A student’s ability to become fluent and possess proficient listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills within a given register depends on experience, error, feedback, and opportunities to try again. Opportunities to practice using language in a more formal register with an authentic audience will increase a student’s ability to communicate effectively. In addition to these opportunities, some students may need guided and explicit language instruction at the discourse, sentence, and word levels.
Not every learner can turn body language or sounds, such as the implied head nod, furrowed brow, or cluck, etc., into conscious understanding of implied meaning. Teachers who explicitly teach social language and how to recognize the thoughts of others are scaffolding the ability to interpret the author’s intent, select the appropriate word, give a rationale for a character’s actions, and infer what is implied by a gesture, setting, or situation.
As noted earlier, the primary communication opportunities for many students may occur at home or in the community. In these settings, we use informal and casual language, the type of language we use with peers and friends as part our identity. Communication forms that use informal or casual registers include texts, emails, blogs, letters to friends, phone calls, etc., can significantly outnumber the opportunities to practice in the formal register using academic discourse.
Teachers must provide opportunities to engage with formal registers and teach students to use both informal and formal registers and forms of communication. Honoring use of informal language and communications and challenging students to code-switch to more formal uses and structures will not only support student identity and engagement in school, but will also expand confidence in being able to successfully navigate multiple contexts such as school and work. Discounting a student’s language assets not only threatens their engagement in school, but can stall their language development.