LISA SPENCE proclaims ‘We don’t need no education’: you might do, because you just used a double negative

Most of us remember our school days, completing endless essays for different subjects. Despite the varying topics, there was one area of feedback that was the same across the board, and written work was often returned with red pen littering the page circling different grammatical ‘errors’. No matter the content or the accuracy of the rest of the work, the mark suffered if the grammar was not perfect. The question here is: is it right for schools to place so much emphasis on correct grammar? Is it really important as long as students are expressing relevant ideas in their work?

The place of grammar teaching in schools has long been a topic of debate. The National Curriculum (1999a, b, cited in Crowley, 2003: 250-251) outlines a clear place for the explicit teaching of grammar within the school system and suggests it as a tool that can be used to develop a child’s language use in both speech and writing.  However, while taking non-standard varieties into account, the curriculum focuses chiefly on the teaching of Standard English, even though it is not most children’s native dialect.

Honey (1997: 28-30) argues in favour of this approach with the claim that ‘this dialect assumes a number of characteristics which the others do not have’, but what these characteristics are is not quite clear. There is nothing intrinsic about Standard English that marks it out as superior to other dialects, so it seems somewhat unfair to enforce it upon children who speak a different dialect at home. It is argued that the aim is not to alienate children, simply to add to their language repertoire with an additional dialect, but this is not always possible. As Brindley and Swann (1996: 211) point out, ‘in learning Standard English, children are necessarily aligning themselves with the language and culture of the school and it is debatable how far it is possible for certain speakers to do this without losing something of their cultural identity.’ Is it worth the expense of a child losing their sense of identity simply to ensure a certain standard of correctness?

That is not to say that there are no benefits to learning grammar in school, or to having a single dialect as the focus. Having Standard English as the norm allows for mutual intelligibility because ‘accent is difficult for those outside the speech community to understand, they should be able to modify when necessary’ (HMI, 1984: 15, cited in Crowley, 2003: 237-238). It is arguable that Standard English allows children to practice this to some extent. Knowledge of grammar can also be beneficial in helping children to learn new languages as ‘a general understanding of how language works […] is a sound basis for effectively learning a foreign language’ (Hudson and Walmsley, 2005: 17). But would it not be more important for a child to freely express themselves in their native dialect than sacrifice it for these ends?

I admit that I’m not sure which side to take here. The ‘stickler’ in me is praising the efforts to ensure correctness, but I also endorse the value of language diversity and the sense of identity it gives. Will there ever be a method that can combine the two and lay the debate to rest?

LISA SPENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Brindley, S. & Swann, J. (1996). Issues in English teaching. In: N. Mercer & J. Swann (Eds.), Learning English : Development and diversity. London: Routledge, pp. 205-242.

Crowley, T. (2003) Standard English and the Politics of Language. 2nd edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Honey, J. (1997) Language is power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber.

Hudson, R. & Walmsley, J. (2005) The English Patient: English grammar and teaching in the twentieth century. Journal of Linguistics, (41)3, pp.593-622.


One thought on “LISA SPENCE proclaims ‘We don’t need no education’: you might do, because you just used a double negative

  1. Rebecca Sutton says:

    My opinion lies somewhat on the fence. It is difficult to comprehend how correct grammar is a sufficient basis for a child to lose their cultural identity. Is it not the case that cultural identities, in particular dialect, have an overwhelming influence upon a child’s grasp of language? In this case, I agree with Brendley & Swann (1996: 211). The extent to which a child can adopt the use of Standard English without losing an aspect of their cultural identity seems minimal. Surely there are limitations to enforcing Standard English upon children when they speak their native dialect outside of the classroom.

    In contrast, I also understand that there are benefits to emphasising the importance of using correct grammar. I believe correct grammar is essential for individuals to be able to clearly express their ideas. Furthermore, I appreciate the benefits of having a norm, which creates mutual intelligibility. In my opinion, his allows for individuals to effectively interpret the work of individuals who have different dialects. My question is, who is to say that Standard English should be this norm?

    To summarise, I do not think this is a debate, which will ever be laid to rest.

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