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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The final instalment of our WW1 series

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Simon Usborne: The more you watch pro cycling, the more you understand its social complexity

Simon Usborne
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice