Teaching Register

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I recently came across this article from the BBC: “Slang banned from Croydon School to improve Student Speech” and immediately did a face palm on behalf of those school administrators. Not only does this make no sense from the perspective of teenage psychology (forbidden fruit becomes all the more tantalizing), but it ignores some of the most basic aspects of sociolinguistics, and is a waste of a wonderful teachable moment.

The idea of register is at the heart of most societal hand-wringing about youth today and the downfall of the English language. “Kids today don’t know how to speak/read/write/spell/communicate!” “They only know how to communicate in slang and txt speak!” ETC. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with slang and textspeak. They are simply examples of an informal register of speech, when used in the appropriate time and place among a the speech community of one’s peers there’s nothing wrong with ending a sentence in “yeah?” or writing “CU l8r”.

Our job as teachers, whether it be high school English teachers, or teacher of English as a second language, is to first, let our students know that you adapt the way you speak and write depending on the context, and then give them the linguistic tools to do so.

Now, I perfectly understand,  that that BBC article may just be a sensationalist fluff piece intended to attract page views, and that that school in Croydon may very well have a more sensitive and sensible policy in place.  It seems like the Croydon school mentioned in the above article  is trying to promote the use of a more formal register on school grounds, but an outright ban doesn’t seem very productive. Why don’t teachers teach the idea of register, and concentrate on insisting upon a more formal register in contexts where it would be expected: in classroom writing, classroom presentations, and interaction with teachers. As for peer-to-peer interaction in the hallways and in the schoolyard? It seem futile.

And in the ESL classroom, we must always make sure we do the same thing. If a student writes “coz” or “tonite” or ain’t” in a class essay, or overuses “like” in an academic presentation, it does them a disservice to simply mark it wrong with a stroke of the red pen and leave it at that. They deserve to know that this is a mistake of register, that the word they’ve chosen is perfectly acceptable in certain contexts, but outside of those contexts it may not be received in the way they’d like. And then present them with a more appropriate alternative.

Though those of teaching EAP or business English in ESL contexts are often overly concerned with expanding our students’ linguistic repertoires on the more formal and/or discipline-specialized end of the spectrum, in terms of our students’ social integration and success in informal contexts, they also have a lot of language to acquire on the more informal end of the spectrum. And a crucial skill for advanced students is to be aware of the different registers of language, when to employ them, and what vocabulary and structures characterize each. Register simply cannot be ignored by the conscientious ESL teacher.

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