Spoken Language, Standards and Inequality in Schools

Dates: 2021-2023

Funding body: Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (£51,390)

Primary investigator: Dr. Julia Snell (School of English)

L@L satellite: Language and Society

The attainment gap is widening between disadvantaged pupils and their more privileged peers in English primary schools. There is increasing evidence that effective use of talk-intensive (or ‘dialogic’) pedagogies can close this gap. However, policy prescriptions on spoken ‘Standard English’, and the intense scrutiny of disadvantaged children’s language these have wrought, are impeding attempts to foster dialogic talk in classrooms. This project provides the research urgently required to understand if, how, and why pupils who speak ‘nonstandard’ English miss out on opportunities to participate in classroom dialogue and how we can disrupt this problematic dynamic, paving the way for effective educational interventions.

The project will reanalyse data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in primary schools in Teesside and London in order to investigate two mechanisms through which pupils who speak ‘nonstandard’ dialects may be denied opportunities to participate in classroom dialogue. The first mechanism relates to the requirement to use spoken ‘Standard English’ in the classroom, which may discourage pupils from participating in classroom discussion. 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.