Spikk proper, noo! Teaching dialect in Primary School
by: Russell, M and Flaws, M
Well-meaning older cousins spent a while preparing me for my first day at primary school. They had a number of cautionary tales to tell but foremost amongst these was the admonition that, in school, 'You'll hiv tae spikk proper or the teacher'll be fairly mad.' I remember being deeply worried and puzzled about this. I had never previously had any notion that people did anything other than speak, listen and be understood. In my ignorance I had no idea that, in the eyes of some people, my language, dialect and vocabulary might seem inferior, common, not generally acceptable.
A few hours into my first day at school my apprehensions were confirmed. I was, indeed, found guilty of 'no spikkan proper'! My crime? I asked the teacher for a ' a pair o' shears'. 'Shears? Shears are for clipping sheep. We do not clip sheep in school. Go to your seat and stay there until you can ask properly for what you want.' In my seat I had to remain, without any clear idea of what I had to do or say to make my meaning clear. What I do remember is the burning shame I felt at this rejection, a rejection, it seemed, not just of myself but also of my language, my family, my culture and my community. Much later, after all the cutting out was finished, my teacher informed me that the word I should have used was 'scissors' and that I would have to use that word in the future.
The sad fact was that the teacher herself was a local woman, spoke the dialect and used the same words that the rest of us did in her life outside school. She acted, no doubt, from the best of motives. However, I can never recall asking that teacher another question during my years in her classroom. Most pupils only spoke when spoken to and then only said what was safe and unlikely to bring forth ridicule. We were a silent group in that little island school and many, to this day, still carry the legacy.
A relative from the Orkney Islands recently shared the above anecdote.
Fortunately, in the years which have elapsed, things have changed.
Opportunities to question, discuss and problem-solve in dialect are now
clearly stated as being amongst the curricular rights of children. In 'A
Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5', P. 5 we read,
'Children will bring their own experience of understanding and using language in the home and community to the pre-school setting. Their home language should be valued and encouraged so that children can respond confidently to adults and to other children, and express their own needs, thoughts and feelings.'
In The National Guidelines, English Language 5-14 P.30, we read
'At all stages, in ways appropriate to their age and attainments, pupils will
talk in Standard English, and their own dialect as appropriate.'
Colin Harrison (Interchange No. 39, P. 9) quotes research which demonstrates that a child's background contributes approximately 85% to what is achieved in school. If we reflect on this, it seems axiomatic that we should capitalise on all the powerful learning which children bring with them. It would seem particularly important to value and celebrate the rich and fully functioning language system which all mainstream children have acquired. To deny or attempt to ignore that 85% seems likely to enfeeble, to dis-empower and to disadvantage.
Youngsters who have learned to value their mother tongue are likely to have self-confidence in their use of language. They are also better placed to understand and respect the language and culture of others and better prepared to appreciate and celebrate all that is involved in growing up in modern pluralist Scottish society. Once again, our National Guidelines, Pp 67-68 provide justification and, indeed, a requirement for this approach to children's language learning and development.
'The idea of diversity is crucial to understanding language. There is no
standard form of Scots; there are many forms, varying one from another,
although sometimes sharing common features……..Pupils can investigate and enjoy language diversity by noting features of their own speech which differ from Standard English, and from other dialects they encounter.
Given such experiences and a conviction of the worth of their own accents and dialects, pupils will have greater empathy with those whose languages and cultures are different'
In our new, post 5-14 curriculum, young people have the right to discuss,
describe and justify the whole concept of 'spikkan proper' in a sense that
would formerly have been, to say the least, unusual. Teachers have a
responsibility to encourage and facilitate this. We have, on this occasion,
been liberated by documentation!
On the following pages, Margaret Flaws, author of The Orkney Dictionary and Kitty Berdo's Book o' Orkney Nursery Rhymes, shares with us an account of her influential and pioneering work on dialect in Orkney Island schools.
Teaching dialect in Primary School
I remember a prize-giving ceremony when I was in the fourth year of the
secondary at Kirkwall Grammar School. The then Director of Education, Mr. John Shearer, made a speech which was to become headline news in the local papers. The local reporters asserted that he had told us to get rid of our dialect if we wanted to further our education at university or college. This was tantamount to treason in Orkney and provoked a huge storm of protest. The reporters got it wrong. What he was actually telling us was that it would be to our advantage to learn to speak standard English because then we could communicate more freely with other people.
At the time, I could not understand the furore which the speech had created as it seemed common sense to me. If you are venturing into a foreign land - to wit, for us, Scotland - then learn a standard language. It was only many years later that I spotted the fatal flaw in this argument. We had never in fact been taught this foreign language. It had been assumed from the day we entered school that we could already speak it. Some of us acquired it along the way easily enough, but for others the experience of arriving at school to be taught in an unfamiliar tongue was traumatic. Education became for them a huge struggle, not helped at that time by the attitude of teachers determined to stamp out dialect.
I thought about this problem in a desultory fashion over some years of
teaching but it was a chance remark by an educational adviser that pushed me from thinking about it to doing something about it. Orkney, and in particular the islands, has seen over the past thirty years or so an influx of
ferry-loupers, incomers, mostly from England. They have settled in the islands to enjoy the quiet life and in some cases the island schools have a greater number of English pupils than Orcadian. The adviser had been going round the island schools and said, with reference to one particular school, that the quality of creative writing there was superb and added, "Of course, they are all English."
My reaction to this was mixed. After initially being furious at this slur on
Orcadians, I realised that there was a great deal of truth in what had been
implied. In the first place, these children were being taught in their own
language, a language they had not had to learn. In the second place it has
often been observed in Orkney that an Englishman will use forty words where an Orcadian uses four, and so these children had a naturally encouraged fluency and would certainly write in greater quantity. I began to think more urgently about the problem of dialect and to read as many articles as I could on the subject; there were not many that I could find.
While I had never in my teaching discouraged the use of dialect, neither had I actively promoted it. I began to wonder about the right approach to using dialect in class, whether to integrate it into the general work of the
classroom or to treat it as a separate subject. And it was while I was
considering these things that an incident occurred which acted as a catalyst. I was standing in front of my class of seven to nine year-olds, pontificating in my usual fashion and one brave little hand shot up. "Please, miss," said the owner, "are you English?" This was probably the last straw, after the adviser's remarks, as Orcadian is my mither-tongue in spite of the fact that I am half Shetland.
There were thus several things I had to think about, the first being why I
spoke Orcadian at home but taught in standard English. There are many reasons for this, I feel. To begin with, I myself was taught by teachers using standard English, so for that reason one is conditioned to think that that is the correct language to use in schools. Further to that, teacher training colleges, at the time I trained, used standard English. The text-books we use in class, reading, maths and so on, are perforce in standard English. I found that it felt natural to use standard English in class. If I used Orcadian I had to make a conscious effort to speak it in the classroom. Many teachers I have spoken to agree about this and yet they speak Orcadian out of school. This, I felt was the first and biggest stumbling block to using dialect in class.
I wanted also to be clear in my mind about the reasons for using dialect with my pupils and to be sure that it was for their benefit and not just some ego-trip of my own, or to get my own back on the adviser! I started from the conviction that they would find it easier to learn in their own language. It seemed like common sense to assume that children would find it less intimidating if they were introduced to new ideas such as reading and sums without having to cope with a new language as well. This is almost impossible, however, as any reading book, for economic reasons, is going to be printed in standard English. Therefore children are going to have to learn the new language fast.
However the reasons for using dialect with children are not just restricted to making it easier for them to learn. There are much more important reasons. The language you speak is an integral part of you. If it is valued, then you yourself are of value. If the use of it is forbidden, as it has been in the past, or side-lined, as it frequently is, then the tendency is to devalue it and, consequently, the speaker. If you feel the way you speak is incorrect or second-rate, then you lose confidence, in your speech, in your ability and in yourself.
I felt this could have three effects. Firstly some children would battle
against the odds and do well. Secondly some children would just give up on education then and there. And thirdly others would plod their way in a
relatively competent manner through school but feel that education was
something apart from their lives and irrelevant. I had pupils like this. They did their work willingly in class and were interested in many of the things we did, but I never got the impression that they were involved in it all. It was "school" and that was it.
I came to the conclusion that the most important thing was to reinstate the
dialect as the children's first language and encourage fluency in reading and writing it. I felt that it was vital that this was done in the Primary, as the education that children get there is the most important of all and has
far-reaching effects. Up till that time any writing and reading of the dialect had been confined to the secondary. I mentioned to a fellow teacher that I thought we should teach the dialect and her reply was, "I have enough bother with teaching English, let alone the dialect." This statement, to my mind, contained both reason and solution.
Why was there such a problem with teaching English? Because it was a "foreign" language. Therefore, how should we teach English? Answer: as a foreign language. There are differences in vocabulary between Orcadian and English and in shared vocabulary there are differences in pronunciation. My mother, who was a Primary teacher also, was looking at a picture book with a boy on his first day at school. "A hoose," he said, "and a moose." My mother explained that in school he should say "house" and "mouse". He repeated these, turned the page and said triumphantly, "And a MOUN and a SPOUN."
There are not only problems with vocabulary. Orcadian grammar can be
completely different. Apart from complications like the odd subjunctive tense lying around to trap the unwary and the fact that the verbal noun and adjective are still distinct in speech, we use sentences like "Me hands is dirty." This is grammatically correct Orcadian. The usual response in school is, "That's wrong. You mean your hands are dirty."
I decided to tackle the problem of using dialect in the classroom by teaching it as a language in its own right. That might sound a bit pretentious but it does describe the method best. As I had no material of any kind to use, we had to start from scratch. There is no standard for spelling Orcadian and most people seem to spell it any old way they like, which is a drawback. So we began with that and invented our own spelling system. In retrospect I think the children and I went over the top with that and that in the main ordinary English spelling can be accepted in many cases with of course different pronunciation.
The next step was to make dictionaries, both Orcadian into English and English into Orcadian. We also put up long lists of words on the wall and the whole exercise seemed to take off. Children who had been interested suddenly became involved. Grandmothers were pestered for words and long-forgotten words appeared on the walls. The rest of the staff used to come in to read them also.
From there we progressed to reading. This was a big problem to begin with as there was very little written specifically for seven to nine year-olds. I adapted some, wrote some and finally copied the children's own work for reading material. There were some results which I should have expected, but did not. Children who stumbled through reading English, read Orcadian fluently. Children who hated reading now enjoyed it. There were some unexpected results. Children from incoming families were just as keen to learn Orcadian and could write stories and poems in it in a very short time. Their parents had no objections and were indeed very enthusiastic.
Eventually, with the groundwork, as I thought, thoroughly covered, I decided to put the whole exercise to the test. I considered it would have been a failure if I had not achieved the one goal I had set myself. The vital part of the exercise to my mind was that the children could distinguish between Orcadian and English so I asked them to translate from one language to the other. With one or two peculiar results it was on the whole a huge success. Later I found it was enough to say "Write it in English" or "Use Orcadian" and they had little difficulty in separating them.
As a teaching scheme it worked for me and the children enjoyed it. There were added benefits too. When one of my pupils came to me and said "Me hands is dirty," I replied, "Say that in English." "My hands are dirty," he answered promptly (and they were too!) "Weel, go and wash them," I said in Orcadian.
Flaws, M and Lamb, G (1996) The Orkney Dictionary The Orkney Language and Culture Group Kirkwall
Flaws, M and Woodford, B (1994) Kitty Berdo's Book o' Orkney Nursery Rhymes
The Kirkwall Press. Kirkwall
SCCC (1998) A Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5 Scottish CCC Dundee
SOED (1991) Curriculum and Assessment in Scotland National Guideline
English Language 5-14 SOED Edinburgh
SOEID (1996) Interchange 39 Methods of Teaching reading: Key issues in research and implications for practice SOEID RIU Edinburgh