Dr Alex Baratta writes on the complexities of language, accents, and pronunciation in the classroom. Dr Baratta argues for the standardisation of some elements of pronunciation in teacher training as the best way to balance educational outcomes in learned ‘phonics’ with the protection and celebration of diversity through experience of a variety of accents.
- Currently, language (word choice) is standardised in teacher training, but pronunciations are not
- Preliminary research has found evidence of accent prejudice in training situations, as mentors impose their preferences upon trainees
- In phonics (teaching children to pronunciation), a set of standard pronunciations should be employed to ensure consistency of outcomes – even if this means some minor accent modification on the part of the teacher for these specific lessons
- An agreed set of ‘phoneme standards’ will also challenge any imposition of arbitrary accent standards by mentors onto trainees
- Outside of phonics, a wide variety of accents will enrich the educational environment and celebrate identity and diversity
Linguistic standards in teacher training
Within British teacher training – and for their future teaching assignments – teachers of all subjects are instructed to use ‘Standard English’, which refers to a specific use of grammar (e.g. I was but not I were) and avoidance of words which are regional in nature as opposed to national (e.g. the Liverpool use of the word bizzies, meaning the police). In this sense, the linguistic standards for teachers could not be clearer. However, what about accent?
All British teachers, whether from Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle, are capable of speaking in Standard English. However, what are the implications for accents within British teacher training? Do the negative connotations that accompany some accents make their way into training, to the extent that trainee teachers are made to feel that they need to adjust their accent? Or, is accent modification merely a necessary response in order to ensure that teachers are fully understood by their students? The official standards for teachers’ language use read thus:
‘demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject’ (DfE, 2013a, p. 11, or see the Government’s Teacher’s Standards webpage).
Words such as ‘literacy’ and ‘articulacy’ would appear to be ‘catch-all’ words, which might allow mentors a means to address what they perceive to be inarticulate, if not inappropriate accents for effective teaching (if such accents even exist). However, I argue that such broad words serve to act as replacements for what is needed instead – a clarification as to what the standards are for British accents in teacher training and beyond.
Accents in the classroom – some preliminary findings
The results of my research involve the responses of 41 British and Irish trainee teachers, as well as the views of 55 students from both primary and secondary level. The teachers’ accents are representative of a variety of regions and involve both the primary and secondary level of teaching. Below are some of the more pertinent findings:
- Northern-/Midlands-accented teachers are more likely to be told to modify their accents (see https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/12/trainee-teachers-from-northern-england-told-to-modify-their-accents and http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/yalright-sir-mancunian-teachers-under-8532176)
- The modification often involves specific phonological information, such as avoiding the short-a sound as heard in the Northern pronunciation of bath
- This applies to teachers who are nonetheless teaching/planning to teach in their home region
- Accent modification is not merely tied to phonics teaching, however, and has been raised as an issue for secondary teachers
- The teachers’ mentors justify their directives to modify based on a need for teachers to be understandable and/or the need to use ‘professional’ language
- For many teachers, accent modification based on someone else’s version of what constitutes a ‘standard’ accent equates to linguistic ‘selling out’ (accentpride.co.uk)
Potential linguistic prejudice in teacher training
While identity is an important issue, there are broader issues with implications for teacher training, notably concerning equality issues in employment. This involves perceived linguistic prejudice on the part of the teachers’ mentors. We might remember that, while foreign accents qualify for protection under the ‘protected category’ provisions of the Equality Act 2010, British accents do not.
Consider the following:
- A teacher from Rossendale, Lancashire was told by the interviewer (on an interview for a place on a PGCE course) that the interview would be stopped if the teacher did not modify his accent; the rationale was that parents would complain that the teacher was not speaking ‘proper’ English
- A teacher from the Midlands was told by her mentor in the South that it was ‘best to go back to where (she) came from’, if she retained her natural pronunciation in words such as bath and bus for phonics teaching (i.e. she was told to use Southern pronunciation for these words)
- A teacher with a London accent was told by her mentor to write the word water with a capital ‘t’ (waTer), in order to avoid using a glottal stop (i.e. wa-er)
The way forward – establishing the accent standards for British teachers
Proving linguistic prejudice can be difficult, though comments perceived as being based on such prejudice are sufficient to raise this as an issue. On the other hand, from the mentors’ perspective, and perhaps that of some children’s parents, there might be a certain linguistic expectation of teachers in terms of their accent use in the classroom, which may indeed be very different from their ‘home’ accent.
Given that accent modification is arguably an ongoing practice in teacher training, with or without teachers’ acceptance, it is time to clarify once and for all a series of pronunciation standards for teacher training and for phonics teaching specifically.
The fact that this is a potentially controversial, and complex subject, is no reason to avoid it. Indeed, as mentors are addressing it already, and in an unregulated way, there is more of a need for national standards. Standardisation is the only way to clarify matters and to ensure that any modifications to classroom speech are evidence-based and neither arbitrary nor prejudicial.
To that end, and based on the comments teachers receive from their mentors, I propose that a nationwide survey be established, which can be sent all over the UK to teachers and mentors who represent the primary and secondary level of teaching, as well as parents and employers. This latter group is highly relevant, as if indeed there are specific phonemes (units of sound) or indeed accents that employers feel are somehow inappropriate, and this has implications for employment, then surely, whether we like it or not, it is time to address this issue and clarify it once and for all. The Sutton Trust has reported on the so-called ‘brown shoes effect’, which does raise the issue of interview presentation, including accent, as a barrier to employment.
I argue that in the absence of national standards for accent, there is more potential for mentors and senior staff to apply their own beliefs in this regard. If, however, we address this though a nationwide survey, which takes into account the beliefs of a wide range of the British public, including the teachers themselves, only then can we approach this subject from a truly egalitarian perspective and in a climate of respect for diversity and a push for equality, it is needed.
A list of phonological standards might be realised as a starting point, and standards connected specifically with phonics teaching only. Outside of this specific pedagogical context, teachers should not be expected to modify their accents, unless of course they choose to. Children need to be prepared for the real world outside the school gates, where a variety of British and foreign accents will be heard.
Phoneme standards in phonics teaching – what a checklist may look like
- Avoidance of glottal stops [ʔ]
- Avoidance of g- and h-dropping (e.g. goin’, ‘ello)
- Avoidance of two specific monophthongs ( i.e. the o-sound and a-sound in the North as heard in words such as go and day – /go:/ /de:/; instead, we would expect diphthongs, such as /goʊ/ and /deɪ/)
- For Northern/Midlands teachers who teach phonics in the South, there is a need to adjust to Southern phonemes (specifically, those heard in words such as bath-bus)
- Likewise, for Southern teachers who teach phonics in the North, there is a need to adjust to Northern phonemes (again, those heard in words such as bath-bus)
- Rhotic speakers (those who pronounce their r’s in words such as car park) should not have to drop their r’s
- Beyond this, the need for a fully joint discussion between teachers and mentors to negotiate specific sounds which might reflect more ‘broad’ realisations of specific accents. This is admittedly a broad category, but necessarily so, as it stands to reason that a list regarding accent standards cannot attempt to be completely exhaustive
Outside of phonics (where control over the pronunciation of words is both essential and consequential), primary students should be exposed to their teacher’s home accent, in a spirit of celebrating diversity and ensuring that no one need feel linguistically insecure or left out.
Considering that many categories of identification are protected, partly as a means to avoid workplace discrimination, then certain regional British accents, if not provided legal protection, should not be targeted in the workplace. If teachers are fully qualified to teach, then is this not the main point?
If, however, a nationwide survey demonstrates that children would be better served by teachers employing some standardised pronunciations (which may require minor changes to natural accents, limited to those instances where phonics are the principal object of the lesson), then the public – and the teachers – have spoken.