Low-attaining students’ writing is becoming less formal

Student writing in an exam

New research by Cambridge Assessment, recently published in the journal ‘Language and Education’, has shown that the use of non-standard/dialectal English in 16-year-old students’ formal examination writing has increased over time, a trend mainly affecting low-attaining students. 

The researchers – Filio Constantinou and Lucy Chambers – examined the writing of 16-year-old students who took Level 2 (GCSE-level) English Language examinations in 2004 and 2014. They found that the number of students using non-standard English rose from 19% to 29% in the space of a decade. 

The researchers found a wide range of examples of non-standard English in students’ writing, identifying the most commonly-used non-standard features: 

  • Past tense and past participle forms of irregular verbs, e.g. ‘the midwife done an ultrasound’, ‘I had saw a small alley’.
  • Lack of subject-verb agreement, e.g. ‘they was walking’, ‘he don’t want to lose’ 
  • Object pronouns in compound subjects, e.g. ‘me and her are both females’
  • Adjective used as an adverb. E.g. ‘she handled everything good’, ‘I had to get home quick’.
  • Use of ‘this’ as an indefinite article, e.g. ‘I saw this girl…’, ‘there was this lady’.

This rise in the use of informal written English mainly occurred amongst lower attainers (students awarded a grade D or below in the English Language qualification overall) – who in 2014 made up 73% of all students using non-standard English. 

The research concludes that more language support could be provided to students, especially low attaining ones. This support can focus on raising students’ awareness of the differences between standard and non-standard English. The research also suggests that language education should be re-evaluated at regular intervals, as the language needs of student cohorts seem to change over time.

Published research:

  1. Filio Constantinou & Lucy Chambers (2020). Non-standard English in UK students’ writing over time, Language and Education. DOI: 10.1080/09500782.2019.1702996 

  2. Filio Constantinou, Lucy Chambers, Nadir Zanini & Nicole Klir (2019). A diachronic perspective on formality in students’ writing: empirical findings from the UK, Language, Culture and Curriculum. DOI: 10.1080/07908318.2018.1563609

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