Formal vs. Casual Register

A colleague (Sue Parsons) gave me a book three years ago and I finally got around to reading it over the last week. A Frame for Understanding Poverty by Payne is an intriguing read, exploring the role that class plays in student success. I will hit several of her key points in subsequent blogs, but the one I would like to discuss today is related to language.

Payne (citing Joos) says that all languages have five different registers or discourse patterns: frozen, formal, consultative, casual and intimate. She argues that formal language is predominant in higher education. In the register of formal language we use complete sentences, choose words deliberately and construct patterns that get right to the point. It is a language that is part of the middle class and in particular part of professionals that belong to the middle class. It is also a language or register (according to Payne) that is distinctly absent from the poverty class. Students that come to us with a background of poverty primarily use casual language to discuss ideas. Casual language is usually restricted to a very small vocabulary (400-800 words), is heavily augmented with non verbal cues, and follows an elliptical pattern that often goes round and round before a point is established.

Q: If this is the case, and I believe it is, how do we address this as educators? How do we make higher ed accessible to students with limited formal register skills without compromising the integrity of our curriculum?

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2 Responses to Formal vs. Casual Register

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