Every Word Has a Story

5. Australian English: Formal and Informal Language

Suggested Learning Intentions

  • To understand the difference between formal and informal language

Sample Success Criteria

  • I can identify formal and informal language
  • I can explain when to use formal and informal language
  • I can explain the meaning of some Aboriginal words
  • K-W-L chart: docx PDF
  • Formal and informal synonym match: docx PDF
  • Formal and informal vocabulary chart: docx PDF

This stage distinguishes between the terms ‘accents’ and ‘dialects’ and introduces students to the concept of Standard Australian English. Formal and informal language patterns are explored as students become familiar with language conventions in a range of social settings. 

Present the video, Australian Accents. Discuss some of the questions raised in the video.

Questions prompts include:

  • Is there only one Australian accent?  
  • Why might the Australian accent have changed over time? 
  • Why might different accents be used in different social situations?

Explore accents and speech patterns in Australian English further. Present a video of an Australian broadcast from the 1960s.  For example, Is there life on other planets? or What did kids do on school holidays in the 60s? 

As students watch the video, ask them to listen carefully to the speech styles and accents of the interviewer and interviewees.  Do they notice any different accents or speech styles? Do they think that our way of speaking has changed since the 1960s?

They may comment that the interviewer had a more formal speech pattern, while the interviewees were speaking in an informal fashion. 

Explain the difference between an accent (how words are pronounced), and formal and informal language, which can be identified by the words that are used.

Facilitate a discussion that encourages students to consider the different language patterns we use in various social situations. Prompts include:

  • Students create a list of all the conversations and written communication they have had during the past twenty-four hours. For example, discussions with teachers, friends, family members, neighbours; text messages, emails, writing tasks or assignment, informal notes. 
  • Students consider how the language they used may have varied depending on who they were talking to and the social context of the conversation or communication.
  • Introduce the terms Standard Australian English, formal language and informal language. 

The VCAA English Glossary defines Standard Australian English as, "The variety of spoken and written English language in Australia used in more formal settings such as for official or public purposes, and recorded in dictionaries, style guides and grammars. While it is always dynamic and evolving, it is recognised as the ‘common language’ of Australians."

The Literacy Glossary provides the following definitions:

  • "Formal Language includes the use of the ‘high’/prestigious dialect of a language. It involves the avoidance of informal/colloquial expressions. Example: using ‘good evening’ instead of ‘hi’ in certain situations."
  • "Informal language or colloquial language refers to the use of the ‘low’/spontaneous language, often used in familiar speech environments."

Discuss each language form and ask students to identify their conversations and communications as either formal or informal. Ask students to turn and talk to a classmate and explain their reasoning to a classmate. 

Invite students to share examples of formal and informal language and facilitate a class discussion about the social context commonly applicable to each language form. 

Ask students to identify sentences as formal or informal language, for example: 

  • I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the prezzies under the Chrissy tree.   
  • The children were eager to unwrap the presents that were placed under the Christmas tree.
  • Give every question a go.
  • Attempt every question.
  • Has Sally got over her cold?
  • Has Sally recovered from the cold?

Students explain their decisions and suggest where they might see or hear each sentence. 

Ask students why it might be important to understand the difference between formal and informal language, and why there may be so many variations of English spoken in Australia. Provide opportunities for students to add their ideas to KWL chart after viewing the videos and discussion.

Remind students of the difference in the formal and informal language styles from the videos viewed earlier in the stage. Ask them to work with a partner to brainstorm when, where or how you might communicate in formal and informal language. Ideas could be recorded on a Venn diagram. 

Create a display of student thinking.

Ask students when we would use formal and informal language when writing and add new ideas to the class display.

Students conduct a language hunt and find examples of informal and formal language in texts. Ask them to form generalisations about the language style used in different text types, in what circumstances they are used and to provide examples of each.

Enable students to identify key characteristics of formal and informal language by providing a checklist of language features. For example, informal language features such as contractions, slang, idioms, first person pronouns. Formal language commonly features longer words with origins in Greek and Latin and complex sentences. 

Extend students to find examples of characters in novels who use informal and formal language. Encourage them to reflect on how the language styles affect the development of character.

Students form small groups to share their responses and create a display. Check student understanding by asking them to decide if certain terms, or written sentences would be examples of formal or informal language.  For example:

  • He’ll be here on Thursday.   
  • He will be arriving on Thursday. 
  • The game starts at five.
  • The game will commence at 5:00 p.m.
  • a lot of
  • numerous
  • Large flowering trees provide a plentiful food source for many animal species.
  • Big trees covered in flowers provide plenty of tucker for some animals.

Exploring vocabulary

Ask students to work with a partner and brainstorm a list of synonyms for a commonly used word. Provide thesauruses for reference. For example:

  • happy
  • stubborn
  • empty
  • walk
  • laugh
  • good.

After compiling their list, ask students to create a word cline, placing words along a continuum to compare their intensity. Ask students to identify the more formal synonyms.

Enable students to identify formal and informal vocabulary by providing a synonym matching activity. 

Extend student understanding of the history of formal and informal language. Ask students to suggest formal synonyms for informal nouns, verbs and adjectives. Examples are provided in the resource, Formal and informal vocabulary (see Materials and texts section). Students could investigate the origin of the formal and informal words, as many of the formal alternatives are from Anglo-Saxon origin, while the formal words derive from Latin and French.

Create a check list with students recording the features of formal and informal language and the social contexts when each language style is commonly used.

Ask students to write a short, informal passage. It could be a letter, text message or a conversation. Provide opportunities for students to share their writing and receive feedback from a peer. Encourage peers to identify aspects of the writing that use informal language.  

After that, ask students to rewrite the passage using formal language. Again, encourage students to provide peer feedback and to identify formal language.

ABC News In Depth, 1962. Is there life on other planets? (1962) | RetroFocus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=EkvffcxQzMY
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ABC News In Depth, 1967. What did kids do on school holidays in the 60s? (1967) | RetroFocus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=HqEWexZ0ISg&feature=emb_rel_pause
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

ABC: Behind the News, 2015. Australian Accents. [Online]
Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/btn/classroom/australian-accents/10526806
[Accessed 15 March 2022].

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