+ Teach “Code Switching”: How to Speak in a Formal Register

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Ruby Payne writes in the April 2008 issue of “Educational Leadership” (a magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) about “Nine Powerful Practices” for helping raise achievement.  Number 3 is Teach Students to Speak in Formal Register.  The following is adapted from her piece.  Find ASCD at www.ascd.org.

In 1972 a Dutch Linguist, Martin Joos, found that every language in the world includes five “registers” or levels of formality.  They are

  1. FROZEN  The words are always the same.  Examples: The Lord’s Prayer; the Pledge of Allegiance.
  2. FORMAL  The word choice and sentence structure used by the business and education community.  In English, uses a 1200 to 1600 word spoken vocabulary.  Example: “This assignment is not acceptable in its present format.”
  3. CONSULTATIVE  A mix of formal and casual register.  Example: “I can’t accept the assignment the way it is.”
  4. CASUAL  Language used between friends, which comes out of the oral tradition.  Contains few abstract words and uses nonverbal assists.  Example: “This work is a no-go.  Can’t take it.”
  5. INTIMATE  Private language shared between two individuals, such as lovers, or twins.

Both school and work operate at two levels: the consultative and formal.

All people use the casual and intimate registers with friends and family.  Students from families with little formal education often default to these registers, never having been made aware of linguistic differences.

Researchers have found that the more generations a person lives in poverty, the less formal the register that person uses (with the exception of people from strong religious backgrounds who may live in the language of formal religious texts).

A study of 42 families by Hart and Risley in 1995 found that children living in families receiving welfare heard approximately 10 million words by age three, whereas children in families in which parents were classified as professional heard approximately 30 million words.

Since teachers instruct and conduct most tests in formal register, those linguistically impoverished students are at a distinct disadvantage.

What Can Teachers Do?

Payne feels teachers should address this issue openly.  They should help students learn to communicate through consultative and formal registers.  She writes, “Some students may object that formal register is ‘white talk;’ we tell them it’s ‘money talk.’  ”  The outside world makes its money and rewards people in these modalities.  It expects anyone who participates to be fluent.  Those who aren’t can be shut out.

She suggests direct instruction in the differences in register.  Explain; compare and contrast;  model correct usage.   Let students practice translating phrases from casual into formal register.  

For example, a student was sent to the office for telling a teacher that something “sucked.”  Asked to translate that phrase into formal register, he said, “There is no longer joy in this activity.” 

Payne feels teachers should use consultative language (a mix of formal and casual) to build relationships with students.  They should teach content in formal register, but provide additional explanation in consultative mode.

source: Ruby Payne’s article in the April 2008 issue of “Educational Leadership”.  Read the entire article for the complete list of nine “Powerful Practices.” 

Also check out Rebecca Wheeler’s article “Becoming Adept at Code-Switching.”    Her book, “Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms,” 2006, by Wheeler and Swords, is published in Urbana IL by the National Council of Teachers of English.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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