Illiteracy and standard language

Many primary school children are not becoming fully literate in English because their teachers are apparently letting them use “street talk” in the classroom, according to a report commissioned by the mayor of London and reported in The Guardian today.

One third of children in London have reading difficulties at the age of 11, and the report claims that reasons for this include teachers’ reluctance to ‘correct’ pupils’ English so as not to interfere with their self-expression; indifference among working class parents to their children’s education; and imperfect knowledge of “spelling and syntax” among teachers.

The report’s author, Miriam Gross, a teacher and journalist, recommends a structured use of synthetic phonics to teach literacy.

The report appears to be based, at to some extent, on anecdotal evidence, so the conclusions aren’t necessarily the most reliable. It describes the language used by pupils as “argot mixing linguistic influences from Cockney to Indian” and comments that “White and non-white children alike in deprived inner-city areas often speak “street”, with its own grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.”

The dictionary definition of literacy is:

  1. the ability to read and write
  2. the ability to use language proficiently

However there are different degrees of literacy, ranging from ‘functional literate’ – those who can read and write what they need to function in everyday life; and ‘highly literate’ – those who are very well-read and write elegant, standard language. Those at the latter end of the continuum might view those at the other end as illiterate, and might describe their language as inarticulate, argot, patois, incoherent grunts or use similarly scathing terms – the report certainly does so. Such judgements are rarely based on a thorough understanding of the varieties of language in question.

Are pupils corrected when they use non-standard language in your country?

15 thoughts on “Illiteracy and standard language

  1. I was corrected. Thanks to this correction, I no longer say things such as “I would of went if I could of”, or “Me and Fred should went but choosed again’it.” This is how the majority of the people around me (rural Western North Carolina) speak, including my father.

    I believe it is crippling, not a form of self-expression.

  2. I don’t think this has to be approached as a matter or correct or correct English (or whatever the language). There’s a standard and there are dialects, each with its particular sphere – being fluent in more than one version of the language increases one’s power of self expression. I do agree, though, that the standard should be taught.

  3. Here in Brazil, we also have a pretty wide continuum between standard language and spoken language, to the extent some linguists have classified our situation as diglossic.

    I think the situation is similar, and the important thing is just knowing how to use each register.

    People just like to make a fuss about everything…

  4. We have diglossia in the Czech language, however the differences between standard and colloquial varieties are mostly phonological and regular, and it is therefore quite easy to learn the standard. We were corrected sometimes in school, mostly in Czech lessons, but generally the standard language was demanded today only in written output. There is a consistent shift in teaching which tends to allow more casual speech today than what was allowed twenty years ago, or at least it seems so.

    We were however consistently corrected in science lessons to use the correct terminology, e.g. not confuse mass and weight. But it may be a bit different thing.

  5. The headteacher in the school in which I teach recently ‘corrected’ one of the English medium pupils (the school has both Gaelic and English medium) when he pronounced a word with the glottal stop as per usual Scots English. Its sad that this still happens in Scotland, even in schools where linguistic diversity such as Gaelic and English are present.

    I defended the boy by mentioning that the glottal stop is common in some Gaelic dialects and that a recent visiting inspector to the school spoke Islay Gaelic which has the glottal stop as a notable feature.

    Having said all that, I think that ‘grunting’ should be unacceptable in schools. It has been observed that so-called ‘primitive’ languages are actually more complex than what passes for modern discourse in many cases and the possible cognitive benefits could be lost to today’s kids.

  6. My mother corrected me at home so I wasn’t corrected too much by my teachers. While I think the descriptivists make some very valid points, I can’t help but side with the prescriptivists. If you want to have a strong, united group of people, they have to understand one another well. This is very facilitated by a standardized language.

    I think that it would be useful for us to teach children that the standardized dialect is just that, a standardized dialect. It is not superior or inferior. It is simply a chosen way to speak so that everyone can understand everyone else better. What you speak in private is your own business and not necessarily inferior.

  7. What are you talking about ‘primitive languages’? There isn’t really a primitive language in the world today, exception creoles and arguable the odd other. And I have absolutely no idea what ‘grunting’ is supposed to refer to.

    What I don’t like about this sort of research is the presumption or implication that the situation was somehow different in the past. There isn’t a generation of highly fluent, eloquent people in Standard English in any generation, and there won’t be in future generations. The same with people decrying spelling due to “txt-speak”. I haven’t seen any evidence that any generation entirely can spell correctly, and l33t has nothing to do with it.

  8. I think what people fail to realize or to remember is that reading and writing is bloody hard and doubly so when you have half the attention span that students had 30 years ago.

    It’s good to have a command of different registers. That means that if you’re fluent in ‘street’ then that’s great. Now, you should get off your arse and learn ‘RP’ seeing as that’s the lingua franca of Britain.

  9. #8 – usually in the middle of a word, in Scots English such at Scot-land, Scot-tish, Kit-ty etc. In Islay Gaelic in words such as Ci-amar.

    Declan – if i remember correctly, I was paraphrasing from Mark Abley’s book ‘Spoken Here: Travels Amongst Endangered Languages’. ‘Primitive’ is usually used to mean ‘backward’ by some but according to Abley, and I’d probably agree with him, it should only mean ‘first’ or ‘ancient’. I’m no linguistic but it seems to me that language is getting simpler. Certainly Gaelic has got simpler and there is even some talk of jettisoning the genitive case.

    In a cognitive sense, i’d imagine that its the complexities and quirks of individual languages that benefit the brains of bi/multi-lingual kids. I wouldn’t equate grunts with txt-speak. Txt spk can be highly creative, a grunt usually isn’t.

  10. The quotes from the report given in the Guardian article make it clear that it’s been written from the perspective of Daily Mail readers, so the woe-is-us-the-whole-country’s-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket tone is both unsurprising and unhelpful.

    Having said that, I grew up in Edinburgh, and it was always very clear that ‘street language’ was not what was used in the classroom. On the third hand, standard Scottish English is not identical to ‘Standard English’ (if, indeed, there is such a thing, which I’m inclined to doubt), either in terms of lexicon or syntax, so what I learned there was absolutely not Standard English. Hasn’t done me any harm.

    Thirdly, RP is an accent, not a dialect. And it’s not the lingua franca in the UK or anywhere else. It’s certainly a prestigious accent, but that’s all it is. And its prestige is definitely predicated on where in the UK you are. Try going to school in a Scottish primary school with an RP accent and you will very soon discover that RP makes you the lowest of the low.

    Finally, what’s the evidence that schoolchildren today have “half the attention span of 30 years ago”?

  11. I’m not sure I’d be quite so quick to blame “street slang”–every culture has that, not every culture has an illiteracy problem. I wonder just how much of it has to do with the fact that the teachers might be afraid to correct the students because it’s not politically correct to do so or because they’re afraid of angry parents even if they’re right.

    It used to be that if a kid got bad grades, the parents would blame the kid, now if a kid gets bad grades they blame the teacher 🙁


  12. The same problem exists here in Australia especially being one of the most multicultural societies in the world. There are quite a few English language teachers who speak in their own dialect and accent. In fact, my mother’s English teachers are Indian and Swedish. Compounded by the lack of correction of students’ speech and the corrupting of the language by street talk, English – as with most languages is becoming rather simplified in everyday speech.

    The national standard dialect within Vietnam is that of the Hanoi area. However, the vast majority of Vietnamese speak a ‘non-standard’ dialect. There have been attempts in the past to try to assimilate the whole country by calling on all teachers to speak in the accent of Hanoi. However, as you may have guessed, it failed terribly. Every region has its own standard and interestingly there are just as many speakers of Northern as there are Southern Vietnamese. Northerners always make it seem as if Southerners speak improperly and Southerners always make fun of the Northern speech as being too childish.

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