Cracking the Academic Code

In Debates and Polemics, Evidence in Education, Notable Education Miscellany, Research Evidence, Teaching English by Alex Quigley0 Comments

‘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.


Further reading: 

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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