Date of Award

1-1-2001

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Faculty

Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences

First Advisor

Dr Rhonda Oliver

Second Advisor

Associate Professor Graham McKay

Abstract

Although language variation is widespread and natural,it is subject to judgement. Where a standard language has developed, other varieties tend to be judged against its "standards". While a number of overseas studies have found that this type of linguistic bias occurs in education and negatively impacts on dialect speakers, there has been little research in Australia. The research reported in this thesis investigates how teachers perceive the speech of school-aged students and whether the socio-economic status or level of schooling of the students influence these perceptions. Further, it examines the relationships between the teachers' background, the way they define Standard Australian English, their attitude to language variation and the way they perceive student speech. The research was undertaken as three separate but related studies. Thirty six teachers from twelve different schools were involved - three teachers from four different schools (n=l2) participating in each of the three studies. In Study One, the teachers kept observational notes on the problems they identified in their students' speech for a period of a week. In Study Two, the teachers participated in school-based focus groups to discuss those features they deemed to be problematic in their students' speech. In Study Three, the teachers ranked tape-recorded samples of speech from students who were not known to them. All the teachers provided background information, wrote their own definition of Standard Australian English and completed a questionnaire about their attitude to language variation in general and to the use of particular variants of English. The teachers in the three studies identified aspects of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and language use as problematic in student speech. The teachers' judgement of what was problematic and their perception of what caused these problems differed according to the socio-economic status of the students. Many of the features teachers identified as problematic were variants of Australian English. The teachers of low SES students tended to see this variation as evidence of their students' language deficiency and to be the result of their "restricted" backgrounds. The teachers of high SES students identified fewer problems in their students' speech and tended to view variation as developmental, inappropriately informal use of language or the result of deterioration in "standards". The teachers' perceptions of speech also varied according to the year level they were teaching. These perceptions reflected the teachers' own backgrounds, their personal definitions of Standard Australian English, their own "idealised" speech and their view of the relative status of Australian accents. The written form of the language also greatly influenced the teachers' perceptions of student speech. The results of this research have important implications for pedagogy, particularly in relation to equity and social justice. In an education system which increasingly relies on teacher judgements to assess the progress of students, the often negative influence of factors related to a student's background should be of serious concern. A failure to recognise the impact of non-standard features in speech on the educational opportunities and achievements of students would compromise their basic rights and limit the social and economic contributions they would otherwise be able to make.

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