Should Boys Speak Proper?

What follows is an early draft of a chapter I wrote for a writing project that never got off the ground. There are problems with the chapter: it tries too hard to be about boys when in actual fact, the issues discussed affect boys and girls, men and women; some of the research upon which it is founded is now over 30 years old; there can be a tendency to conflate accent, dialect and swearing…However, some may find it interesting. So here it is:

WHAT’S THE ISSUE?

In 2019, girls outperformed boys in the SATs reading, writing, and spelling, punctuation and grammar tests. Although I’m loth to ever indulge gender-based competition, it has to be said that ‘outperformed’ is a verb that doesn’t quite do justice to just how far girls surpassed the boys in these tests. ‘Thrashed’ might be more apt. Because, although 69% of boys reached expected standard in reading, 78% of girls did the same thing. And the figure of 73% for boys who reached expected standard in the spelling, punctuation and grammar test was eclipsed by the a whopping 83% for girls. And, in the teacher-assessed writing test, the percentage of boys who reached expected standard was 13 percentage points lower than the 85% of girls who reached expected standard. Funny that. 

The subject of boys’ literacy has always been hight up the list on the national educational agenda. In 2012, The Boys Reading Commission acknowledged that:

The issue is deep-seated. Test results consistently show this is a long-term and international trend. Boys’ attitudes towards reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading and their achievement in literacy are all poorer than those of girls.

Proper talk

In 2014, David Didau wrote that ‘the ability to write well depends on our ability to speak well’. It is this widely-held belief, amongst educators, policy advisors, and politicians, that underpins the stipulation in the current Teachers’ Standards that teachers must:

Demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of Standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject. 

In his classic book, Accent, Dialect and the School, linguist Peter Trudgill defines Standard English as, ‘the dialect used by most speakers who would consider themselves to be ‘educated’…it is the form of English normally taught to foreign learners; and, in many important respects, it is the language of British Schools.  Standard English is often conflated with Received Pronunciation (RP), the standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in southern England, and sometimes referred to as the ‘Queen’s English’. 

As Dr Jessica Mason, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University who specialises in linguistics and education, explained to me:

The term ‘Standard English’ is pervasive in education documents, from curriculums, to tests, to policies; many teacher training courses even ask your referees whether you can communicate in ‘Standard English’ when you apply to join the profession.

This pervasiveness may explain the results of a Twitter poll of mainly teachers in which 78% of participants answered ‘yes,’ when asked, ‘Should students speak in Standard English in the classroom?’ Clearly, teachers value Standard English.

Non-Standard English

There is a problem with Standard English. As Dr Mason told me, ‘“Standard” implicitly positions that dialect of English as normal and therefore all other forms as abnormal, unusual or less typical.’ This ‘abnormal’ language is referred to as ‘non-standard’ English and is so called because it deviates from the grammar, pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary ‘rules’ of standard English. A non-standard speaker might use colloquialisms, slang terms, and swear words to express themselves; they may pronounce ‘Thursday’ as ‘Fursday’ and ‘butter’ as ‘bu-er’; they may even add letters to words to make new ones, such as the plural ‘yous’ employed by the stars of ITV’s The Only Way is Essex. 

In the world of education, this type of language is not just abnormal in the sense that it’s unusual; it’s abnormal in the sense that it’s ‘not right.’ This is observed in newspaper headlines about schools banning the use of non-standard forms like ‘coz’ (because), ‘innit’ (I agree) and ‘bare’ (‘lots of’), in order to improve students speech, and in interchanges such as the one below, taken from a Year 5 and 6 lesson in which students were asked to come up with a word to sum up the emotion in a short film they have just watched, and where the teacher chooses to focus on the ‘incorrect’ way the student has expressed his answer, and not on the answer itself: 

Mr Robbins: put your hand up if you think he looks sad

(Around 9 pupils raise their hands. After 5 seconds Freddy joins in)

Mr Robbins: Freddy why do you think he looks sad

what makes him look sad

Freddy: because he’s-

he ain’t got a smile on his face

Mr Robbins: ain’t got a smile on [his face

Asha:       [((laughs))

Freddy: he (.) has (.) not got a smile on his face

Mr Robbins: okay

On the 25th July, 2018, Rob Ward, an English teacher and writer, tweeted the following:

When I was nine, a well-spoken lady used to come to school to read with us. I hated her cos she was ‘posh’ and her accent made me feel stupid. Even at that age I consciously tried to show I wasn’t like her. I ended up getting into trouble cos I insisted I needed the ‘khazi’.

Rob’s words echo those of Danny, quoted in Dianne Reay’s Miseducation:

Some teachers are a bit snobby, sort of. And some teachers act as if the child is stupid. Because they’ve got a posh accent. Like they talk without ‘innits’ and ‘mans’, like they talk proper English. And they say, “That isn’t the way you talk” – like putting you down. Like I think telling you a different way is sort of good, but I think the way they do it isn’t good because they correct you and make you look stupid.

I can relate to Rob and Danny’s use of colloquialisms, dialect and accent to assert an identity, as well as the scorn they experienced as a result. In an article for Teach Secondary, I explained how the gangster films of the early 2000s influenced the way my friends and I spoke as teenagers:

For us, the ‘geezer’ was perfectly embodied in the characters played by the likes of Ray Winstone, and Danny Dyer, and also in the gangsters of Guy Ritchie films like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Geezer culture was a culture of laddishness (with all the usual abhorrent misogynist trappings), but it was imbued – or so we thought at the time – with a roguish charm of the cockney variety. People like Ray Winstone – and yes, Danny Dyer – were gods to us. We wanted to be just like them: Jack-the-lads that got away with it. Tough, cheeky, and charming.

A penchant for violence, drugs, alcohol and criminality was beyond our delicate sensibilities, but there was one thing the geezer possessed, that we too could incorporate into our very being. That thing was language: the language of glottal stops, dropped aitches, rhyming slang and swearing. The lads and I started saying things like ‘score’ instead of ‘twenty’, ‘blower’ instead of ‘phone’, and ‘brassic’ instead of ‘skint’.

When I began my teacher training at a school in an upper-middle class suburb of Guildford in 2012, I made a decision to keep the ‘mockney’ twang  (don’t worry – I ditched most of the rhyming slang) which by this point in my life, however contrived it was to begin with, was now ‘me’. I wanted to keep ‘the twang’ because I value authenticity and I thought then- and know now- that students value authenticity in a teacher above everything else.   Over the eight years or so that I’ve been teaching since I made that decision, a significant number of fellow professionals have commented negatively, or mockingly, on the way that I speak: I’ve had feedback in lesson observations asking me to ‘tone the cockney down a bit’; I’ve had teachers ask me why I’m so determined to sound stupid all the time; I’ve even had people perform, to my face, insulting imitations of how I might deliver a lesson, Danny Dyer style, to a class.  

I’m now highly tuned to the way middle-class teachers mock or criticise speech that isn’t like their own. This can be observed in numerous guises, whether it be in the direct reprimanding of a student for perceivably ‘incorrect’ use of the word ‘ain’t,’ or in the cringe-inducing Ali-G style impressions that some teachers seem to enjoy so much, of students who dare to declare affection for a friend in class by referring to them as ‘bruv’ or ‘mate’ or ‘fam’. 

Back in 1975, Peter Trudgill found that non-standard forms of English are most likely to be used by people-specifically males– from working class backgrounds. In one study, Trudgill found that whilst the Upper Middle Class pronounce 88% of their aitches, the Lower Working Class pronounced only 7%. Similar patterns were also found for other non-standard forms such as glottal stops and double negative usage.   Trudgill also notes that males are more likely to use non-standard forms than females because, ‘Working Class speech in [Western] culture has desirable connotations for male speakers.’ Robert Lawson develops this point when he says that men use non-standard forms in order to:

…perform a particular form of masculine identity which draws on the association of non-standard variants with working-class speakers and by extension, stereotypical working-class characteristics such as toughness, physical strength, courage, and so on.

Although Trudgill’s work is over thirty years old, his findings still ring true. Julia Snell has observed that children from a school in a ‘lower working-class’ area of Teesside were more likely to use non-standard forms of spoken English than those in a ‘lower middle-class’ school,  whilst another study has found that despite changes in gender attitudes, men are still twice as likely to swear as women. The same study also notes that ‘the general pattern of uses of fuck is that people who have received less education say fuck more frequently.’ 

The high value attributed to the use of ‘standard English’ in education, and the concurrent view of non-standard English as deficient, should be of particular concern when one considers that the very people who use non-standard English most often are those performing least well in education: working class boys. It may be that working class boys underperform in exams because they simply can’t speak-and therefore write- in Standard English (for an excellent dismantling of this argument please refer to Trudgill), but, bearing in mind the research from Tammy Campbell that shows teachers’ stereotype negatively against working class boys, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the contemptuous attitudes of many teachers towards the non-standard English employed by working class boys is what’s causing these boys’ negative attitudes towards education and teachers-as with Rob and Danny, above- which then leads to their lower academic performance. As Professor Julia Snell notes, ‘ If low value is accorded to working-class speech in the classroom, some pupils may become less confident in oral expression and thus reluctant to contribute to whole class discussion.’ It goes without saying classroom discussion is a hugely important part of the learning process. It could well be that in stifling working class students’ speech- in reprimanding every single ‘ain’t, ‘writ’ and ‘yous’- teachers are also stifling their learning. 

So we are presented with two problems: Firstly, we have the silencing of students -most likely working class, most likely male- who use non-standard forms of spoken English.  The example of Freddy is not an isolated example. As Snell points out, teacher corrections of non-standard forms are an integrated part of our education system and working class boys like Freddy, ‘may become alienated from educational opportunities and [are] thus more likely than those who have had a more positive educational experience to take up the same positions that their parents hold in the social hierarchy.’ Secondly there is a risk that schools’ and teachers’ condescending attitudes towards non-standard forms of spoken English are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of underachievement for the kids -most likely working class, most likely male-who use it.  When the Teachers Standards stipulate that we have to teach a dialect that is least used by the most underperforming cohort in the system, we have an issue. 

So what can we do? Certainly, we can’t give up on Standard English. The fact is, many professions ascribe high prestige to this dialect, and what we want for our kids is options.  But we do need to challenge the idea that spoken Standard English should be the language of the classroom at all times.  In situations where students are asked to discuss something, or when students are called upon in questioning, pupils, should be ‘encouraged to respond, question, challenge, and elaborate their thinking using the language they feel most comfortable’ with so long as a) it isn’t language directly intended to cause offence to another person or b) it isn’t language directly used to obscure meaning and exclude others from understanding. The fact is, speaking in a language that is not your own requires some significant cognitive effort, which can impede thought processes. Surely, depth of thought expressed in non-standard spoken English is better than shallow thought expressed in Standard English. 

It is imperative that school leaders commit time during whole-school CPD allocation to educating staff on standard and non-standard English, in an attempt to dismantle any negative stereotypes teachers make about working class boys based on how they speak. The reality is that many non-standard forms of English contain some highly complex and inventive thought processes and is by no means an indicator of sub-standard intellect. I would also urge schools to make time in the timetable-perhaps in the English curriculum, perhaps in form time- for students to undergo a programme of spoken language study as early as possible. Because, if we give students the meta-language-and the opportunity- to think about and discuss the way they speak, it stands to reason that they’ll be better able to use language appropriately to navigate the world around them. Many students are unable to switch effortlessly between standard and non-standard forms of English in appropriate contexts, because they haven’t been taught how and when to do so. Pre-Gove, programmes of study on spoken language were a requirement of the GCSE English language course. Therefore, it is probably the case that there is a teacher in your school, right now, who can help to design and implement a programme, right now.

Finally, to the teachers at the chalk face, in the classroom, it’s simple: When a student answers a question, base your immediate and initial response on what has been said, rather than how it has been said. Remember, that students use non-standard forms for a number of reasons: to assert the identity teachers are constantly telling them they need to assert; to bring them familiarity and comfort in an educational setting to which they feel a sense of alienation; to form relationships; to be close to Mum and Dad. Be sensitive to this fact. It’s fine to ask a student to rephrase an answer in standard-English later, but be clear with them as to why you’re asking for this. And certainly don’t make them feel as though their response or contribution to discussion was any less valid as a result of not using Standard English. Because it ain’t.