Registers of Language


One of the challenges that children face in school is that the Casual language used in their home is significantly different that the Formal language used at school. Many lower income students not only have a lack of books at home but family members use a casual register with limited vocabulary, many general words, often incomplete syntax and much use of non-verbal assists. The problem is that all state tests, well paying jobs, and communicating in writing is done in the formal register.

The ability to use the formal register is a hidden rule in the middle class. Complicating the matter is that discourse in the formal register of English is a pattern that usually goes straight to the point. Casual discourse is much less direct and looks for the listener to fill in a lot of what is unsaid before it gets to the point. Educators often get impatient with children who cannot summarize or speak directly to the issue at hand.

When children have as their primary language acquisition in the casual register, learning the formal discourse of the larger society is similar to learning a second language. Like most second languages, gaining facility with its use is best when learned early. Arriving at school with little experience with the formal register, children are challenged to learn both content, skills and language vocabulary and syntax.

Absent a significant other who uses the formal register in a child’s everyday life, schools are faced with the challenge of direct-teaching it. This means often translating a story told in the casual register to one in a formal showing differences in word choice, sentence syntax and discourse patterns. And students need to repeatedly hear and understand that using the formal register in school and other interactions with adults and police, etc., will help them be much more successful.

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