Using formal and informal language (PDF, 27 KB)
The purpose of the activity
Most adults are able to adjust and adapt their speaking to match the audience, the purpose and the situation or context. For example, we can move from the informal familiar talk at home or with friends to the more formal style of talk needed in a job interview. These are examples of changing the register.
Some learners may require support with recognising and making these shifts, especially if English is not their mother tongue. The purpose of this activity is to raise awareness of these different kinds of talk and to provide learners with options.
The teaching points
- Learners will identify situations in which people change the way they talk.
- Variations in register (including specific uses of vocabulary and language and text features) are discussed and practised.
- Learners extend their repertoire and understand when a different register is appropriate.
The guided teaching and learning sequence
1. Explain the purpose of the activity (to explore the ways we talk in different situations) and ask the learners to discuss situations in which they talk in different ways. Do you talk to your best friends the same way that you’d talk to your boss? Why is that? What are some of the things you might say differently?
2. Have the learners role play in pairs, taking turns to assume roles such as mother and teenager (“Turn that awful racket off!”), worker and the big boss (“Would it be ok if I…?”), TV reporter and person being interviewed, tagger and police officer. If necessary, remind them to keep it clean although this may restrict the range of vocabulary used!
3. Debrief, prompting the learners to think about specific words and phrases they use when they are talking. For example, what words do they use to refer to members of the opposite sex? How well do they construct sentences when talking to a friend compared with talking to a teacher?
4. Use examples to illustrate the continuum between slang or informal speech and formal writing. Model this if necessary, by giving examples such as:
- We might say, “Give it to me now!” but in a book we might see it written as “Could you please pass that to me?”
- A person talking to a friend might say “The kids were always sticking filthy whatsits in their gobs – the mum was just useless.” A report written by a social worker might read “The children frequently put dirty toys in their mouths. The mother was not maintaining any order.” Extend this concept by using the follow-up activity below.
5. Encourage the learners to discuss these differences, helping them to identify specific words and phrases they could use in different situations.
Make a continuum to show the range of formality from casual talking through to formal writing. Copy the chart below and cut it up to make a set of cards. Make a line across a table or the wall or floor and write “slang” at one end and “formal writing” on the other. Leave the rest of the line blank and ask learners to place the cards on the line according to how informal or formal the speaking or writing represented on the card would be. They will need to spend time discussing the placements and changing positions as they share their ideas and understanding.
Use the audio resource to discuss the many examples of informal or alternative language use. It may be helpful to have the transcripts (PDF, 119kB) on hand as you do this.
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