'Correcting’ speech in the classroom?

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:

The suggestion that we should be ‘correcting’ pupils’ speech in the classroom, including the influence of regional dialects, is an uncomfortable idea for Adam Riches

As a linguist, I wholeheartedly believe that there is no “correct” way of speaking. My views are open and I embrace dialects and accents in all shapes and forms. In fact, I love them.

In the classroom however, I have found myself facing a dilemma:

  • Do I correct pupils’ speech, prescribing and implying there is a “correct” way to speak?
  • Or do I allow my students to embrace their regional and social roots and be individuals?

Well, one thing I know for certain is that I have found it is really hard to have both.

Correctness

Throughout the 20th century there was a strong belief that standard English grammar and a received pronunciation (RP) accent was the “correct” way of using English in speech.

This perceived correctness (to simplify socio-history hugely) was a by-product of the strong class system in the UK – we as a society decide what is correct and what is not. The difficulty is that regional accents and dialects are stereotypically associated with somewhat negative ideas (Trudgill 1970, Petyt 1985).

But why? Simply, this is due to our attitudes towards a perceived correct form of speech. Anything that is hugely different is deemed as wrong. Anything resembling the standard is deemed as correct.

So imagine that I am in my classroom and a pupil says to me: “That adjective ain’t used in the right context.”

What do I do? Is it my duty as a teacher to tell him that he has used an incorrect of the negated copula verb “to be” and he should say “isn’t”?
I’m torn – not least because it isn’t technically incorrect!

By correcting their speech, I am further re-enforcing the social stereotypes and stigma surrounding language that in other ways I am trying so hard to remove.

My fears

Obviously, my main fear as a teacher of English is that speech habits and patterns may translate to writing. I think that is the fear of most people, teachers and parents alike.

Speech is very different to writing. Writing needs a “system of correctness”, as it is a codified version of speech. In writing, there is a right and wrong way of using language.

So is there really a threat about the transference of speech habits to writing? In my experience: no. And if there is, it is minimal and not present in formal work at all.

Writing and speech are very different. Writing is a codified, universal system of recording language – it has rules. Correcting grammar and spelling in written work is something that I am happy to do and in fact need to do as I need to teach pupils how to write correctly.

There maybe some who will not agree about the lack of influence that pupils’ speaking habits have on their writing, but if you want further evidence to support this idea, just look at the regional variations of English.

Take Geordies for example – you don’t expect to see pupils in Newcastle using the regional possessive pronoun “wuh” in place of “our” in their writing, but you are very likely to hear it in speech.

So therefore is it really a priority to “correct” pupils’ speech in class? Is there a strong enough correlation between speech and formal writing to warrant us highlighting variations in spoken English and correcting them?

Individualism

Teachers are given the responsibility of moulding and nurturing the children – and speaking is a huge part of a person’s identity. It makes me feel uncomfortable when I hear adults telling children that they are “not speaking right”. What is this telling our next generation about their regional and social identities? What is it implying about the divides in society? What is it implying about their place in society? Most importantly, what stereotypes are being reinforced by these kind of statements?

Young people have enough to deal with without us, as adults and teachers, telling them that they need to express themselves in certain ways. In addition, it is hard enough to get pupils involved in spoken activities as it is, why add another barrier or another threat of failure or embarrassment?

Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. Maybe I should be correcting speech in lessons more. But maybe I’m doing the right thing. Maybe, by embracing and encouraging openness towards variations of English, my teaching actually celebrates and encourages individual identity and gives the pupils something the robotic curriculum does not...

  • Adam Riches is a Specialist Leader of Education and a lead teacher in English.

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