E Jane Dickson: I hope lessons in speech stop my daughter saying 'like'

There should be as much weight placed on correct usage as on free expression
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The Independent Online

It's good to talk. This is the message from Jim Rose, whose review of the primary school curriculum recommends the formal teaching of speaking and listening skills in the classroom. In the mixed bag of educational policies offered up by Rose this week, the "talking lessons" are patently a good and timely idea. The sci-fi scenario of a text-speak generation communicating largely with its thumbs is the stuff of parents' nightmares. However, as Shakespeare pointed out, "Talking isn't doing." It may be "a kind of good deed to say well" but the success of the "proper speech" initiative will depend hugely on its focus and execution.

"There's more and more evidence coming from research and practice to establish the need for support for children from certain backgrounds that don't offer the right kind of development of speaking and listening," said Rose. He was, of course, careful to avoid explicit mention of class, but there are plenty of commentators willing to rush in where he feared to tread. According to Anne Wright, director of children's services at Reading Council, "Children from poor homes have smaller vocabularies, which don't contain many abstract ideas. This makes it more difficult for them to make connections between words and to move to abstract concepts and to higher-order thinking about causes, effects and consequences."

There's a blunt abstract noun I'd cheerfully apply to Ms Wright's theory. (It starts, with "B", children, and ends in "ocks".) Clearly, and laudably, the intention of the "talking classes" is to promote a level playing field in the classroom. I agree wholeheartedly that articulacy and fluency are necessary skills, but there is nothing in my own experience, either as a child or as a parent, which leads me to think that articulacy is the preserve of the middle classes. It is a tenet of child psychology that what matters most, in the preschool years, is not the precise vocabulary employed, but the amount and tenor of communication between child and carer, and I see no reason to assume that the maligned single mother at the bottom of economic pile should converse any less freely or warmly with her child than the paid nanny of professional parents.

There will be differences in parenting regardless of class. But as Jim Rose now recognises, it is the proper place of teachers to implement – and insist upon – a good standard of spoken English. It's hardly a new idea. At my own primary school in 1960s Co Down, teachers routinely corrected conversational grammar and syntax, something now widely regarded as mortally lowering to children's self-esteem. (The classic "Of course you can go to the lavatory, the question is may you go..." may have seemed like sadism to the squirming petitioner, but you never made the same mistake again.)

A wholesale return to the subjunctive may be a bridge too far for today's ideologues, but I hope the forthcoming policies will lay as much weight on correct usage as on free expression. Because however unfashionable/imperialist it may be to say so, speaking intelligible English remains the passe-partout to success in our society. Shaw's maxim "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him" remains largely true.

Shaw, of course, was also concerned with the pigeonholing power of accent. Happily, we have, for the most part, moved on from this way of thinking. The redoubtable bootstrap merchant David Starkey may be calling for elocution lessons in schools, but I doubt this is necessary. From the BBC down, it is now accepted that good English has strictly nothing to do with Received Pronunciation and I'm glad to see it.

As a child, like most others born outside the south-east of England, I was effectively bilingual. At home and in the playground, I spoke the local dialect, which I found – and still find – both comfortable and beautiful, but standard (if richly accented ) English was the lingua franca of officialdom and, for good or bad, officialdom started in the classroom.

My own London-born children cheerfully dip in and out of standard English, Scots-Irish and the transatlantic "street" that drives their hypocritical mother nuts. (In desperation, I offered a small sum of money, and made deductions for each "like" uttered; my daughter was in negative equity by tea-time.)

I know, however, that my children can pull reasonably correct usage out of the bag when they need it, and I believe it's a habit worth reinforcing, at least most of the time, in the classroom.If this means teachers need to brush up on their own usage, so much the better. Rose's "talking cure" may not be the answer to all education's ills, but it's surely a dialogue worth having.