Style, tone and register in Cambridge A Level English

At the beginning of their AS Level language course, it can be challenging for students to grasp the concepts of style, tone and register. To make this even more complex, teachers need to make it clear from the beginning that style and content are intimately connected. We need to get across that the way we speak or write is central to meaning, and to the reader or listener’s perceptions.

To help you spark your students’ interest early on in the course I’ve put together a sample lesson on introducing these concepts, from English Language for Cambridge AS and A Level. I’ve chosen activities that encourage students to think about what they mean by ‘style’ in relation to clothing. The aim is to get students thinking about linguistic style, tone and register, and I find it helps them to internalize key critical vocabulary from the beginning.

You will need a range of clothes from the very formal to the most informal – a dress suit down to swimming trunks. You should also have a collection of photographs of different styles of clothing that teenagers might wear. The lesson will need about an hour, though you could extend it.

Getting started

Activity 1: Start by asking students to describe what they mean by ‘style’ in relation to clothing. Then give them some photographs and ask them to talk about their impressions of the various wearers and the ‘messages’ that the clothes give off. This should build awareness of the fact that everyone makes choices about clothes each day, just as they do about language each time they start to talk.

Next steps

Activity 2: Next, encourage students to assemble different costumes that are ridiculous because they don’t quite match: a dinner suit jacket with shorts, for example. Each student could adopt one outfit and then explain why it doesn’t quite ‘work’ or why he or she has decided to put such jarring items together for effect. In doing so, students are automatically led to talk about style.

Activity 3: Once you have established the idea of style, ask a couple of students to choose new items of clothing to go with their costumes. Ask the others to comment on whether this change makes them seem more or less formal, more or less fun. By doing this, you are establishing how different combinations change the ‘tone’ of an outfit. This is your moment to talk about levels of formality in language. This leads into students grasping ideas about how they dress (and speak) in a certain register unless they deliberately choose to flout the rules. Of course, if they do that, they are aiming for a particular effect, much as a writer might do with words. By now, students should be gaining a firm understanding of the words style, tone and register.

Now you might turn to some examples of different registers of written communication, ranging from school reports to text messages. Use this table from English Language for Cambridge International AS and A Level to explore the typical features of different registers.

Moving to a higher level

To extend these ideas, try focusing on one sort of clothing – shoes or hats for example. Once students have noted that there are wide varieties of the same clothing type, each of which changes the tone or register of an outfit, you can then ask them to talk about these items as having a function. On the whole, shoes go on the feet, hats go on the head. Now start to develop the idea that clothing has an underlying ‘grammar’ where certain items have a particular function, no matter what they look like. The same is true in sentences, where ‘looked,’ ‘beheld,’ ‘gazed’ and ‘glanced’ all serve the same grammatical function (as verbs) but their use changes both the meaning of the sentence and its tone and register. Each word is more or less synonymous but the effect – as with a different pair of shoes or a different hat – is not the same.


By now, students should have internalized this critical vocabulary and have a solid sense of some central concepts to AS and A Level English study. Moreover, you have introduced the idea of grammar as something that is a living entity, not the stuff of a foreign language textbook. Most important of all, your students will understand that style and register are not the costume of thought, they are an integral part of its articulation.

Julian Pattison is a teacher trainer and examiner, with over 30 years of teaching experience. He is the author of English Language for Cambridge International AS and A Level.

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