Understanding language registers as a means to more effective communication
Learners become familiar with registers of language through class discussion and exposure to examples of a common fairy tale written in two different registers. Working in small groups, learners then translate a story into two different registers.

Learning Objective:
Learners will have a clear understanding of registers of language, will be able to distinguish between different registers, and will be able to utilize these registers for more effective communication.

Primary Skill:

Secondary Skills:
Convey ideas in writing, Speak so others can understand, Cooperate with others

Learner Needs & Goals:
Learners in this class have a variety of needs and goals. Some want to improve basic skills so they can qualify for an entry-level job that does not require GED certification, but that requires basic math and/or literacy skills. Most of the learners are working for GED certification so they can qualify for a job that requires a GED. Others want their GED certification so they can obtain a better job or advance in their present job. This activity is designed to assist all learners in becoming more effective communicators.

Learning Activity Description:
I. Introduction to Language Registers
Facilitator will encourage recognition of language registers with the following questions: “Do you speak the same way at home as you speak here in the classroom?” “Do you speak the same way with your children as you speak with your adult friends?” “Do you speak differently when talking with your child’s teacher or doctor than when you are chatting with a friend on the telephone?” Facilitator explains that we all speak differently in different situations. These ways of speaking differently are called registers of language. Every language has five registers. Facilitator gives each learner a handout outlining and defining the five registers. Discuss each register in detail.

Discuss some of the ways we can distinguish between registers, and the way this influences our language. For instance, the word “woman” — how many words can you think of that all mean “woman?” How about “lady,” “chick,” “gal,” “female,” or “girl?” Ask if learners can think of others. Ask which they would prefer to be called and which they would NOT like to be called. Can learners see how this might cause communication difficulties in a workplace setting? Or in a school situation?

Introduce the idea of all the words we have to describe “death.” Terms like “croaked,” “kicked the bucket,” “bought the farm,” and how about “passed on” “passed away” or “crossed over.” Ask if learners can think of others. If they were describing the death of a loved one, would they use a word like “croaked?” How about if they were describing the death of someone you don’t particularly like or someone they didn’t know well? Ask if learners see how emotions can influence choice of register.

Further the discussion by asking: “Which of these registers do you use most often at home?” “Which is used most often in school?” “Which is used most often in business or workplace situations?”

Make learners aware that schools use formal register and that standardized tests are written in formal register, and, if they go for a job interview, they will want to use formal register with the person who is conducting the interview. This could make the difference in whether or not they get the job. The use of formal register allows one to do better in school, to score higher on tests, and even to get the more desirable job. Learners will be able to communicate more effectively with all types of people in many different situations if they understand these registers.

II. Recognizing Language Registers
Give each learner the handouts of Little Red Riding Hood written in formal register and in casual register. Have the versions read aloud. After the stories have been read, emphasize that in the formal register version, the story starts at the beginning of the action and then develops in a logical pattern to the end. Events are told in the way that they happen. In the casual register version, point out that the story begins by telling the ending first. This is the most emotional part of the story. Notice how the characters are described and events are related. Discuss which story is the most fun, which has the most interesting characters, and which has the most logical order.

III. Using Language Registers
Following this discussion, divide the class into groups of 3 or 4. Each group will work together to write two versions of a story. The first version will be in the casual register and then the group will “translate” the story to the formal register. This can be a simple fairy tale, a story from a book you have read, or a story that you create.

After the groups have completed their stories, one volunteer from each group will read the formal register version of the story and one volunteer will read the casual register version. Group discussion will end the activity.

Materials and Resources:
Book: A framework for understanding and working with students and adults from poverty (Copyright, 1995, Ruby K. Payne, RFT Publishing)

Handouts:(a) Language Registers, (b) Story in formal register,(c) Story in casual register

Attachments: (For Internet Explorer users, right click on link then choose “Save target as”. For Netscape users, just hold down the shift key and click on the link.)

Learners were able to recognize, compare and contrast language registers, as evidenced by group discussion; they were able to recognize the significance of using formal register in work and school situations. Learners demonstrated their ability to work effectively as a group to produce two writings in different registers and to choose one representative from the group to act as group spokesperson.

This activity generated lots of group discussion; reading the two versions of the stories aroused much interest and class participation in the ensuing discussion. Their oral communication skills were spotlighted and enhanced by this activity. They also enjoyed working together on this project, and produced some very interesting and humorous stories in the different registers. When I do this activity again, I would add a script of a conversation written in the two registers, perhaps a script of an individual doing a job interview, or a conversation between an employer and employee–lots of possibilities for scripts here.

English as 2nd Language Ads

Register use is one of the most important aspects of correct English usage for advanced users of the language. In other languages (French, German, Italian, etc.) formality can be signalled through the formal / informal “you” (du – Sie, tu – Vous, tu – Lei, etc.). In English, register is a key element in expressing degrees of formality.

Here is an overview of registers with specific examples for specific occasions.

REGISTER – Definition: Type of language used when speaking to others

VERTICAL REGISTER – Definition: Language used varying in degrees of formality

HORIZONTAL REGISTER – Definition: Jargon, slang, etc. used in communicating with your friends, colleagues, etc.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion centered around this hierarchy of “vertical” registers proposed by Cheryl Carter.

LANGUAGE REGISTERS (adapted version)

  1. Frozen – Language that does not change – Prayers and pledges, “set” speech which is often scripted
  2. Formal – Complete sentences and specific word usage. – Formal English often used to show respect used in places such as work, school and public offices
  3. Consultative – Formal register used in conversation – colleagues, peers, etc
  1. Casual – Language used in conversation with friends. – idiomatic and often full of slang, used to signal belonging to a given group
  2. Intimate – Language between lovers (and twins). – “private” language full of codewords only known to the two

Here are four examples of different situations using different types of language to express similar sentiments:

Example: Greetings

  1. Frozen – Welcome to the Hugh Brothers Industrial Center. Where tomorrow’s world meets today’s. Please remember that no flash photography is allowed during this tour…
  2. Formal – Good morning. May I speak to the director, please?
  3. Consultative – Hello, Mr Smith. How are you this morning?
  4. Casual – Hey, Jack. What’s up?
  5. Intimate – How’s my little snuggy wuggy?

Example: Complaints

  1. Frozen – This is a complaint for damages and injunctive relief arising out of manipulative activities in the gold market from 1994 to the present time …
  2. Formal – I hope you don’t mind my stating that the service is unsatisfactory. I would like a refund.
  3. Consultative – Excuse me Ms Anderson. As I understand the task, we need to focus on improving our delivery times rather than blaming our suppliers.
  4. Casual – Oh, Bob. Just a moment! Listen, you know… well… what was with that off-key comment last night?
  5. Intimate – I’m sick and tired of your crap!

Example: Encouragement

  1. Frozen – I offer You all my prayers, works, joys and suffering of this day …
  2. Formal – Thank you for applying for this position. We’ll let you know within a week if you have been chosen for an interview.
  3. Consultative – Thanks for following-up on the Jones account. Great job!
  4. Casual – Whoa, way to go! Nice catch!
  5. Intimate – You’re so good. I’m crazy about you, Honey.

Language Registers

There are five language registers or styles. Each level has an appropriate use that is determined by differing situations. It would certainly be inappropriate to use language and vocabulary reserve for a boyfriend or girlfriend when speaking in the classroom. Thus the appropriate language register depends upon the audience (who), the topic (what), purpose (why) and location (where).

You must control the use of language registers in order to enjoy success in every aspect and situation you encounter.

1.      Static Register

This style of communications RARELY or NEVER changes. It is “frozen” in time and content. e.g. the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, the Preamble to the US Constitution, the Alma Mater, a bibliographic reference, laws .

2.      Formal Register

This language is used in formal settings and is one-way in nature. This use of language usually follows a commonly accepted format. It is usually impersonal and formal. A common format for this register are speeches. e.g. sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, speeches, pronouncements made by judges,  announcements.

3.      Consultative Register

This is a standard form of communications. Users engage in a mutually accepted structure of communications. It is formal and societal expectations accompany the users of this speech. It is professional discourse. e.g. when strangers meet, communications between a superior and a subordinate, doctor & patient, lawyer & client, lawyer & judge, teacher & student, counselor & client,

4.      Casual Register

This is informal language used by peers and friends. Slang, vulgarities and colloquialisms are normal. This is “group” language. One must be member to engage in this register. e.g. buddies, teammates, chats and emails, and blogs, and letters to friends.

5.      Intimate Register

This communications is private. It is reserved for close family members or intimate people. e.g. husband & wife, boyfriend & girlfriend, siblings, parent & children.

Rule of Language Use:

One can usually transition from one language register to an adjacent one without encountering repercussions. However, skipping one or more levels is usually considered inappropriate and even offensive.

Source: Montano-Harmon, M. R. “Developing English for Academic Purposes” California State University, Fullerton.

Teach “Code Switching”: How to Speak in a Formal Register–other topics: click a “category” or use search box

Ruby Payne writes in the April 2008 issue of “Educational Leadership” (a magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) about “Nine Powerful Practices” for helping raise achievement.  Number 3 is Teach Students to Speak in Formal Register.  The following is adapted from her piece.  Find ASCD at

In 1972 a Dutch Linguist, Martin Joos, found that every language in the world includes five “registers” or levels of formality.  They are

  1. FROZEN  The words are always the same.  Examples: The Lord’s Prayer; the Pledge of Allegiance.
  2. FORMAL  The word choice and sentence structure used by the business and education community.  In English, uses a 1200 to 1600 word spoken vocabulary.  Example: “This assignment is not acceptable in its present format.”
  3. CONSULTATIVE  A mix of formal and casual register.  Example: “I can’t accept the assignment the way it is.”
  4. CASUAL  Language used between friends, which comes out of the oral tradition.  Contains few abstract words and uses nonverbal assists.  Example: “This work is a no-go.  Can’t take it.”
  5. INTIMATE  Private language shared between two individuals, such as lovers, or twins.

Both school and work operate at two levels: the consultative and formal. All people use the casual and intimate registers with friends and family.  Students from families with little formal education often default to these registers, never having been made aware of linguistic differences.

Researchers have found that the more generations a person lives in poverty, the less formal the register that person uses (with the exception of people from strong religious backgrounds who may live in the language of formal religious texts).

A study of 42 families by Hart and Risley in 1995 found that children living in families receiving welfare heard approximately 10 million words by age three, whereas children in families in which parents were classified as professional heard approximately 30 million words.

Since teachers instruct and conduct most tests in formal register, those linguistically impoverished students are at a distinct disadvantage.




What Can Teachers Do?

Payne feels teachers should address this issue openly.  They should help students learn to communicate through consultative and formal registers.  She writes, “Some students may object that formal register is ‘white talk;’ we tell them it’s ‘money talk.’  “  The outside world makes its money and rewards people in these modalities.  It expects anyone who participates to be fluent.  Those who aren’t can be shut out.

She suggests direct instruction in the differences in register.  Explain; compare and contrast;  model correct usage.   Let students practice translating phrases from casual into formal register.

For example, a student was sent to the office for telling a teacher that something “sucked.”  Asked to translate that phrase into formal register, he said, “There is no longer joy in this activity.”

Payne feels teachers should use consultative language (a mix of formal and casual) to build relationships with students.  They should teach content in formal register, but provide additional explanation in consultative mode.

source: Ruby Payne’s article in the April 2008 issue of “Educational Leadership”.  Read the entire article for the complete list of nine “Powerful Practices.” 

Also check out Rebecca Wheeler’s article “Becoming Adept at Code-Switching.”    Her book, “Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms,” 2006, by Wheeler and Swords, is published in Urbana IL by the National Council of Teachers of English.

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