Oral language and reading development: the dialectal divide

Emma Bent, Visiting Fellow, Graduate School of Education

Emma Bent, Visiting Fellow, Graduate School of Education

Educational policy and documentation concerned with reading and literacy over the last 40 years has altered dramatically. The Bullock Report, a comprehensive review of reading and the use of English in the 1970s, recognised the linguistic diversity that exists within the English language. Crucially, it also recognised the strong sense of identity and belonging, both geographically and socially, that such dialects provide their speakers with. More recently, The Cox Report and The National Curriculum have moved away from such a sociolinguistic perspective and prioritised Standard English over other dialects.

But what is Standard English? And where does the term come from? It’s a term we’re all familiar with, and one which is associated with power, prestige, status, education and so on. Standard English represents, perhaps not unexpectedly, the oral language form of those in power historically (the affluent and privileged of London). Standard English has reflected the dialect of this social and geographical group since the time when printing was taken up and spelling began to be standardised in the 15th century. As such Standard English is just one dialect of many, but represents the one that was prioritised above others and became known as the Standard form of English. This standardising of written English can be seen to have served a well-defined purpose, making successful communication possible across people who lived in geographically separate English-speaking areas as well as those from socially distinct groups. However, in terms of its grammar, syntax and pronunciation there is nothing that makes oral Standard English superior or better to other dialectical variations, it is simply that the rules of this form of English are the ones which became followed in written communication in order to support mutual understanding. This historical standardising of written English has also led to the blurring and confusing of some of the differences within spoken English with deficiencies more recently. However, seminal work in America in the 1960s and 1970s, by William Labov, has shown that non-standard dialects represent differences, not deficiencies, with regard to the rules of grammar, syntax and pronunciation. Meanwhile, Basil Bernstein’s work in the UK has highlighted how the restricted or elaborated codes of different social groups impact on the educational attainment of their users.

It is not uncommon to find newspaper articles discussing the way young people speak negatively. These pieces ignore the dynamic and constantly evolving nature of language, and the fact that by the time children enter school they are sophisticated users of oral language… just not necessarily of the Standard English form of the school and education system. Shirley Brice-Heath has undertaken compelling ethnographic research which beautifully illustrates this.

©Jon Robins, Legal Voice

©Jon Robins, Legal Voice

With a background in primary school teaching and management, my PhD research focused on reading development in non-standard English speakers. With non-standard English dialects being disproportionately aligned with those from lower socio-economic groups, they also correlate with lower educational attainment. My research explored how non-standard dialects might differentially influence reading acquisition, and considered opportunities for supporting literacy development. Unlike current educational policy which promotes spoken as well as written Standard English, my research did not set out to denigrate or alter children’s non-standard dialects of English. Instead, it aimed to acknowledge and utilise the considerable linguistic skills that children brought in to the school setting. It aimed to add Standard English to their code-switching range as an additional register, and to improve their phonological awareness (the ability to recognise, discriminate between and manipulate the sounds in oral language), a factor now reliably known to be critical for reading development.

My research findings were three-fold. They showed that phonological awareness is directly teachable, including to non-standard dialect speakers. The Intervention programme, which utilised research by Siegel in the field of second dialect acquisition, was shown to have ecological validity, and potential for use, within current classroom practice, as well as making suggestions regarding policy changes that would support the acquisition of reading in this population group. Finally, in conjunction with previous research, the findings provided evidence for phonological differences that were attributable to the children’s dialect, as well as barriers resulting from differences in their vocabularies and discourse style to that of Standard English that many children would encounter when they entered today’s education system.

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