The Ballerina and the Breakdancer



A Scenario

Imagine a world in which dance was an obligatory subject in school and a skill that helped people have a good chance of a successful and fulfilling life. In this world, ballet is the most widely performed and respected dance. In virtually all professions and in many everyday situations having a good understanding of it is beneficial. Society sees ballet as the prestige form of dance; though in reality many different forms are practised in various regions and settings.

A teacher runs a dance school. She teaches ballet, since this is the style of dance she has learnt and performs herself. She is a very competent dancer, who has used her abilities to become successful in society. Her responsibility as a teacher is to ensure that all her students leave with a base level of competence.

Most of her students come from families who value ballet and are likely to use it in the future. These students naturally connect with the teacher and wish to emulate her. They use ballet regularly at home and in school. They see ballet as a way to progress in life and as part of their own identity.

However, there are other students who are different. These students have grown up practising breakdancing at home. Their parents and peers rarely perform or see ballet, but being good at breakdancing leads to social prestige in their milieu. These students have studied ballet, but don’t have a strong personal connection with the subject. Ballet is something they use in school, but which they don’t see as having much application in their day-to-day lives.

The teacher notices a worrying trend. The students from ballet backgrounds all have a strong grounding in the subject. They have mastered the basic techniques and can perform impressive routines for their level. Even the less able students have a base level that will serve them well in life. Some of these students even enjoy ballet and apply what they have learnt to pursuing their own creative interests.

The students from breakdancing backgrounds are different. They have a patchy understanding of techniques and can even seem unsure about some of the basic steps. They can be extremely reluctant to perform routines. Outside of lessons – and at any opportunity during – they revert to breakdancing. Sometimes a breakdancing move will seep into their ballet performances. It’s plain to the teacher these are technically impressive, although completely inappropriate for a ballet performance and would in all likelihood cause them to fail their final exams.

 Here the teacher faces a choice about how she approaches breakdancing in her school:

  1. She could impose a blanket ban on break dancing. All lessons are ballet lessons in which only one form of dancing is allowed. At no point in her students education is breakdancing acknowledged as an alternative form of dancing. Students who indulge in breakdancing in class can expect a reprimand from the teacher, frequently accompanied by sniggers from other students. The students with a background in ballet would benefit from this as they have a clear advantage. But there could be some negative consequences for the other students. It could lead to some becoming hesitant to perform in front of peers, lest any hint of breakdancing slip into their technique. Breakdancing may even be shown as an example of “incorrect” ballet. Some students could spend more time trying to avoid the techniques they’re accustomed to, instead of concentrating on picking up new ones. The breakdancing students could come to believe that their form of expression is something for outside of the classroom and that perhaps they don’t belong there either.
  2. She could accept that some of her students have a strong connection to breakdancing and use this to their advantage. She could show the class how there are many varieties of dancing, of which breakdancing and ballet are two examples. Students could compare and contrast the similarities and differences in techniques. They could learn how different dances have their own histories and sets of rules. She could even run an extra-curricular class for students who want to practise or learn breakdancing – or other forms of dance. Breakdancing would be acknowledged as a valid form of expression. However, the teacher would still have to stress the importance of ballet. All students are still expected to learn ballet to a high standard, regardless of their background. Having an understanding of breakdancing may even serve as an advantage for some students who can exploit where the two overlap. Instead of replacing breakdancing, ballet is added to the students repertoire of techniques and becomes another part of their identity.

Which of these two sounds more familiar?

Which one sounds more desirable?


Unhelpful Attitudes

The point of this scenario is to illustrate different approaches to Standard English (SE) and Non-Standard English (NSE) in education. Ballet is Standard English; breakdancing represents Non-Standard dialects. From my own experience as a student, a teacher and from reading on the subject I think that option “2” is more rational and effective. Unfortunately, more often than not, it is elements of option “1” that are prevalent in classrooms today.

These attitudes stem from unquestioned and misguided beliefs about how language works, which have been further propagated by the national curriculum. To understand the roles that these two forms of English should play in the educational system it’s first important to properly understand what they are.

British Standard English is the prestige form of English in the UK. It is the form used in the media, academia and professions such as law and medicine, as well as in most written texts. It is the form of powerful institutions, such as government and the education system. SE is the form you will study when learning English as a second language. It is regularly spoken by about 15% of the UK population, most predominantly in the South East.

It’s widely accepted that teaching all students SE is one of the fundamental missions of the educational system. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Being able to understand and produce SE undeniably has benefits for students. Mutual intelligibility allows them to communicate clearly with others from around the UK and the world, as well as giving access to the previously mentioned domains. The point of this piece is not to challenge the primacy of SE in the UK. However, misconceptions as to the nature of and relationship between SE and NSE dialects have led to poor teaching.

SE is arguably the most important form of the language, thus giving it its prestige status. However, this does not mean that SE is somehow superior to other forms. This is the main misconception. It is often described as “proper” or “correct” English. Some teachers seem to think that SE has to be taught at the expense of NSE varieties. This is simply not the case. SE is merely one dialect among many, a dialect that is particularly useful in certain circumstances.

NSE dialects make up the majority of everyday spoken language in the UK. These dialects are centred around different geographical areas and social groups. Geordie, Brummie and Cockney are all forms of NSE dialects. Slang is a variety of different dialects spoken by young people in urban areas. Different immigrant groups also contribute to and create their own dialects. In the USA, African American Vernacular English holds a similar position. All these dialects are rule-based and just as capable of expressing complex ideas as their SE counterparts. They have their own complex grammars and rich lexicons.

However, in the classroom if these dialects are mentioned at all it is usually in disparaging terms. Non-standard constructions, like double negatives, are mocked by students and occasionally teachers. Students may struggle to articulate ideas if they can’t use their own dialect to do so. Oracy is an important step in making sense of one’s ideas and planning written work. But some students will hesitate to speak and explain their ideas if they fear being corrected for using forms that feel totally natural to themselves. Believing that the way you express yourself is an inferior form of English cannot do wonders for your confidence.

Many students may go their entire school lives without hearing a role model use their familiar dialect in an educational setting. As graduates, many teachers tend to use SE and may have little understanding of the dialects of the school’s local area. Teachers may inadvertently have lower expectations of students who use NSE dialects and treat them accordingly – the Golem effect. All this may make students think that education is designed for certain groups of students, but doesn’t include them.

These attitudes are prevalent in the UK. Over time education could transform them. Unfortunately, the National Curriculum itself has played a desultory role in narrowing the frames of this debate. The 1921 Newbolt report called for,

“pupils who either speak a definite dialect or whose speech is disfigured by vulgarisms, to speak Standard English”.

Perhaps these attitudes are unsurprising back then; what may surprise you is how persistent they have been, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. This held sway until it was challenged by the 1975 Bullock report, which claimed,

“no child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of home as they cross the school threshold.”

These sentiments were supported by many linguists of the time, including Peter Trudgill, who claimed asking students to change the way they speak could alienate them from school. The introduction of the national curriculum in the 1980s served as a reaction against this type of thinking. The 1989 Cox Report stressed that Standard English should be taught,

“in ways that do not denigrate non-standard dialects”.

This report was not well received by the government of the time. More stress was placed on explicitly teaching standard forms, whilst non-standard dialects were maligned. In the words of Ann Williams,

“expert linguist advice was eschewed in favour of ‘common sense’ or folk linguistic views… [v]irtually every trace of linguistic expertise had been eradicated from the curriculum.”

The outgoing GCSE qualification did introduce students to some of these issues, but this has now been removed. As far as I’m aware, currently there is no recognition of NSE dialects in compulsory education, either as an object of linguistic study or in approaches to reading and writing more generally.


A Way Forward

Nonetheless, a different sort of classroom is possible. Armed with a better understanding, teachers themselves can can promote a more sophisticated relationship between different varieties of English in their lessons. Learning SE should be one of the key outcomes for any person going through the UK educational system. SE will continue to be the language of education and many academic subjects, as well as one that allows access to the wider world. However, teaching students SE need not be at the expense of NSE dialects. In fact, acknowledging and teaching students about these varieties could help them to become more articulate users of SE.

Imagine an institution with a policy that explicitly recognised local dialects. Students could be taught when it is appropriate to use them: talking with friends and family; at breaks and lunch; confiding in teachers and other staff; and in their own creative writing – diaries, short stories, plays, poetry and songs. Similarly, teachers and students alike would be encouraged to use NSE dialects in the classroom when appropriate : in discussions, planning and when articulating ideas. Students would need to adopt some mature attitudes, like respect of unfamiliar forms and patience to explain and understand new meanings. Different constructions could be used to illustrate grammatical points or comparisons with foreign languages, for example the use of negatives in: “I haven’t done anything” (SE), “I ain’t done nothing” (NSE) and “No he hecho nada” (Castilian Spanish). NSE dialects could form part of the school’s culture with students learning about the local history and traditions.

Of course, all students would still be expected to reach a high level in understanding and producing SE. Any submitted written work would need to be in this form, as well as formal presentations and examinations. Students who speak NSE dialects at home would be encouraged to take on SE as another element of their identity- a handy tool in their expanding utility belt. Students would know to employ this form when writing CVs, letters to the council and university applications. This would mean one less barrier for students of any background hoping to pursue a career in the law, medicine, or politics and to take part fully in civic life.

If it seems weird that children learning ballet would be banned from any other style of dance, maybe it isn’t a stretch to think that in order for students to better learn Standard English they could make use of the other forms of the language that suffuse their lives. I’m sure most teachers are motivated by a desire to teach their students and to help improve their lives, and wouldn’t do anything intentionally to make their learning harder. I have observed attitudes in the classroom that may prevent students from learning as openly and effectively as possible, often especially from teachers who are conscious of suppressing NSE forms in their own speech. Hopefully, more awareness of these complicated issues can begin to change attitudes. Acknowledging non-standard dialects could make schools linguistically richer places, strengthen students’ identification with learning and help them get to grips with the indispensable standard form of English.

This post is based on  research I undertook during my PGCE. Anything I quoted or linked to directly I have put in ‘References’. In ‘Further Reading’ I’ve included some of my biography which certainly informed the ideas in this piece. Corrections, criticisms and feedback are extremely welcome. 


Afghan Dan (2016) “#RingRing” Last accessed Sept. 2016 []

“African American Vernacular English” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Last accessed Sept. 2016 []

DES (1989) “English for Ages 5-16” [Report of the National Curriculum English Working Group chaired by Professor Brian Cox] HMSO: London

Didau, D. (2012) “Developing oracy: it’s talkin’ time!” []

Newbolt, H. (1921) “The Teaching of English in England” HMSO: London

Press Association (2013) “Black Country headteacher defends ban on dialect in classrooms.” The Guardian. []

Ritchie, H. (2013) “It’s time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English” The Guardian. []

Searle, C (1998) “None But Our Words”. Open University Press.

Williams, A (2007) “Non-Standard English and Education.” In: Britain, D. (ed) Language in the British Isles. 2nd Ed. Routledge: Oxon, pp. 157- 168.

Further Reading   

Chesire, J (1982) “Dialect Features and Educational Conflict in Schools.” Educational Review 34: 53-67

Davies, C (2000) ‘Correct’ or ‘Appropriate’? Is it possible to resolve the debate about which should be promoted in the classroom? In: Moss, J. and Davidson, J. (Eds) Issues in English Teaching. London, Routledge, pp. 105- 119.  

Kerswill, P. (2007) “Standard English and non-standard English” In: Britain, D. (ed) Language in the British Isles. 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press, pp. 34- 51.

Myhill, R. (2007) “Living Language, Live Debates: Grammar and Standard English.” In: Davison, J., Daly, C. and Moss, J. (Eds) Debates in English Teaching. 2nd Ed, Routledge: Oxon, pp. 33-77

Roesnthal, R. and Jacobson, L. (1968) “Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectations and pupils’ intellectual development.” New York: Holt, Rineheart and Winston.
Trudgill, P. (1975) “Accent, Dialect and the School.” Edward Arnold: London

Yandalls, J. (2011) “English and Inclusion.” In:  Davison, J., Daly, C. and Moss, J. (Eds) Debates in English Teaching. 2nd Ed, Routledge: Oxon, pp. 157-168

Bonus XKCD.