In my last blog on the nature of errors, we talked about types of errors and how to approach them when correcting students’ written work.
But we can’t usefully talk about accuracy in writing unless we know which language it is we are trying to teach.
What do I mean? We have to start from the fact that the majority of English speakers, native and non-native alike, use a ‘non-standard’ or dialect form of English in their daily lives. But in schools and tutoring sessions, we are generally teaching standard English.
Language and culture
Why is this important? Well, language and culture are deeply connected.
As David Crystal says in his eye-opening talk below, it can seem implicit that standard English is viewed positively while non-standard forms are not. As we can see from history, it is never a good idea when one language or dialect is promoted at the expense of another. There are hundreds of examples of ‘language imperialism‘ and none of them ended well.
No one likes to feel their native language or dialect is viewed negatively. Some students will view standard English as a “foreign language” and will need convincing that it is in their interests to master it.
So what is standard English? Standard English is a more standardised form of English with a (mostly) shared set of conventions and rules for grammar, spelling, vocabulary and punctuation.
This is taught in schools because standard English is the language of work and study. As Kofman says ‘Shared language allows us to live in a shared world, communicate, and coordinate our actions.’ (Kofman, Conscious business, p. 105). Teaching young people how to adapt their writing and speaking to these upcoming life situations is incredibly important.
The rules are set, right?
Reader beware, even the rules of standard English are open to interpretation, variation and change. Not all rules are hard and fast, and some ‘rules’ are no more than preference or even ‘hypercorrections’ – a misapplication or overapplication of a perceived language rule. (Google ‘split infinitives’ and prepare to disappear down a linguistics rabbit hole!)
So, standard English is subject to changes, outside influences and misunderstandings as much as any other dialect. And what we as teachers consider to be our personal version of standard English is no more than a collection of ideas, rules and oddments collected over a lifetime – can you be confident you are the true keeper of the pristine rules?
What does this mean for my tutoring?
My point is, be kind and keep an open mind when making corrections or crafting a text with a student. Celebrate language in all its forms while teaching the benefits of a standard method of communication. Comparing and contrasting standard English with the student’s dialect puts the two dialects on an equal footing rather than classifying one as “wrong”.
When you are correcting and planning, it can be easier to think in terms of ‘How can we make this communication more successful?’ This question can be used to introduce useful grammar and punctuation in context and puts the focus on the reader experience, rather than on the rules themselves.
Most importantly, good style and punctuation trump a slavish devotion to the ‘rules’ every time. As Steven Pinker says, “If the majority of careful writers flout a rule, then it’s not a useful rule anymore.” This is why dictionaries have “Usage Panels” – to keep an eye on the changes taking place in a language.
Good style is a politeness to your reader, helping them to more clearly understand your message. After all, successful communication rather than technical brilliance is the ultimate goal of writing, is it not?
Of course, when talking about style, you need to consider both context and appropriacy, but that’s a blog for another day…
(Stewart McNicol has an excellent TEDx talk about standard English and its effect on the most disadvantaged students in UK schools)