Style-Shifting: Examining and Using Formal and Informal Language Styles
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As language users, we constantly move between speech communities and adjust our language accordingly. As students advance in their academic careers, they engage in more complex tasks in school, both spoken and written. Consequently, their ability to style-shift becomes more important, as they are often judged on the appropriateness of their language choices. This lesson plan asks students to compare formal and informal language styles and articulate the specific features common to each style. Students examine their own language use to note how it varies across contexts. By becoming aware of the changes in their own language use, students can gain greater control over the language styles they adopt in different contexts.
- Recognizing Formal and Informal Language Features: Students use this resource to discuss examples of formal and informal language, as well as to begin developing a sense of what language features contribute to such labels.
- Translating between Informal and Formal Styles: With this resource, students apply their understanding of formal and informal language features to shift between them.
From Theory to Practice
As language users, we constantly shift styles according to the contexts in which we find ourselves speaking or writing. Similar to code-switching, style-shifting is often below our level of consciousness as speakers or writers, but can be problematic for us as listeners or readers. Rather than ask students to leave their personalities and multiple language styles outside the classroom, this lesson plan seeks to draw on students’ multiple language styles to compare and contrast them. Through such meta-analyses of language, students gain greater control and choice over which styles to use when engaging in academic activities.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
Materials and Technology
- Internet-connected computer with projection and sound
- Video: Formal vs. Informal Writing
- Video: Formal vs. Informal Writing: What's the Difference and When to Use Them
- Make copies of the Recognizing Formal and Informal Language Features handout.
- Make copies of the Translating between Informal and Formal Styles handout.
- Prepare examples of speech communities and specific language features to help students get started.
- Ensure that available multimedia equipment will support projection of videos with sound.
- Select a text that students will read between Sessions One and Two for purposes of composing a formal summary. The text could be anything: a novel, a news article, a chapter in a history textbook, a film, a commercial.
- recognize formal and informal language styles.
- identify specific language features found in formal and informal styles.
- develop meta-linguistic awareness.
- practice style-shifting from formal to informal and vice versa.
- Give students copies of the Recognizing Formal and Informal Language Features handout. Explain that students will read and rate each sentence on the handout from 1 to 5, with 1 being very informal and 5 being very formal.
- After rating each sentence, have students work in pairs or small groups to compare their answers. During this discussion, encourage students to talk about which features they notice in the sentences they labeled formal and which are in the sentences they labeled informal. Have students make lists of their observations to report to the class.
- As a whole class, elicit observations from each group. You could use the board or computer screen to create two lists, one for formal and one for informal language features.
- As a class, select a few sentences and ask students if that is the type of sentence they would say to their teachers? Parents? A close friend? A coach? A store clerk? Help students notice that we use different types of language depending on who we are talking to.
- Ask students to make a list of the different people (or types of people) they interact with regularly. For example, students probably interact with parents, siblings, grandparents, close friends, classmates, teachers, passengers on a bus or train, cafeteria staff, store clerks, and so forth. Encourage them to think about any sports, clubs, religious affiliations, and hobby groups such as cheerleading, basketball, ultimate Frisbee, or choir practice. Consider providing the class with your own examples. Encourage students to work in pairs or groups to generate their lists.
- Elicit students’ lists as a class. Explain that each of these groups makes up its own speech community (or discourse community), with its own set of expectations for communicating. For example, we ask for information from a store clerk or librarian differently from how we ask our close friends or parents for answers.
- Ask students to focus on two speech communities on their lists: one that they would consider informal and one that they consider relatively more formal. Students should think about how they talk or write to other members of each speech community. If possible, have students pull up emails, text messages, or other writing that they have received or shared among members of those speech communities to compare them. Encourage students to draw on the features from earlier in the session. It may be helpful to draw their attention to specialized vocabulary, abbreviations, sentence style, sentence length, and so forth.
- As a class, elicit from students the speech communities they thought about and compared and what they discovered in their comparisons. A very basic comparison is texting about an event to a friend versus writing about an event to a teacher. (Again, it might be helpful to be prepared with your own examples to get students started.)
- The point of this activity is to raise students’ awareness of how they change their language behavior depending on which speech community with which they are engaging. Be sure that students understand that this is normal and expected, since different speakers and listeners have different expectations about what is appropriate or not.
- Point out to students that what is true for speech communities is also true for the contexts in which they write; that is, students need to consider the community, or audience, for whom they are writing in order to select the most appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and overall organization.
- Share with students the text you expect them to read for the next session, explaining that they need to read it carefully in preparation for writing a formal summary of it.
(This session may need to be divided over two sessions, depending on how much time is spent on the two writing activities.)
- For this session, students should all have read the same text (or viewed the same film) for homework.
- Tell students that they are going to prepare a summary of the text to hand in. (Ultimately, they don’t have to hand it in, but it is helpful for them to think that this is the case for now.) Have students work in groups to discuss and share the content that they plan to write about.
- Once students have reviewed the content in their groups, have them work individually to write a one-paragraph formal summary with the teacher as intended audience. (Note: while the content of the summary is important, for this task it is secondary to how the summary is expressed, the language students use to produce an assignment to hand in.)
- When students have finished writing their summaries, elicit a few for the whole class by having a few students read their summaries aloud. If students are using laptops, you can project one or two responses on a screen for the whole class to read as well as hear. Typically, students’ summaries will be written in relatively formal language, since they are writing for the teacher.
- After reading a few summaries as a class, tell students to imagine that a close friend from another class or school asks them what they are reading in class and what it is about. Have students write their responses in the form of a dialogue between themselves and their friends. While students are writing, select one or two strong responses from the previous task to discuss as a class later. If possible, plan to project or write the response(s) for all students to see on the screen or blackboard.
- Alternatively, students could write an email to a classmate who is absent. In their emails, they can explain what was covered in class in a way that includes a brief summary of the same text or film.
- When students have finished writing their dialogues, ask a few students to read their responses aloud to the class. Consider asking students to act out the dialogues. Be sure to include the dialogues that correspond with the one or two responses from the previous task that are on the screen or board.
- Have students compare the responses from the first task with the responses from the second task. Elicit all the features they notice and write them on the board. Some things that might be noticeable are the use of contractions, slang, specific vocabulary, personal pronouns (especially you), discourse markers (well, you know, like). Ask students to analyze word choice, word length (number of syllables), and sentence length as well.
- Show students the YouTube clips Formal vs. Informal Writing and Formal vs Informal Writing: What’s the Difference and When to Use Them and discuss how the videos confirm and enhance what students know about formal and informal language use.
- Give students copies of the Translating between Informal and Formal Styles handout. Ask students work in pairs or small groups to “translate” the sentences into a much more formal or informal style. Consider turnin this step into a competition by challenging students to come up with the most formal or informal version and then voting on them as a class.
- If students regularly write journals for the course, ask students to re-write one of their journal entries into a more formal text for homework or for an in-class writing activity.
- Invite students to make their own presentations or podcasts comparing formal vs. informal writing styles. Share with students Podcasts: The Nuts and Bolts of Creating Podcasts and/or PowerPoint Tool Tips to support students in this work.
- Ask students to use the Venn Diagram interactive to compare formal and informal language features and note where the two forms overlap.
Student Assessment / Reflections
The tasks in this lesson plan do not have strictly correct or incorrect answers, but allow students to examine which language features are most likely present in informal or formal contexts. When completing the writing tasks, students are encouraged to be creative and even exaggerate in their use of certain features for effect.