Basil Bernstein's theory of elaborated and restricted code

Bernstein was a linguist who was born in the 1920's who developed a 'code theory' which has been drawn on and developed by others ever since.

The codes that Bernstein talks about are elaborated and restricted codes. Restricted codes are used by 'insiders' who share familiar experiences, assumptions and understandings. For example, most families will have some form of restricted codes which they use at home.

Elaborated codes make no assumptions. They are explicit and do not assume any understanding or common life experiences between people. Elaborated codes do not require the listener to have any prior knowledge about what the speaker is communicating.

The speakers of restricted language codes assume and draw on shared experiences and understanding with the listener.

They are only understood by 'insiders.'

Bernstein said that the form of language used by working class students in schools (restricted code) when contrasted with middle class students (who speak an elaborated code) explained their lower performance in language based subjects, when they achieved just as well in mathematical subjects.

This subject has been fairly controversial, and the way that attitudes and perceptions of others are influenced by accent, dialect and grammar has been debated by sociolinguists over the years. An example of a group which use restricted dialect and have been mocked and looked down upon since the early 2000's are 'chavs' demonstrated here by 'Little Brittan' and Vicky Pollard.

Elaborated codes spell everything out. This means that everyone can understand it. One of Bernstein's studies involved showing a group of school aged students a cartoon strip, and asking them to explain what was going on in the images.

Below are some examples of what was said (

"They're playing football and he kicks it and it goes through there it breaks the window and they're looking at it and he comes out and shouts at them because they've broken it so they run away and then she looks out and she tells them off"

while others said

"Three boys are playing football and one boy kicks the ball and it goes through the window and the boys are looking for it and a man comes out and shouts at them because they've broken the window so they run away and the lady looks out of the window and tells the boys off."

The first is an example of a restricted code. Unless you have the comic strip in front of you, it is hard to understand what is going on, whilst the second is clear and explicitly tells the listener what is happening. It is an example of an elaborated codes.

Some people believe this theory to be 'classist' and Bernstien believed that restricted codes were found predominantly amongst the working class, whilst the middle classes tended to use both restricted and elaborated codes. He believed that this was a reason for working class students underachieving in school.

according to Atherton (2002), “the elaborated code spells everything out, not because it is better, but because it is necessary so that everyone can understand it. It has to elaborate because the circumstances do not allow the speaker to condense.”

This kind of communication is particularly important when working in SEN classrooms. It is imperative that the teacher does not take for granted that the student understands the kind of communication that they themselves use.

Through the use of assessment we are able to choose the most effective means of communication for individuals in our classroom- which may in its self be viewed as a restricted code as those who are not familiar with the world of SEN would probably have no idea what makaton signs or symbol timetables are.

A mixture of restricted and elaborated codes are employed by teaching staff, and the most important approach is consistency in order to maintain clear communication.

Colloquial terms such as 'frog in my throat' and 'your in the dog house' are restricted codes which are completely inappropriate as the majority of the students that we work with would take a literal meaning from this.

Has anyone got any examples of this from their own teaching?

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