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Thursday, 1 August 2019

"Words, words, words..."

My title this week is a quote from one of my favourite plays.  Guesses in the comments, please!

www.metro.co.uk

I was going to start this post with a sentence constructed entirely of the words that MP for the 1800s, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has recently banned from Parliament.  But, to be honest, I was worried that you would just think me incredibly pompous and stop reading before I could reveal the gag.  So I chickened-out.

This week I am going to focus on words.  I love words.  And language.  And grammar.  So it makes me very sad (genuinely) that children's vocabulary seems rather limited.  This is despite one article claiming that (in their native language) 8-year olds "have a vocabulary size of about 10,000 words."  That's a lot of words!  So why is so much of children's writing composed of the same bland vocabulary choices?  These choices tend to focus around the extremes of adjectives.  If something can't be 'big' then it is often 'colossal' or 'gigantic' or even 'ginormous.'  If something can't be small then it is either 'tiny', 'teeny-tiny' or, brace yourself, 'very small.'  This lack of lexical diversity is sad.  I'm not going to be all doomful and say 'worrying' - it's not, for reasons I shall go into later - but it is sad.

One of the causes of this thinning of descriptive language is, again, in my opinion, the proliferation of Word Walls.  An inset day that I attended was led by a chap whose name I have completely forgotten.  So apologies to him.  Anyway, he said something that resonated with me because I had just been told off by the English coordinator for not having a word wall.  He said: Word walls limit vocabulary.  And they do.  I know that's a controversial thing to say, especially as #edchat on Twitter is currently awash with people's vocabulary displays for September, but displaying this 'ambitious' vocabulary sends a hidden message that other words are unacceptable and should not be used.  So we end up with a situation where children over-write to an almost farcical degree.

I had a Year 5 child once who was praised by a previous teacher for suggesting 'thunderous' as a replacement for 'noisy.'  It was met with rounds of applause (thunderous applause, I'm sure) and given pride of place on the Word Wall.  I think it was even 'word of the week'.  Nothing wrong with that in principle but the reason behind the choice was lost amid the praise (I have nothing against praising children, just so we're clear!) and the child went on to suggest - and use -  'thunderous' for any and all adjectival situations.  It was nonsense.  I had sentences like the light was thunderous, and he felt thunderous.  The child had no clue why the word was appropriate for one situation but not for all situations and he spent a tearful playtime asking why he couldn't use his word anymore.

To be clear - I don't have a problem with word walls per-se.  If they are displaying topic-based vocabulary, or if they offer shades of meaning that children wouldn't otherwise come across then that's great.   My problem is with word walls for the sake of it.  How many times have you gone into a classroom and seen colourful bricks with a million different words for 'nice' or 'said'?  Or worse, seen a no-entry circle declaring words like 'nice, 'said' and, well, 'like' as BANNED?  This is crushing for me.  To ban words is to limit vocabulary.  Yes, encourage alternatives but don't ban perfectly acceptable words just because you don't like them, or more likely have been told to do so by the management team.  



I've had a conversation with a child agonising over the best reporting verb to use, only to end up suggesting that, perhaps, if the character didn't whisper, murmur, utter, declare, question, shout, boom or command, then maybe, just maybe, they simply said it.  The child looked at me horrified and asked if she was allowed to use 'said' because her previous teacher had banned it.  How much time had been spent on this exchange?  Time that could have been used writing more, or editing.  All because a perfectly good word (there's another outlaw word, good) had been demonised.  It is thinking like this that led to quite a number of children using 'quoted' as a reporting verb.  "I have to agree," she quoted, "I don't like it."  What the actual heck?!  We went into the etymology of that one; spent a whole lesson on why it is not a synonym for 'said' (unless you are actually quoting someone, obviously). 

I know that some people use word walls to encourage 'ambitious vocabulary.'   The thing is, the phrase does not appear in the National Curriculum at all anymore.  In fact, 'ambitious' is used three times: once as an aim for assessment; once as a reading aim; and once as a spelling word in an appendix.  It used to be in there, pre-2014 but it has been removed because it is rubbish.  Children should be using vocabulary that is deliberately chosen for clarity and purpose.  

I refused to have a word wall in my Y6 classroom (I got into trouble for it as well).  And don't even get me started on 'Wow words' (excuse me while I shudder).  Instead, I had a blank notice board onto which the children wrote words they felt were useful.  And yes, some were even slang.  Because slang is a very important part of writing informally (admittedly, I did insist that they used the term 'colloquial'; it's still a classroom).  I even learned a thing or two.  The only words I had printed and displayed (and laminated I am sorry to say - it was a different time) were: Is it deliberate?  Is it specific? Is it clear?  That was all I cared about as far as their vocabulary went.  

But wait!  I hear you cry.  You're saying that lazy writing is okay, then?  Not at all.  In fact, quite the opposite.  If you're choosing words deliberately then you can't be lazy.  You get to justify using 'lazy' or 'banned' words.  When we were writing Fairy Tale diaries (totally recommend this for Year 6), the children quickly realised that Baby Bear would use very simple language.  The children would be stuck with 'nice' and 'said' because that's what Baby Bear would know.  Mummy Bear's vocabulary would be different from Daddy Bear's and both would be more sophisticated than Baby Bear's.  This results in some very deliberate language choices.  One of my favourite examples was when a child wrote:

Red Riding Hood was told that the woods were very dark, very scary and very dangerous.  Which made her think that they must also be very exciting.

I pulled this child up and asked her to justify the tautological use of 'very.'  And she did.  Explaining that she wanted the reader to feel like they were already walking in the woods; she felt that repeating 'very' made her think of someone creeping 'like in a pantomime'.  She ended up with a sticker and a big smile on her face.  Not that it matters, but she wasn't a particularly confident writer, she had just been very deliberate with her word choice.

Let's look at specific.  Specificity in writing is where the description comes in and over-writing gets its coat and shuffles out the backdoor quietly trying to attract too much attention (I told you I was an over-writer).  Which is better:  

The grizzled gentleman donned a coat as long as a winding river.  He had a gargantuan hat and a deathly gun belt.  On his feet were a pair of ancient leather boots that clinked when he walked because of the metal spurs on the heels.  Although he had previously broken the law, he had to return to town to deal with his adversary.

or

The cowboy was an outlaw in these parts but he didn't care. He had a score to settle.

Specific language choices for nouns and verbs negate the overuse of adjectives and adverbs.  I've always told my classes that adjectives and adverbs are the salt and pepper of sentences and should be used sparingly, as needed.  Again, this is where a word wall might be useful.  Put the cliched word in the middle and have alternatives shooting out from it.  The words are there to serve a purpose; not just to fill display space.

Finally, Clarity is key.  I first heard the phrase 'never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice'  when I was eight.  I have loved it ever since.  The great Susie Dent of Countdown fame has said many times that language is about communicating ideas.  If the message isn't clear; the meaning is lost.   I always advise my classes to start with the simplest form of a sentence first.  Sometimes that's all that's needed.  Sometimes they'll go on to edit it and change it or make it more complicated but without first ensuring that the meaning is clear, they're on a hiding to nothing.  

I'll wrap up now, otherwise I'll be writing all day.  Do I hate a Word Wall?  I kind of do.  I think it stifles creativity more than it stimulates it.  I know there are children who need vocabulary options to be displayed, so I guess topic-based words are okay.  But printing out 200 colourful bricks and displaying them prominently tells children 'these are the best words to use' and that I can't condone.  If you're going to turn mediocre words into Instagram-style celebrities, then print them with a Kardashian saying them.  At least that's honest.  And stop banning words.  No-one wants to be Jacob Rees-Mogg.

If you agree, please let me know.  If you disagree, please let me know - my opinions are simply that.  I am not the all-knowing sage and I'm always happy to learn.  Thanks for reading.  Don't forget to guess the play my title comes from in the comments below, and remember to take a break every now and then to remember how awesome you are.  Mental health is important!

Carl Headley-Morris

@Mr_M_Musings       bit.ly/carlslearningplace      www.mrmsmusings.com

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