4 ways to help your students communicate more formally


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When I first started to learn Spanish, my teachers were sympathetic. It’s hard for English speakers to learn the tú/Usted (informal/formal “you”) distinction, so they graciously allowed students to “tutear” them, that is, speak to them with the informal tú. Keeping track of verb conjugations was hard enough already with burgeoning language skills, so this was helpful… at first. But later, I realized that I didn’t have enough practice with Usted to use it well outside of the classroom. I struggled to speak respectfully to bank tellers, waiters, airport employees, and even my in-laws. Even if my teachers had tried to help by making the switch back to formal exchanges, it wouldn’t have worked–relationships only become more informal with time, so such a change would have felt unnatural.

Even though English doesn’t have the same formality distinction built into verbs, we still use formality via language registers. And just as I needed practice using Spanish in a formal way, English learners need practice using English in a formal way. In some ways, using English formally is made even harder, because it relies on less explicit modes of expression than a simple verb ending. Erick Herrmann advises helping students out with register by identifying the following communication aspects:

Help students identify which kinds of audiences require a more formal tone. A persuasive argument about movies directed toward peers is much different from a persuasive argument about installing new play equipment directed toward the school board.

My first year of college, I got plenty of papers back with the comment, “Too flowery.” Like many high schoolers, most of my extended writing had happened in Language Arts courses, where metaphors and elaborate language are often welcome and cultivated. But extended writing in, say, science, looks much different, and students may not see or practice it as much as in the humanities. Every content area has a different style within its field, and EL students should be made aware of this during their reading, even if they don’t have as much opportunity for writing with various styles.

I mentioned above the “persuasive argument,” but what about other communication purposes? Narrative, descriptive, and informative writing might require students to choose different registers of formality. Such purposes may require the use of different language frames too.

Finally, students need to know where the communication is happening. Are they on the playground or in the library? Are they at the bank or the grocery store? Are they at a diner, or a fancy restaurant?

Finally, I’ve lifted Herrmann’s five registers from his post, but make sure you see what else he has to say.

  • Frozen/Static Register: Fixed language like the Pledge of Allegiance or Preamble of the Constitution
  • Formal/Academic Register: includes speeches, proclamations, and perhaps legal writing
  • Consultative Register: The register of professional discourse, often with unequal levels of power (doctor/patient, teacher/student, judge/jury, etc.)
  • Casual Register: The informal register of friends
  • Intimate Register: Reserved for the people closest to you

The next time you’re scratching your head over your students’ lack of formality, see if instruction on any of these makes a difference!

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