Cognitive Load and Style Control: Examining the Role of Non-Standard Dialect Usage in Working-Class Children’s Educational Outcomes
2022-04-12, 11:30–12:00 (Europe/Vienna), Room 3

We know that working-class children tend to have poorer educational outcomes than children from higher socioeconomic groups. This has been linked to material deprivation, cultural deprivation and parental attitudes and support, and internal factors such as ability grouping and pupils’ relationships with their teachers (see e.g. Laureau, 2003; Reay, 2009; Law et al, 2011). More recently, there has also been research in Speech and Language Therapy that links children’s language use to poor educational attainment (see e.g. Spencer et al, 2017). This research, however, has largely focused on the relationship between socioeconomic status and language disorders/delay.

In sociolinguistics, research has suggested that children who speak local dialects are disadvantaged by a school system which requires children to produce the standard dialect. This has been presented as a pedagogical issue: children are more likely to become reticent and lack confidence if their contributions are evaluated for style rather than content - despite there being no evidence that a regional dialect impacts on the development of reading and writing skills (Snell and Andrews 2014). However, is it possible that style shifting in educational contexts also creates cognitive challenges which further disadvantage working class children?

This talk will outline the research project I am currently undertaking, which seeks to explore the cognitive dimension of working-class children’s linguistic variation and its impact on their educational attainment. Based on work in adults, which suggests that speakers experience less cognitive load when using their first-learnt dialect as opposed to a dialect acquired later in life (Sharma and McCarthy 2018), this research examines how children are affected when asked to speak in their most routine style versus standard English. Cognitive load refers to the load that performing a particular task imposes on a learner’s cognitive system. Controlling for working memory capacity and executive functioning, this study employs an innovative experimental methodology to explore whether there is any evidence for increased cognitive load when children are required to use standard English. In this talk, I will present the methodology that underpins this study by demonstrating a dual-task speech-based experiment and a new state-of-the-art game builder tool. I will outline how the data from this experiment may help to increase understanding of working-class children’s educational attainment by examining the cognitive implications of discontinuity between the language practices of children’s homes and those necessary for success in school.


Laureau, A. (2003) Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Law, J., McBean, K., & Rush, R. (2011) ‘Communication Skills in a Population of Primary School-Aged Children Raised in an Area of Pronounced Social Disadvantage’, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 46: 657-664.
Reay, D. (2009) ‘Making Sense of White Working Class Educational Underachievement’, In: Sveinsson, K.P. (ed.) Who Cares about the White Working Class? Chichester: St Richards Press, 22-28.
Sharma, D., & McCarthy, K. (2018) ‘Attentional Load and Style Control’, University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, 24(2): Article 15.
Snell, J., & Andrews, R. (2017) ‘To What Extent Does a Regional Dialect and Accent Impact on the Development of Reading and Writing Skills?’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 47(3): 297-313.
Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J., & Rush, R. (2017) ‘Contribution of Spoken Language and Socio-Economic Background to Adolescents’ Educational Achievement at Age 16 Years’, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 52(2): 184-196.