How to Teach Language Registers


The linguistic term "language register" refers to a set of vocabulary and grammar that serve as identifying markers of a particular situation in discourse. In other words, "language register" denotes a certain style of speaking or writing in a given context that would be inappropriate or confusing in another, such as formal vs. informal language. Students speak in one register to each other and to a teacher in another. Readers or listeners don't necessarily have to understand a language register in order to recognize it, such as with legal language, or "legalese." Theoretical and practical approaches to teaching language registers solidify understanding and use.

  • Disorient students by using a language register out of context to grab their attention and illustrate the relevance of language registers. Hand out an assignment written entirely in legal language, write instructions on the board in text speak or introduce the lesson in a royal, majestic or unusually casual tone. When students laugh, stare blankly or demonstrate some other sign of confusion or interest, have them try to explain their reaction.

  • Define "language register." Provide students with a few definitions from textbooks, dictionaries and scholarly articles. Discuss the definitions and compare.

  • Ask students for examples of language registers. Discuss the contexts in which people normally use them. Ask students to consider the effects of using language registers out of context, relating the discussion back to your original disorienting exercise.

  • Provide examples of language registers for students to identify on a projector screen, overhead, blackboard or handout. Students can work alone or in groups, identifying the speaker, the listener/reader and the register markers (how they know what kind of language register it is). Take up the answers as a class, having students volunteer and evaluate answers.

  • Distribute a sample text written in one kind of language register and have students rewrite it in another. For example, students could rewrite an informal letter in formal language. For more entertaining assignments, have students translate legalese into text speak or a conversation where one friend invites another out to the movies into the language of a wedding ceremony.

  • Analyze discursive situations where a speaker or writer switches from one register to another within a single setting. For example, presidents sometimes utilize more than one register in a public address, when they try to reach two disparate audiences. Former President George Bush addressed the graduating class of a university during his presidency, where his speech served both as a commencement speech for the graduates and as a statement on policy regarding the former Soviet Union. Discuss how one is able to identify when the speaker or writer is alternating between registers and the effects of such a balancing act.

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  • "Discourse Analysis"; Barbara Johnstone; 2002
  • Photo Credit Jupiterimages/BananaStock/Getty Images
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