The Language of School and Cracking the Academic Code

‘I speak therefore I am’

Ten years ago I moved from my home in Liverpool to become a teacher in York. I went to the Liverpool University so my accent, dialect, and my language more generally, was largely unchanged from my time at school. Of course, I had undertaken lots of reading and language development between leaving school and becoming a teacher, but I still required a significant shift in my language to become a teacher with clear and effective communication. It wasn’t just my thick scouse accent, although my accent was strong and unintelligible at certain frequencies for some of my students it quickly transpired! I had to develop a more ‘academic‘ register of speech that was a model for students and their language development.

Within a couple of years of training and then teaching my accent had dulled greatly and rather subconsciously I began to speak with a different register entirely too. I began to speak more like an academic essay. I spoke more elaborately to be explicitly clear, with more specialised vocabulary and a more conscious structuring my speech. Very quickly my new ‘teacher voice’ became automatic. For better or worse, it became my voice. Now, my subconscious desire to eradicate my accent may well have been an unconscious response to what Frederick Williams described as the ‘stereotype hypothesis’. The hypothesis that teacher’s expectations of a pupil’s performance corresponded closely with how far student’s dialect diverts away from the standard. Only yesterday I read an article about the tyranny of dialect-dulling in academia here. My more elaborate speech was my attempt to model the language required of academic talk and academic writing, only I wasn’t doing it consciously, it was just happening so I could communicate effectively in the classroom.

A few months ago I read about Basil Bernstein’s ideas regarding language use. In the 1970s British sociolinguist, Basil Bernstein, posed the hypothesis of different types of speech in the home. He presented a basic dichotomy between ‘elaborated code’ (most often found in the language of educated people in the home) and ‘restricted code’ (a more compressed shorthand ‘code’ for communication). Bernstein was criticised for conferring greater value onto the more formal register of the ‘elaborate code’, viewing language and class as a value-laden hierarchy; however, the case is that he doesn’t argue one is necessarily ‘better‘ than the other, but he does recognise that both types of language exist in the home and beyond and that we must be able to shift our register appropriately. He recognised that power is conferred to those who know the difference and those who can adapt their language in appropriate circumstances with skill.

Two Types of Talk: The ‘Academic Code’ and the ‘Personal Code’

Why is the ‘academic code‘ important? This is the primary mode of communication in the school context and it therefore connotes success in most circumstances. It crucially transfers to later professional contexts, as shown in the dialect in academia article linked above. What we largely do as teachers is leave this code as implicit knowledge, letting some students who have been initiated in the code tacitly by parents become even more successful, whilst the uninitiated flounder. What we must do as teachers is to make this ‘academic code‘ explicitly known to students. It is a code that is teachable and key to their future success. To do so we need to recognise some of its features. I have kept it simple in grammatical terms and welcome further explanation by those much more expert than me.

‘The Academic Code’: Speech and Writing

– It has the more formal register we typically associate with writing;
– The ‘voice’ is that of an expert asserting an opinion. It is typically impersonal in style and declarative in tone, not assuming a personal emotional relationship with the audience;
– Specific noun phrases such as ‘archetypal protagonist’ are favoured over deictic pronouns, such as ‘him’;
– Shifts between topics are lexically and syntactically marked with a range of complex discourse markers;
– Vocabulary becomes more specialised and technical;
– Less assumptions about shared knowledge in vague linguistic terms are applied – see ‘noun phrases’ above;
– Expanded utterances include more logical sub-clauses, such as ‘one other type’ and ‘the second method’ etc.;
– There is typically a hierarchal structure that sequences of information into an argument.

The ‘Personal Code’: Speech and Writing

– It has the less formal register we associate with speech. This reliance on prosody can be seen most explicitly in ‘text language’ and expressive writing;
– The ‘voice’ is more commonly exclamative and interrogative etc. It lacks the impersonal formality of the ‘academic code’;
– There is more reliance on deictic references and vague pronouns;
– There is typically more generic, less specialised lexis e.g. ‘It’ instead of ‘igneous rock’;
– There is an emergent, free structure, like speech, rather than a clearly hierarchical, logical structure;
– Anaphora is common as a cohesive tie, such as ‘He….He’ in sentences and utterances, rather than a more sophisticated range of discourse markers. Commonly used conjunctions like ‘and’, ‘so’ and ‘but’ repeated. Research (Lazarathon, 1992) found that ‘and’ was used to connect five times more clauses in speech than in writing;
– Telegraphic speech (short utterances focused on nouns and verbs) is more commonly used, which is reliant upon shared personal knowledge.

To exemplify the codes here are two very short examples of student talk from my classroom recently. Example A is some student talk in the ‘Personal Code‘ based on George’s decision to kill his friend Lennie in the novella, ‘Of Mice and Men’:

A: He was right. He should have done it because he saved him from worse.

Example B is another student articulating the same point in ‘Academic Code’:

B: I would argue that George, the protagonist, was morally right to kill his best friend Lennie. Ironically, he saved him form a cruel death at the hands of Curley – who had a shotgun and was looking to pursue his raging obsession for revenge.

Now, you might rightly criticise my comparing chalk and cheese here, but they are two real examples. Student A was right in the broadest sense, but he didn’t elaborate logically upon his knowledge, nor was he specific with his use of nouns and pronouns like Student B. Student A didn’t just lack ‘detail’, he lacked the grammatical patterns required of success in the academic realm. What was noticeable for me was that both students were of similar ‘ability’, but their register of speech was different and it was also reflected in their performance in written assessments. If you observe language in almost any profession you will see a greater complexity of vocabulary choices and hierarchical structures of language that more closely match the register of student B. Go down to your local courts and listen to some courtroom legalese and see for yourself how speech and written texts overlap with a degree of register wholly alien to everyday conversation.

I have clearly set up a dichotomy here, but it is important to state at both codes are complex, both are necessary for our daily lives and they both represent a complex cross-over between the spoken and written modes of language. Both codes can also be equally as indecipherable to the uninitiated and are crucial to success in a variety of social contexts.


Where Next? Code Breaking!

Well, we need to start firstly by educating students, and teachers, about the explicit differences between the different codes – between the ‘academic code’ and the ‘personal code’ – in speech and writing. Having access to such an ‘academic code’ can be like having a key for social mobility. It need cost the ‘Pupil Premium’ budget to make a difference either. We should ensure that classroom talk scaffolds and recasts the speech and writing of students at every available opportunity to ensure they match the patterns of the ‘academic code’ and it becomes automatic through ‘deliberate practice’ (like it did for me when I began teaching). It is important that we provide a range of formal opportunities for talk: presentations, debate and discussion that is formalised with the expectations of the ‘academic code’, crucially, both inside and outside of the classroom.

Put simply this code needs to be at the heart of the DNA that is our educational discourse. Teachers need to know it, use it, model it and teach it explicitly. Students need to learn the difference and how to readily adapt their code to match the circumstances. This mobility of language might well help engender the greater social mobility we seek through education.

Thank you to those people who took part in #LiteracyChat yesterday who sparked this post.

Also, I must doff my cap to Lee Donaghy, whose brilliant blog triggered some wider research on scaffolding and the power of language in the classroom more recently. His blog can be found here:

David Didau also produced a very useful and insightful post on oracy here:

Finally, this erudite essay by Mary J. Schleppegrell puts the argument of a ‘language of schooling‘ much more eloquently than I ever could:


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

8 responses to “The Language of School and Cracking the Academic Code”

  1. Christine from Australia says :

    It’s great to see this topic addressed so thoughtfully. I too feel very driven to ensure that my students are aware of these different registers and that they are explicitly taught the language of power, or as you neatly put it, the academic code. We owe it to our non-middle class students to give them access to the ‘keys to the kingdom’.

  2. John Hodgson (@bristoljohn) says :

    A very interesting post. Bernstein’s work attracted much controversy but he was definitely on to something. More recently he has weighed into the debate on literacy, claiming that New Literacy Studies characteristically do not suggest ways in which to introduce students to what he calls the ‘vertical’ discourse of the academy. Your post has encouraged me to write more on my own blog – thanks for the stimulus.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I look forward to reading it. I agree that much of the literacy practice in schools today is rather limited to vocabulary building. A very necessary requirement, but too narrow in scope in my humble opinion.

  3. teachingbattleground says :

    What is described here as “the academic code” reminds me of Orwell’s examples and descriptions of bad writing in Politics and the English language. I realise that there is a dilemma here over whether you want students to be suited to academia even if it’s academia at its worst but this seems like a recipe for learning a style that positively drives out substance.

  4. Nick Daniels (@nickdaniels) says :

    Interesting post. I think the point is that we want students to speak and write in Standard English. They should write (and speak) with precision, clarity and an appropriate level of detail. Hopefully both Orwell and academics could agree with that. That’s the problem I see when I look at examples A and B above.

    Unfortunately, academic writing frequently does not live up to this ideal. Here’s David Foster Wallace:

    “I’m afraid I regard Academic English not as a dialectal variation but as a grotesque debasement of SWE, and loathe it even more than the stilted incoherences of Presidential English (“This is the best and only way to uncover, destroy, and prevent Iraq from reengineering weapons of mass destruction”) or the mangled pieties of BusinessSpeak (“Our Mission: to proactively search and provide the optimum networking skills and resources to meet the needs of your growing business”); and in support of this utter contempt and intolerance I cite no less an authority than Mr. G. Orwell, who 50 years ago had AE pegged as a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” in which “it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.”

    Maybe this is the trouble: academic language suffers a branding problem. When 100 academics signed their name to a badly written letter, I’m sure I was not alone in cringing. But attempts to criticise this was met with “What do you expect? They’re academics.”

    • huntingenglish says :

      I wholly agree with your first two sentences. It would have made for a concise post but that it the essence of it. My label of ‘academic code’ does invoke academics quote clearly, but I considered it more than that. Perhaps a labelling nearer ‘professional’ would have been more appropriate. My attempt was to try to get nearer to a ‘code’ teachers can recognise and share, without going so far into the grammar as to alienate much of a wide audience.

      The examples I give are exaggerated in their difference as I admit. When I observe S&L assessments and note that there is often a correlation between social class and attainment (with all the complicated factors of wider reading etc.) it makes want to address the matter. I agree, any debate about register becomes laden with values and contentious debate, as Basil Bernstein found out. I’m glad both yourself and Old Andrew have critiqued the both – it is certainly requiring critique – but I am happy to provoke any debate. It seems to me standards of oracy are bemoaned but people then rarely follow it with action.

  5. Adam Lewis says :

    I did almost the opposite with my ‘teaching voice’ – I included more Yorkshire dialect features than I had done at University when I started teaching in Newcastle. This divergence was subconscious (I hope) yet I still retained the academic code when speaking to students. As long as the students can use the academic code when necessary, rather than seeing it just as ‘posh voice’ then I see no problem with them using a personal code at other times in the classroom.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Interesting how you converged with them in a different context, just different direction from me. Yes, the whole point I wanted to convey was the ability to shift the voice and register to suit the circumstances is what is key. It allows that social mobility for people like me, whose family didn’t have a history of working in the professions for example. I think I was able to adapt my language through a huge amount of reading rather than much of my schooling, but that is a completely different post! When I go home and see friends my whole language shifts again and I love where I’m from and many of the dialect features, I just think we should recognise there are voices for different social contexts.

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