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Spoken Language, Standards and Inequality in Schools

There is increasing evidence that effective use of talk-intensive (or ‘dialogic’) pedagogies can raise school achievement for all pupils, and especially those situated in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. However, policy prescriptions on spoken ‘Standard English’ and the intense scrutiny of children’s language these have wrought are impeding attempts to foster dialogic talk in UK classrooms. This project will reanalyse data collected in primary schools in Teesside, Leeds and London to investigate two mechanisms through which pupils who speak nonstandardised English may be denied opportunities to participate in classroom dialogue.

The first mechanism relates to the requirement to use spoken ‘Standard English’ in the classroom. Where this requirement is enforced by teachers, research suggests that pupils are less likely to participate. The project will investigate three potential consequences of this arrangement: (i) pupils who are discouraged from participating in classroom discussion may miss out on opportunities to share and refine their thinking through dialogue; (ii) pupils who do participate may reproduce only those forms of talk and knowledge that they believe their teachers want to hear, having internalised the technologies of surveillance used in the classroom; and (iii) in both cases, teachers’ access to pupils’ thinking and language practices is limited, and thus they cannot effectively assess pupils’ progress or provide meaningful feedback.

The second (and less direct) mechanism relates to teachers’ perceptions of pupils’ language and abilities, which may influence the way they interact with pupils and the level of structure and control they apply during classroom discussion. Beliefs about nonstandardised language play a key role in these processes, because teachers working in areas of socio-economic disadvantage often make implicit links between nonstandardised language and low ability, suggesting the need to be more prescriptive with certain groups of pupils. This project will investigate the extent to which these views about language translate into more controlled, and thus less dialogic, approaches to classroom discussion in classrooms situated in areas of socio-economic disadvantage.