Getting Stuck: 4 Language Registers and How they Impact Education

Unlocking the Power of Language Registers

Did you know we switch between types of language? They’re called language registers and it’s possible to get “stuck” speaking a particular way? In this article we will discuss how this impacts education.

Unlocking the Power of Language Registers in Education

What are Language Registers?

Language registers refer to the types of language we speak in any given context, each with its unique set of rules, vocabulary, and tone. For example, we do not speak to customers in the same way we would speak with our grandparents. Most people switch easily between registers depending on the situation.

However, there are large portions of society that only use one register. What happens when children get stuck in a particular way of speaking?

Why is this Important?

Language registers determine who we are able to communicate with in society.

It is important because understanding language registers is a key component to how we communicate. Diversity in the United States is ever-changing, and so is our English. We must continually adapt to new methods of communication. We, as educators, must understand how our students communicate to educate them.

For example, many first-generation immigrants begin learning English as adults and take more time to attain fluency. As a result, they spend a lot more time in the “casual or informal register” and have difficulties with the other register types.

Their children would spend more time in formal education learning how to navigate the various registers of American English and then attain a higher level of fluency, making it easier for them to switch between language registers.

Unfortunately, this is not always true. In many underserved communities, residents only operate in the informal register. The residents speak many different languages, and different cultures mingle together.

The result is a form of pidgin English spoken with their families and with other non-native English speakers. There is little need for fluency outside of the causal register.

Thus, children in these areas have less need or see less need for any other type of English. It makes sense, especially if they never observe any other type of English.

To be effective educators, we must be able to explain why students need to be able to switch between language registers.

Types of Language Registers:

I. Formal Register:

When kids only need to live in one language register, they don't see the importance of others.

The formal register is for formal settings, such as academic writing, job interviews, or professional meetings. It adheres to strict grammar rules, employs sophisticated vocabulary, and maintains a serious and respectful tone.

Exposure to the formal register allows children to develop precision in communication and cultivate critical thinking skills.

One major challenge we face as educators in underperforming schools is that our students do not understand the necessity for a formal register.

However, if students in underserved communities want to move out of poverty, they will likely need to be able to use the formal register properly.

Standardized testing requires students to read and write formally. Even job applications require an understanding of the Formal Register.

II. Informal Register | Casual Register

We need to explain why students should learn to speak with different levels of formality.

The informal register is the casual, everyday language used in conversations with friends and family. It is relaxed and uses common vocabulary. It is friendly.

Encouraging children to navigate the informal register fosters free expression of thoughts, nurtures social skills, and strengthens connections.

The informal register is essential for society. But what happens when students get stuck? This is where many of my students are. Their exposure to language is nearly all casual, with limited exposure to formal registers during school.

I’ve noticed that students who can switch between the language registers feel uncomfortable around their friends and choose not to. I also have many students who cannot switch between the language registers at all. These issues often cause students to make little or no progress in their academic work.

As students graduate and join the workforce, they have difficulties completing tasks that require formal writing, making them less likely to get promoted. Ultimately, this plays a part in keeping people in poverty.

II.A. Very Casual Register

Some people point out an additional register. This register is even more casual than the casual register. It is the register of the unhoused, often the poorest of people.

You might meet students in this register if they have unstable housing situations or are in foster care. As these students get older, it becomes difficult to teach them how to switch to other registers, but it is also essential we try.

III. Technical Register:

I teach middle school in South Central. Kids speak even less formally than casual.

The technical register is for specialized fields like science, technology, or medicine. It involves domain-specific vocabulary, precise terminology, and complex concepts. Introducing children to the technical register expands their knowledge base, develops analytical thinking, and enhances problem-solving abilities.

If we know students are struggling to move out of the casual register, then it follows they have a difficult time studying subjects with complex, domain-specific language.

When these students become adults, they will have difficulties completing forms at the doctor’s office or passing university or technical college exams.

IV. Literary Register:

Students who are stuck in a language register will have difficulty completing forms or applications.

The literary register encompasses poetry, novels, and creative writing. It embraces metaphorical language, vivid descriptions, and emotional depth.

Engaging children in this register stimulates imagination, encourages creative thinking, and nurtures empathy.

The literary register is significantly less technical. It might seem less important because we do not use it on job applications or when visiting the doctor.

However, this register promotes creativity and emotional well-being. It helps us articulate our thoughts and emotions and aids in problem-solving skills.


As an English teacher, I am often in the Lit. Register. We need this for creative problem-solving.

Educators need to understand these registers because understanding where our students operate will make it easier for us to find solutions for them. It is essential we have trained educators in the classroom with the correct training to understand and work with students stuck in casual registers. Using this information will help us create engagement for our students, creating a more inclusive classroom.

I am an educator with almost 15 years of experience teaching in Japan, Hawaii, and in Los Angeles. My goal is to change education and the way we view literacy instruction in America.

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