Document 347

Language Background and Educational Failure

Author(s): Andrew Philp

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material


One result of the difference between the speech of many children in Britain and the language of the school system is that lack of educational success is frequently explained in terms of some kind of mismatch between pupils’ language capabilities derived from their home background or social class and the language demands of the learning environment. This mismatch is usually explained in three main ways:
(a) that the home dialect is deficient as language
(b) that the differences between home dialect and the formal Standard English of school lead to educational difficulties.
(c) that there is a difference of ‘code’ or ‘coding orientation’ between the language of many pupils from deprived social backgrounds and that required for success within the school system.

Deficit. The view that the language of nonstandard English speakers is impoverished, lacking in range of vocabulary or logicality of grammar, is now largely discredited in linguistic and educational circles. The notion that nonstandard English is impoverished has largely disappeared in the face of countless examples of young regional speakers who can be heard frequently on television, and also the growth of ‘rap’ music, which clearly contradicts any notion that young black speakers of English are inarticulate because of the dialect they speak. Young working-class speakers may be inarticulate because they lack confidence in an unfamiliar social or linguistic context, but that is an entirely different matter.

Difference. The ‘difference theory’ sees the educational problems for Nonstandard English speakers in school as arising from the fact that such speakers have difficulty in gaining full access to the language of education because they are confronted with a different dialect, Standard English, which they have not as yet fully mastered.

There may be some truth in this explanation in that the language of textbooks, worksheets and examinations may use not just technical terms, but many other words and expressions which cause comprehension difficulties for beginners. Yet this is more a matter of style, and lack of experience of the formal academic register – which may cause problems for Standard English speakers too – rather than of any difficulties arising directly from the nonstandard dialect. Learners need textbooks, worksheets and assessments written in a simpler style, and more guided experience of them, rather than a change of dialect. Certainly it is true that nonstandard users may meet occasional difficulty with Standard English vocabulary or expressions unfamiliar to them, or in explaining some points in Standard English, but these partial difficulties can hardly be blamed for the widespread learning difficulties encountered by children from ‘disadvantaged’ areas.

‘Coding Orientation’. A third type of explanation of how the language of certain social groups can lead to educational failure highlights differences in types of language functions or in the kinds of meanings expressed, between the culture of home and neighbourhood and that of the school.

This theory is associated with Bernstein and Halliday and has grown out of Bernstein’s much misunderstood theory of codes (restricted and elaborated) and Halliday’s approach to the functional development of language. In this approach it is claimed that for certain families there is a mismatch between the functions for which they typically use language and those functions which are normally required in school – such as giving logical, reasoned explanations, formulating an individualised viewpoint, and defending it against challenges. This difference in ‘coding orientation’, as Bernstein now calls it, is explained by Halliday thus:

"Certain ways of organising experience through language [such as those indicated above], and of participating with people and things, are necessary to success in school. The child who is not predisposed to this type of verbal exploration in this type of experiential context “is not at home in the educational world”, as Bernstein puts it." Halliday, M.A.K, (1978) "Language as Social Semiotic"

Halliday links this explanation of coding orientation to his own theory of the functions of language that the child acquires in the process of language development. He suggests that experience within the Heuristic (finding out about the world) function and the Personal (developing an individual identity) function is likely to be particularly important to a child’s success in school. Incidentally, these functions – essentially putting forward individual explanations and reasoned justifications – are those which are advocated in ‘The Development of Talking Skills’ paper (9), as part of the ‘communicative classroom’.

There is still, however, considerable controversy as to how far one can correlate these coding orientations with social class differences. Halliday’s careful formulation does not directly link the mismatch in coding orientations to social classes, as the former approach to restricted and elaborated codes did, but says that it ‘results from the different patterns of socialisation that characterise different sections of society or subcultures’. Hasan’s research, carried out with mothers and young children in Britain and later in Australia, suggests how these different patterns of socialisation may work. She argues that the formulations used in interactions with their children by mothers from different social classes socialise the children in different ways. She suggests that the ways in which mothers from lower working-class backgrounds tended to control their children (for instance, by threats or categorical imperatives, as opposed to appeals based on reasoning – typical of middle-class mothers) and the ways in which they gave children information (for instance, with minimal as opposed to full, explanations) create an orientation which is less in touch with the orientation required for work in school than that which tends to be provided by middle-class mothers. (Hasan, R.. and Williams, G. eds, (1996): "Literacy in Society".)

Yet the equally substantial and authoritative research carried out by Wells and his associates in Bristol pointed out that, while the richness and complexity of the language of parent-child interaction is a factor in predicting success in schools, there is no evidence that the difference in quality of interactions could be divided along social class lines. (Wells, G., 1985: "Language at Home and at School".)

Two conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, most writers in this field would agree with Hasan that there can be no resolution of this controversy until there are ‘larger scale studies of how the development of mental functions is shaped by social conditions’. Secondly, if children are to have an opportunity to develop a coding orientation which would be in tune with the linguistic demands of school learning, it seems likely that the kind of ‘communicative classroom’ advocated in Paper 9 (where they operate in small groups and larger groupings, explaining and justifying their views to others) would be the best option. Certainly, many nonstandard English-speaking pupils in deprived areas show considerable facility and accuracy in certain speaking contexts, such as arguing for the relative merits of football players or pop stars, and what they perhaps need is a working atmosphere within the classroom which encourages them to draw upon and extend that verbal skill within most of the learning contexts of the school.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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APA Style:

Language Background and Educational Failure. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 30 May 2024, from

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The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 347

Language Background and Educational Failure


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 2001
Word count 1153
General description One of a series of position papers on current educational developments in relation to language education

Text medium

Other CD Rom

Text publication details

Publisher SEED / University of Glasgow
Publication year 2001
Place of publication Glasgow
ISBN/ISSN 0852417402
Edition 1st
Part of larger text
Contained in CD Rom: LILT Materials
Editor J. McGonigal / C Kay
Part of a longer series of texts
Name of series Position Papers: CD Rom: LILT Materials

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 60
Forenames Andrew
Surname Philp
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1930
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Catholicism
Occupation Retired Lecturer in Education
Place of birth Londonderry
Region of birth Co. Londonderry
Country of birth Northern Ireland
Place of residence Airdrie
Region of residence Lanark
Residence CSD dialect area Lnk
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Tool Fitter
Father's place of birth Auchterarder
Father's region of birth E & SE Perthshire
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Per
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Seamstress in shirt factory
Mother's place of birth Ture
Mother's region of birth Co. Donegal
Mother's country of birth Ireland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes At work, at home
Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic Yes Yes Yes Yes Evening classes and immersion
Italian Yes Yes No No Elementary
Japanese Yes No No Yes Very elementary
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Elementary - intermediate
Urdu Yes No No Yes Elementary