Teaching Register: the forgotten component of English Language Teaching

Exposure to variation in English is something that all English teachers should try to encourage. But what happens when learners are only exposed to English through one source? It’s not as uncommon as you might think. There are Young Learners who are only exposed to gaming videos on YouTube. There are older learners who may only read a certain genre of books. Other learners may only be exposed to English through music. These learners are often unaware of differences in language register.

Take the following real-life examples

Sam, wanted to go to the UK for university. As a necessity for entry, he needed to achieve a level of 6/6.5 for the IELTS academic test. He tried it twice but couldn’t manage to get to the required 6/6.5 level. He was able to chat well, had a range of vocabulary, accurate grammar, clear pronunciation for the context in which we were talking. He had little exposure to English at school and elsewhere in life. He developed his English and became an essentially good user from watching the TV show, “Top Gear”.

Matthew, was a Hong Kong Primary School student, aged 9. Matthew’s mother was almost distraught that he didn’t have many English speaking friends in the area they lived and was ostracised by the few local English speaking kids that were there. Matthew had an appropriate range of vocabulary and appropriate accuracy in his grammar. With little use of English at home and most of his exposure to English at school, he was for still a reasonably good user of English for his age.

So, where are the problems with Sam and Matthew?

The clue to Sam is his almost exclusive use of the Top Gear vocabulary, peppered with informal language of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – ‘… get a bit uppity’, ‘utter pillock’, ‘you’re damn right’, ‘crikey, it’s the rozzers’. If you’re not familiar with Top Gear, there’s plenty of material on YouTube.

For Matthew aged 9, he was very polite and there was no reason he shouldn’t have friends. The ostracising began after using formal phrases such as, ‘indeed’, ‘the teacher distributed …’, ‘we participated most ardently …’ – just like he’d stepped out of Jane Austen novel.

The answer for Sam and Matthew is …?

Register, sometimes called stylistic variation. What do you think the issues of register are for Sam and Matthew?

They weren’t aware of different registers or weren’t able to adapt to changes in the way they use language in different circumstances. For example, making plans with friends, writing an academic essay. For all intents and purposes in the classroom, we’d probably be thinking about ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ registers. Think of the problems that inappropriate use of register can cause. In addition to creating comedy, problems with communication and creating offence, just look at Sam and Matthew and see how it’s affected them. 

It’s surprising how little use teachers make of register, even though it’s so important. Oh but … Yes, I know there are some of you out there that do have some focus on register in your lessons. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen one attempt to include register on a CertTESOL course in recent times, but it’s something I would always encourage trainees to think about. It’s something that learners might not grasp and need to be reminded of or taught, but it is important. Think again of Sam and Matthew and how important it is to them.

A little like grammar, register is one of those things that we can apply, but perhaps don’t know the ‘technicalities’. One of the things that can deter a teacher from introducing register into lessons, particularly productive skills lessons. Coursebooks on the whole don’t tend to focus much on register. Some might say … ‘this means it’s not as important as you’re making it sound’. Not at all, coursebooks can’t cover everything and good teachers will always adapt course books to fill any gaps. But to do this we need some foundations in sociolinguisitcs. I’m lucky, I had a good grounding in this with my postgraduate studies, but a lot of teachers don’t have this benefit. If you want a good resource, invest in Janet Holmes’, Introduction to Sociolinguistics.

What are the main things we need to be aware of when thinking about register and introducing it to our learners? The main thing here is appropriacy. Learners need to recognise the appropriate register and form, and for this, the communicative purpose, audience and context are important considerations. There’s a huge range of these and it can be daunting, but a logical, focused approach in selecting these can work well. Make a table and note down your ideas.

Communicative Purpose Audience Context
Making and responding to suggestions Between friends Plans for a day out
E-mail questioning a possible overpayment Customer and supplier Online shopping


From here, we can write some focused and effective lesson aims. By concentrating on these ideas, we can begin to plan lessons to raise our learners’ awareness of register, distinguishing registers and applying them for particular purposes and contexts. If it’s a new concept, it’s still important to prepare students, young learners, adult learners, academic learners … for the range of contexts and tasks they might encounter. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever run out of ideas.

As we’ve seen with Sam and Matthew the inappropriate register can have important effects on their real lives. In a relatively short time and with some focused guidance, both Sam and Matthew are well on their way to using an appropriate and more formal register to get the required IELTS score and using the appropriate less formal register to make friends. 

Whilst we might need to apply our linguistic skills, practical teaching skills and make some effort by adapting coursebook content, we can provide the foundations for highly effective lessons. Speaking and writing sections of any module in a coursebook will provide suitable material, which we can adapt for different registers and to differentiate registers. Don’t forget this will include listening and reading texts.

These can be useful in having learners identify register from the communicative purpose, audience and context, perhaps using a table to record the information. Using two different texts learners can distinguish registers.

Authentic texts are also very useful and can be very generative. Broadsheet and tabloid newspapers provide a good source of material. Radio programmes and podcasts targeted at specific audiences can provide examples are a useful source as are videos.  All of these can be recycled as well.

We can have learners recreate a dialogue or text in a different register, which can be particularly effective for reinforcement of the purpose and characteristics of different registers. This can also be useful if we’re beginning to introduce learners to moving from one register to another.

These are but a few examples of what we can do with our learners to raise their awareness of register and its importance. Register isn’t just something for the more advanced learners or any one age group. It has real life significance. We’ve only got to look at Sam and Matthew for this.

Think about including more reference to register in your lessons, but if you’re unsure about the technicalities, do a little research. As we would with our learners, introduce yourself to it gradually, but above all don’t discount it.

About the Author

Sean Martin

Over the last 10 years Sean has worked in a variety of TESOL settings in Hong Kong, from teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity CertTESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.

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