It is important to discuss the difference between spoken and written language and how this affects our language choices with all students. It is particularly important for Aboriginal students who speak an Aboriginal English dialect.

There are substantial differences between dialects such as Aboriginal English or working class English and standard Australian English. The differences can be similar for students who speak English as a second language. These students often only have basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) rather than cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) as described by Prof Jim Cummins

Writing tasks need to be in contexts that require standard Australian English and students need to be aware of the purpose, audience and context of the text they will be writing. For example, writing to a letter to a friend will encourage spoken language whereas writing for publication in a local newspaper or a video clip will require standard Australian English. The writing task should be meaningful and teachers need to explain how it is relevant to students’ lives.

When students are writing there are a range of strategies to consider and apply to improve their texts. Once students are aware of the differences between spoken and written language they need to reread and edit their own texts and peers’ texts, in order to check the accuracy of grammar according to the purpose and audience for the text.

Activities to support the strategy

Activity 1: language charts

Make charts that outline the key differences between spoken and written language. Do this is two ways:

  • Collect examples of the different types of language that students use and compare that with how it is expressed in written language, for example ‘real deadly’ and ‘really good’. Point out how standard Australian English and Aboriginal English words may have the same spelling but have different meanings, for example, the Aboriginal adjective ‘deadly’. Deadly is one of the few adjectives that ends in ‘ly’ and this is because it is describes what a snake, poison etc. is able to do to others not what it is. Most words ending in ‘ly’ in standard Australian English are adverbs that describe how, when or where things happen like ‘quickly’, ‘daily’ and ‘locally’ or they modify adjectives as in ‘really good news’ or ‘deeply meaningful picture’.
  • Identify language students need to know especially in relation to school language/textbook language and deconstruct that written language into spoken (everyday) language forms so that students can understand it. Ensure students have to reconstruct the language in written tasks.

See how the ‘Deconstruct and Reconstruct’ way of learning in 8ways of learning for Aboriginal students relates to quality teaching

Activity 2: deconstruct and reconstruct language

Deconstructing reading texts: Work from the meaning of the whole text to parts of the text. Before reading a formal or academic piece of text, talk to students about it. Discuss any pictures and summarise the story or facts and explain formal or complex terms using everyday language. Once students understand what the text is about, read it through. Then read it while thinking aloud about the meaning after each paragraph. Study each paragraph sentence by sentence, looking at how the clauses and phrases are put together. Rearrange them to see how that changes the meaning and why the author wrote it the way he or she did.

In the final deconstruction phase analyse the words for meaning and spelling. For example, discuss how a word like ‘indescribably’ is made up of morphemes. The ‘ly’ ending tells us it is an adverb modifying a verb or adjective, the ‘in’ part means not, the ‘abl’ comes from able and the root word is ‘describe’ so the word means ‘not able to be described’. Therefore ‘indescribably beautiful’ means so beautiful it cannot be adequately described.

Reconstructing written texts: Once students understand the overall meaning, vocabulary, grammatical structure and can spell the relevant words, they are ready to reconstruct the text. Using the same grammatical structure as the text studied have students write a similar text but with different content words (nouns and verbs). Encourage students to use a dictionary and thesaurus to find the meaning and spelling of new words they require.

Activity 3: 'really deadly' adverbs

Suggest to students that they make their writing ‘really deadly’ by adding ‘ly’ when they want to use an adjective to modify a verb or another describing word. Explain that adjectives are only used to describe nouns and we need adverbs when we want to write about how something is done. Embed understanding of the difference by using both the base adjective and the adverb from the same word family in one sentence, for example:

  • The cautious koala climbed cautiously down.
  • The local girl delivered papers locally.
  • The nimble lizard scampered away nimbly.
  • The hungry boy hungrily devoured the Johnny cakes.
  • The understanding was basically that all students would get a basic pass mark.

Point out where other words (such as ‘down’ and ‘away’ in the sentences above) are used as adverbs. Discuss with students the different ways that the spelling can change when ‘ly’ is added to an adjective to make an adverb. For example in the sentences above:

  • Doubling a final consonant in ‘locally’
  • Removing final ‘e’ in ‘nimbly’
  • Changing ‘y’ to ‘I’ in ‘hungrily’
  • Adding ‘al’ before adding ‘ly’ in ‘basically’

Activity 4: joint constructions of texts

After modelling how to write a text, use a guided strategy to support students by jointly constructing a similar text on a new topic with the class. Ask students to brainstorm ideas. When students contribute ideas using non-standard English do not correct their spoken language. Correction can be taken as rejection and might shame students and make them reluctant to participate. Acknowledge the idea and say for example, ‘That is a great idea Jaye and in a written text we write it like this...’ and then write the standard Australian English on the board.

Online resources

How the ‘Deconstruct and Reconstruct’ way of learning in 8ways of learning for Aboriginal students relates to quality teaching


Australian curriculum

ACELA1523: Understand how ideas can be expanded and sharpened through careful choice of verbs, elaborated tenses and a range of adverb groups/phrases. ACELA1515: Understand that different social and geographical dialects or accents are used in Australia in addition to Standard Australian English.

NSW syllabus

EN4-4B: Makes effective language choices to creatively shape meaning with accuracy, clarity and coherence.

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