare them to written Standard English. It amazes me that this 'tool' isn't used more. Most spoken language is conversation. In conversations we hesitate, repeat, talk over each other, revise what we just said. We construct the language in different ways. We avoid long linked utterances. We avoid 'front-loading' our utterances with too much stuff before we get to the meat of what it is we want to say (in DfE 'grammar' terms, we avoid putting too many phrases, clauses and adverbs before we get to the 'main clause'. ) We prefer to put them later. We use a lot more pronouns and words like 'here' or 'there', 'this/that/these' because the context indicates who or what we are referring to. We use a lot of short replies that self-explanatory for the situation: 'yes/no', 'tomorrow/today/yesterday' and a general way of again and again picking up on single words from what has just been said to us - either as answers to questions, or to move the conversation on. We do this without using Standard English, particularly in fiction, say when we are writing about the inner thoughts of a character. 

One of the best ways to draw attention to what Standard English is, is to take a passage of Standard English and put it alongside a transcript of a conversation. We can then ask ourselves (or students) to spot the differences. Why are there differences? What is the purpose of each in their own separate ways? We can also put into the mix 'textspeak' taken from personal texts, or social media. What kind of language is this? How is this different from the Standard English of, say, an exam paper, or a text book? Why?

I suggest that these methods are rigorous, attentive to language, attentive to the purpose and contexts of language and effects of language, embedded in the use and variation in language. Depending on the age of pupil, teachers can judge how much explicit naming is needed or advisable.