Speech patterns and educational achievement

restricted and elaborated speech codes explain social class differences in achievement.

Speech and language are important aspects of communication and a child’s ability to learn is related to their ability to communicate effectively with adults and other children.

A child with more developed speech and language skills can learn faster than those with less developed skills, and thus will have better educational achievement.

Moreover a child’s ability at language (in English Language key stage tests, for example) is in fact a measure of their level of educational achievement, so in one respect, a child’s ability to communicate (at least in formal tests) is the same as their level of educational attainment!

This post summarises and evaluates Basil Bernstein’s work on speech patterns.

Speech patterns

Basil Bernstein (1) developed the theory that there are two different types of speech patterns, or speech codes: the restricted code and the elaborated code, the later having a wider vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures than the former.

He theorised that the working classes were largely limited to speaking in the restricted code, while the middle classes used both the elaborate and restricted codes, and that the limited use of the restricted code by working class children explained their relative underachievement in education compared to middle class children.

A comparison of the restricted and elaborated speech code

The restricted speech code

Bernstein stated that restricted speech codes are characterised by ‘short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences’.

This code has limited use of adjectives or adverbs and meanings are often conveyed by gesture and voice intonation.

The restricted code tends to operate in terms of particularistic meanings – it is usually linked to a specific context and utterances only make sense to people in that immediate context.

It is a sort of short hand between close friends or partners that have a shared understanding of a social situation such that there is no need to spell out meanings in any great detail.

The elaborated speech code

Elaborated speech code has a wider vocabulary and uses more complex grammatical structures than the restricted code.

It provides more in-depth explanations of meanings than the restricted speech code does and thus operates in terms of universalistic meanings: listeners do not need to be embedded in a specific context to fully understand what is being communicated.

To illustrate the difference between the two speech codes consider a cartoon strip of four pictures:

  1. Some boys playing football
  2. The ball breaking a window
  3. A woman looking out of the window and a man shaking his fist
  4. The boys running away.

A middle class child speaking the elaborated code would be able to describe the pictures in such a way that you wouldn’t need the pictures to fully understand the story, everything would be explained in detail. The explanation here would be free of the context, universal!

A working class child speaking the restricted code would refer to the pictures so that you would need to see the pictures to understand the story. The explanation here would remain dependent on the context.

Speech patterns and educational attainment

Formal education is conducted in the elaborated speech code, so working class kids are automatically at a disadvantage compared to middle class kids.

The elaborated code is necessary to make generalizations and to be able to understand higher order concepts.

Bernstein found that middle class children were much more able to classify things such as food into higher order categories such as vegetables, or meats, for example. Working class kids were more likely to classify them according to personal experiences such as ‘things mum cooks for me’.

Evaluations of Bernstein

His concept of social class is too vague. Sometimes he refers to the working class, others he talks about the lower working class. He also puts all non-manual workers into ‘middle class’ thus ignoring variation between the middle classes.

Bernstein also provides only limited examples of the two types of speech code. He does not make a convincing case that either of them actually exist in reality!

Labov (1973) criticized Bernstein for alluding to the elaborated code being superior, whereas in reality working class and middle class speech are just different, it is only the cultural dominance of the elaborated code in education that makes it seem superior.


The language of African Americans and White Americans can be very different, but it is historically Anglo-American English which is taught as standard English in schools.

Thus African American pupils in the USA have had a particularly negative experience of language in school, often experiencing school as a linguistically and culturally alienating environment.

Rather than their children feeling alienated, some activists adopted ‘Ebonics’ (the language of African Americans) as a medium of instruction, celebrating their linguistic heritage and pointing out differences with the ‘standard’ Anglo-American English.

Ebonics has highlighted the following:

  • it has indicated the extent to which language plays a role in educational success or failure.
  • It raised questions about the appropriateness of standard English in assessments.
  • It highlighted cultural tensions between several minority pupils in schools and the school curriculum.

This topic is relevant to the sociology of education, especially the issue of social class differences in educational achievement.


(1) Bernstein (1971) Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1.

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

Changes in women’s employment, family life, ambitions, socialisation and the impact of feminism all explain the gender gap in education

Girls outperform boys in most subjects at every level of education: from primary school to degree level. There are five main social factors external to the school which explain why girls outperform boys in education:

  • changes in women’s employment
  • changes in the family
  • changing girls’ ambitions
  • the impact of feminism
  • differential socialisation of boys and girls.

This post explores these five social factors analysing the impact they may have on girls in education, and then goes on to look at personal level factors.

Changes in women’s employment

The number of men and women in paid work is now virtually the same. The employment rate for women is 72.3% and for men it is 79% (2).

This represents a significant change since the early 1970s when the employment rate for men was over 90% and for women it was under 60%.  

Over the last 50 years there has been a growing service sector where women are increasingly likely to be employed over men and employers increasingly seek women for higher managerial roles because they generally have better communication skills than men. This means women now have greater opportunity than men in the world of work which makes education more relevant to them than in the 1970s when there was a relative lack of opportunity for women compared to men.

Conversely, there is now less opportunity for men. The decline in manufacturing has led to a decline in traditional working-class men’s factory based jobs. Boys like the lads studied by Paul Willis would have intended to go into these jobs. Now these jobs have gone, many working-class boys perceive themselves as having no future.

A review of the literature by Bertocchi and Bozzano (2019) found that the improvement in female educational achievement from the 1980s to the 2000s can be explained by the increasing post-school expectations for females and the increasing probability that women could go into high-income occupations relative to men.

Pekkarinen (2012) theorised that the widening gap between females and males in education is due to the relative effort-costs of education in relation to returns. Since the 1980s females have been seeing increasing returns on their investment in education as they have greater and greater access to better jobs, while boys have been experiencing reducing returns relative to girls.

There are a lack of high status higher vocational courses and qualifications in England and Wales, which would be more appealing to boys compared to degrees (boys are much more likely to do vocational courses). Only 4% of over 25 year olds in England hold a higher vocational qualification compared to Germany where it is over 20%!

Changes in the family

Changes in family life and structure over the past 50 years mean it is much more normal for women to start a career in their 20s and maintain that career through their adult lives.

People get married much later in life, in their mid to late 30s rather than in their 20s, and dual earner households are now the norm, both of which normalise women having careers.

Divorce Rates (and just relationship breakdowns) are also high as a rates of single parent households (most of which are headed by women), both of which would encourage women to work as in both situations it is desirable to have your own income.

However, the increasing independence of women has led to a more uncertain role for men in British society, leaving many men feeling vulnerable and unsure of their identity in society – suffering from a crisis of masculinity.

These changes may feed back into education, encouraging women and discouraging men.

Girls’ changing ambitions

Sue Sharpe did a classic piece of research in the 1970s, repeated in the 1990s in which she interviewed young girls about their ambitions. In the 1970s their priorities were to get married and have a family, but by the 1990s their priorities were to get a career and have a family later on in life.

The impact of feminism

Feminism has campaigned for equal rights and opportunities for women in education, the workplace and wider society more generally. Feminist sociologists argue that many of the above changes have been brought about by their attempts to highlight gender inequalities in society and their efforts to encourage the government, schools and teachers to actually combat patriarchy and provide genuine equality of opportunity which has led to raising the expectations and self-esteem of girls.

Differential socialisation

Fiona Norman in 1988 Found that most parents think the appropriate socialisation for a girl is to handle her very gently, and to encourage her in relatively passive, quiet activities. Parents are also more likely to read with girls than with boys. Gender stereotypes held by parents also mean that ‘typical boys’ need more time to run around and play and ‘let off steam’, and parents are more likely to be dismissive if their boys are in trouble at school often seeing this as just them being ‘typical boys’. These gender stereotypes and differences in gender socialisation disadvantage boys and advantage girls in education.

Aucejo and James (2016) conducted a study which found that verbal skills were more important than maths skills in gaining a place at university, and females have significantly better verbal skills than males.

Personal level Factors

A summary of some recent research on differential achievement by gender by Cavaglia et al (1) found that a range of individual and personal level factors contribute to the gender gap in education, many of which will work in conjunction with the social level factors above.

Terrier (2020) found that teacher bias plays a role in why girls do better than boys in education.

According to the OECD (2015), the most important reasons for the gender gap are students’ attitudes towards learning, their behaviour in school, their use of leisure time, and their self-confidence.

A review of the literature by Buchmann et al. (2008) found that males are more likely than females to experience reading disabilities, antisocial behaviour, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia, and speech difficulties.

There is also evidence that adolescent girls score higher in tests measuring non-cognitive skills such as attentiveness, organisational skills, and self-discipline.

Bertrand and Pan (2013) found that boys behavioural problems stem from their home backgrounds: boys’ behaviour is more strongly influenced by their parents than the behaviour of girls.

One counter to this lies in research from Lundberg (2017) – boys and girls react to home and school problems in different ways: boys are more likely to develop behavioural problems, girls to develop anxiety and depression, but this doesn’t explain the gender gap alone. Possibly the differential reaction in school does: schools are more likely to react negatively to boys behaving badly than girls being quiet!

Boys are more likely than girls to fail their GCSE English by getting lower than a grade C/4 and Machin et al. (2020) found that even marginally failing to get a good grade drastically reduces the chances of a student staying on into further and higher education and increases their chances of becoming NEET.

The main set of exams, GCSEs, which have a huge impact on future educational pathways are sat at 16, when boys are going through puberty, this probably puts them at a disadvantage to girls who go through puberty earlier.

Differences in innate ability do not explain the gender gap

A literature review by Spelke (2005) found that sex differences in cognitive abilities do not explain the gender gap in education. While girls do have intrinsically slightly higher cognitive abilities, they are not significant enough alone to make them more adept at schoolwork than boys.

Limitations of external factors in explaining the gender gap in education

The decline of manufacturing and crisis of masculinity only affects working class boys, possibly explaining their achievement relative to girls, but middle class girls outperform middle class boys too, who are less likely to associate masculinity with factory work.

McDowell conducted research on the aspirations of white working-class youth. He researched a sample of males with low educational achievement living in Sheffield and Cambridge aged 15 and followed them from school to work. The findings Criticise the notion of a crisis of masculinity leading to aggressive male identities These lads had traditional laddish identities but were not aggressive or put off by ‘feminized work’ They are best described as reliable workers making the most of limited opportunities available to them.

Willis in 1977 argued that the Lads formed a counter school culture and rejected education even when they had secure jobs they could just walk into, meaning there are other causes of male underachievement besides the crisis of masculinity.

It is difficult to measure the impact of Feminism: changes in the job market that lead to improved opportunities for women may be due to other technological and cultural changes.

The socialisation girls does not explain why they started to overtake boys in the late 1980s: if anything gender socialisation has become more gender neutral in recent years.

Concepts and research studies to remember
  • Crisis of Masculinity
  • Gender socialisation
  • Gender stereotyping
  • Research studies to remember
  • Kat Banyard – research into gender stereotyping in the family
  • Sue Sharpe – the aspirations of girls.

(1) Chiara Cavaglia, Stephen Machin, Sandra McNally, and Jenifer Ruiz-Valenzuela (2020) Gender, achievement, and subject choice in English education

(2) House of Commons Research Briefing (March 2023) Women and the UK Economy.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post covers one of the main topics within the sociology of education, for A-level Sociology.

Evaluating the role of External Factors in Explaining the Gender Gap in Education

Explaining the Gender Gap in Education – The Role of Internal Factors

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Official Statistics on Educational Achievement in the U.K. – Strengths and Limitations

How useful are official statistics for understanding differences in educational achievement by social class, gender and ethnicity?

How do GCSE results vary by social class, gender and ethnicity?

The data below is taken from either the Department for Education’s document – Key Stage 4 performance 2019 (Revised), or Gov.uk ‘ethnicity facts and figures‘. The later shows data from 2017/18 (at time of writing this), but it is much more accessible than the ‘Key Stage 4 document’.

Firstly – GENDER –  Girls outperformed boys in all headline measures in 2019.

For example 46.6% of girls achieved both English and Maths at grade 5 or above, compared to only 40.0% of boys, and girls are much more likley to be entered for the Ebacc than boys (45.9% compared to 34.3%

Secondly – ETHNICITY – Chinese pupils are the highest achieving group. 75.3% of Chinese pupils achieved a ‘strong pass’ (grade 5 or above) in English and Maths, with Indian pupils being the second highest achieving group, at 62%

Black Caribbean pupils have the lowest achievement of any ‘large’ ethnic minority group, with only 26.9% achieving a grade 5 or above in English and Maths

Gypsy/ Roma and Irish Traveller pupils have the lowest levels of achievement with only 9.95 and 5.3% respectively achieving a strong pass in English and Maths.

Thirdly – SOCIAL CLASS – Here, instead of social class we need to use the Department for Education’s ‘disadvantaged pupils’ category, which is the closest we’ve got as a proxy for social class, but isn’t quite the same!

The DFE says that “Pupils are defined as disadvantaged if they are known to have been eligible for free school meals in the past six years , if they are recorded as having been looked after for at least one day or if they are recorded as having been adopted from care”.

In 2019, only 24.7% of disadvantages pupils achieved English and Maths GCSE at grade 5 or above, compared to almost 50% of all other pupils, meaning disadvantaged pupils are only half as likely to get both of these two crucial GCSEs.

Some Strengths of Official Statistics on Educational Achievement by Pupil Characteristic 

ONE – Good Validity (as far as it goes) – These data aren’t collected by the schools themselves – so they’re not a complete work of fiction, they are based on external examinations or coursework which is independently verified, so we should be getting a reasonably true representation of actual achievement levels. HOWEVER, we need to be cautious about this.

TWO – Excellent representativeness – We are getting information on practically every pupil in the country, even the ones who fail!

THREE – They allow for easy comparisons by social class, gender and ethnicity. These data allow us to see some pretty interesting trends – As in the table below – the difference between poor Chinese girls and poor white boys stands out a mile… (so you learn straight away that it’s not just poverty that’s responsible for educational underachievement)

FOUR – These are freely available to anyone with an internet connection

FIVE – They allow the government to track educational achievement and develop social policies to target the groups who are the most likely to underachieve – These data show us (once you look at it all together) for example, that the biggest problem of underachievement is with white, FSM boys.

Some Disadvantages of the Department for Education’s Stats on Educational Achievement

ONE – If you look again at the DFE’s Key Stage four statistics, you’ll probably notice that it’s quite bewildering – there are so many different measurements that it obscures the headline data of ‘who achieved those two crucial GCSEs’.

When it comes to the ‘Attainment 8’ or ‘Progress 8’ scores, it is especially unclear what this means to anyone other than a professional teacher – all you get is a number, which means nothing to non professionals.

TWO – changes to the way results are reported mean it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. If you go back to 2015 then the standard was to achieve 5 good GCSEs in any subject, now the government is just focusing on English and Maths, Ebacc entry and attainment 8.

THREE – These stats don’t actually tell us about the relationship between social class background and educational attainment. Rather than recording data using a sociological conception of social class, the government uses the limited definition of Free School Meal eligibility – which is just an indicator of material deprivation rather than social class in its fuller sense. Marxist sociologists would argue that this is ideological – the government simply isn’t interested in measuring the effects of social class on achievement – and if you don’t measure it the problem kind of disappears.

FOUR – and this is almost certainly the biggest limitation – these stats don’t actually tell us anything about ‘WHY THESE VARIATIONS EXIST’ – Of course they allow us to formulate hypotheses – but (at least if we’re being objective’) we don’t get to see why FSM children are twice as likely to do badly in school… we need to do further research to figure this out.

No doubt there are further strengths and limitations, but this is something for you to be going on with at least…

Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Assessing the Usefulness of Using Secondary Qualitative Data to Research Education

Class differences in education: the role of in-school factors

In school factors include labelling, subcultures and the hidden curriculum.

This post looks at how in school processes such as teacher-pupil relationships, subcultures, banding and streaming and the Hidden Curriculum all relate to class differences in educational achievement and the experience of education.

a mind map summarising the in school factors which explain social class inequalities in educational achievement, including teacher labelling and pupil subcultures.

This is a summary revision post, the more detailed posts are linked below.

Teacher pupil relationships

In the 1970s, Howard Becker argued that middle class teachers have an idea of an ‘ideal pupil’ that is middle class. This pupil speaks in elaborated speech code, is polite, and smartly dressed, He argued that middle class teachers are likely view middle class pupils more positively than working class pupils irrespective of their intelligence.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen argued that positive teacher labelling can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which the student believes the label given to them and the label becomes true in practise.

Many of the early studies discussed in this more in-depth post on teacher labelling are relevant to social class.

Pupil Subcultures

Willis’ (1977) research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. They Lads attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ because they thought that their future work roles in factories would not require them to have qualifications. They saw school as irrelevant.

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell School (1994) – Found that there was a greater variety of working class subcultures that Willis’ research suggested. He found three types of subculture.

  1. The Macho Lads – just like Willis’ Lads.
  2. The Academic Achievers – these were working class kids who were doing well and tended to come from the upper end of the working classes.
  3. The New Enterprisers – these focused on vocational subjects and were interested in business and technology – were still concerned with success rather than rejecting school.
  4. Class and gender- Boys from different class backgrounds experience school differently.

Working class boys are generally under pressure to express traditional anti-school masculinities.

Middle class boys are more likely to try hard at school, expressing their masculinity through being competitive in examinations. However, middle class boys still feel some pressure to be seen to not be making an effort in school.

This post on subcultures and educational achievement has more details on the studies above.

The organisation of teaching and learning

Banding and Streaming disadvantages the working classes and some minority groups – Stephen Ball (1980s) found that following comprehensivisation working class children were more likely to be put into lower sets.

The Hidden Curriculum

Bourdieu argued that schools are middle class environments full of teachers with middle class values and tastes, which could mean the hidden curriculum is subtly skewed in favour of middle class students, making it something they are more comfortable with because their tastes are more in sync with those of the teachers.

In contrast working class pupils may feel less at home at school, and more so since there are fewer working class teachers than middle class teachers.

This post on the Hidden Curriculum explores how this works in schools in more depth.


This is one of the main topics within the sociology of education.

Cultural Capital and Social class differences in educational achievement

cultural capital refers to the skills, knowledge, attitudes and tastes through which typically middle class parents are able to give their children an advantage in life compared to working class children.

Cultural Capital refers to the skills and knowledge middle class parents have that they can use to give their children an advantage in the education system.

A closely related concept is Social Capital, which is the support and information provided by contacts and social networks which can be converted into educational success and material rewards.

cultural capital

Cultural capital theory is sometimes seen as the opposite of cultural deprivation theory which blames educational failure of the working classes on the inferior values of their parents.

In contrast cultural capital theory is about middle class advantage. It is about middle class parents being able to give more help to their children which means they do better in school compared to working class children.

Schools are seen as middle class institutions (teachers and managers are middle class) and so middle class kids tend to fit in with school norms more easily, and are less likely to clash with the school, which also helps with their education.

Three ways parents use their cultural capital

  1. Middle class parents are better educated and are more able to help their children with homework
  2. Middle class parents are more skilled in researching schools
  3. Middle class parents teach their children the value of deferred gratification.

Two ways parents use their social capital

  1. They speak to parents of children who already attend the best schools
  2. They are more likely to know professionals who work in the best schools

Supporting evidence for cultural capital theory

Diane Reay (1988) argued that mothers make cultural capital work for their children. Her research is based on the mothers of 33 children at two London primary schools. The mothers of working class children worked just as hard as the middle class mothers. But the cultural capital of the MC mothers gave their children an advantage.

Middle Class Mothers had more educational qualifications and more information about how the educational system operated. They used this cultural capital to help their children with homework, bolstering their confidence and sorting out their problems with teachers.

Stephen Ball (2006) has argued that government policies of choice and competition place the middle class at an advantage. Ball refers to middle class parents as ‘skilled choosers’. Compared to working class parents (disconnected choosers) they are more comfortable with dealing with public institutions like schools, they are more used to extracting and assessing information. They use social networks to talk to parents whose children are attending the schools on offer and they are more used to dealing with and negotiating with administrators and teachers. As a result, if entry to a school is limited, they are more likely to gain a place for their child.

Something else Ball referred to was the the school/ parent alliance: Middle class parents want middle class schools and schools want middle class pupils. In general the schools with more middle class students have better results.. Schools see middle class students as easy to teach and likely to perform well. They will maintain the schools position in the league tables and its status in the education market. 

Analysis point

For the sociologists in this section, the cause of lower class failure is the very existence of inequality itself in society and differences in power held by the working and middle classes.

The role of cultural capital: evaluations

  • Cultural capital has proved difficult to operationalise and measure
  • However, more and more research suggests this is important in explaining middle class success and working class failure
  • Helps to explain why the Middle classes always do better despite compensatory education
Sources/ Find out More

For a more in depth look at the concept of cultural capital please see Cultural Capital and Education (extended version)

Stephen Ball (2006) Education Markets, Choice and Social Class: the market as a class strategy in the UK and the USA

Signposting and related posts

Cultural capital theory is one of the main theories which explains social class differences in educational achievement along with