Does the brain have a special capacity to retain and remember language?
For teachers, one of the more dispiriting hallmarks of life at the chalkface is pupils’ inability to retain information. The joy of hearing pupils successfully articulate how, in Ozymandias, Shelley used structure to reflect the shifting and precarious nature of power turns to dejected resignation when the following lesson those same pupils seem to have forgotten what a ‘stanza’ is.
However, one area where this observation doesn’t hold is in retention of vocabulary, particularly by EAL learners. During a meeting with my (wonderful) mentor last week, she praised a dictionary task I had done with a low-ability set while we studied ‘Storm on the Island’. After reflecting for a moment I said: “It’s incredible, EAL kids remember all the vocab I teach them. They don’t remember anything else I teach,” I added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “but they can recall words defined for them six-months ago. It’s actually insane.” She nodded sagely, my mentor, and we went on with the meeting.
This got me to thinking about the nature of language acquisition and what vocabulary we should be teaching our EAL pupils. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that, when it comes subject-specific language, we should teach them the exact same vocabulary that we teach our non-EAL pupils. There should be no reduction in vocabularic ambition. (Yes, I just made that word up.)
Anyway, prior to life in my current school, I have seen classrooms where the teachers teach classes of solely EAL pupils using card-sorts and only the most basic language. Note, these were pupils who had a basic grasp of the language, not brand new arrivals with little or no English. I understand the rationale for this approach, and I have no doubt that the teachers were teaching this way out of a sincere belief that they are doing best by their pupils. And, frankly, they might be right. I have no evidence to suggest my approach is any more effective. However, my experience so far has taught me that EAL pupils will pick up the basic vocabulary, so long as they are exposed to it, which the vast majority are, if only through the volume of English they hear in their classrooms. Humans are evolved to acquire language and, while there is a difference between first and second language acquisition, as teachers we should exploit this, and in English the new specifications reward teaching EAL pupils higher-level vocab.
Whilst I have some reservations about the new specifications, in general I think the changes have been positive. In literature particularly, pupils are rewarded for their knowledge of the texts. This is why I don’t dumb-down the vocabulary I teach my EAL pupils. For example, when I come to teach Armitage’s ‘Remains’ I will define the word “dehumanise”, explain how it relates to the poem, illustrate quotes it links to, and model ways in which I might use the word to write about the poem. Of course, when the pupils produce their own paragraphs, they will contain all the mistakes familiar to those who teach a high volume of EAL pupils: confusion between singular nouns and plural verbs, and vice-versa; over use of conjunctions; incorrect use of definite and indefinite article; wordiness; merging of first and second language grammatical constructions etc etc. However, the pupils will make these mistakes while using vocabulary that allows them to access, and deal with, ideas of conceptual complexity; under the current specification, the mark scheme allows me to reward them for this.
This brings to mind another problem of teaching classes that have high numbers of EAL pupils: identifying those who are high-ability and low-ability, since EAL pupils’ linguistic competence often obscures their ability to think conceptually. So often they have the ability but they don’t have the words. However, the approach outlined above (define, explain, illustrate, model) allows all the pupils to have access to the material because they are both learning new vocabulary and understanding how it relates to the text at hand. Another pleasing consequence of this approach is that it also benefits the boys in the class whose first language is English but who lack natural aptitude for the subject. Further, it is excellent for the boys who have fallen behind their peers and ended up in a low set due to years of poor behaviour. For these boys in particular, it provides tangible nuggets of knowledge they can learn and consolidate, allowing them to feel a sense of success. An underdeveloped vocabulary is common to all these groups, and a methodical approach to broadening their ‘word-base’ benefits these pupils greatly. (NB. I teach in an all-boys school.)
The question all this naturally begs is why do pupils seem to remember vocabulary better than other information? Again, I have nothing to back up any of the assertions I am about to make — besides my own experience, observations, and, truthfully, guess-work. But two ideas immediately present themselves to me. Firstly, humans probably have a natural inclination to remember and recall language. Secondly, and more importantly for those of us who teach, we probably teach vocabulary better than other knowledge. As I pointed out above, I often use a rigorous approach when introducing pupils to new vocabulary. The ‘define, explain, illustrate, model’ process means that, after pupils are introduced to a word (and concept), they then see me work with that word, while also having the chance to interact with it themselves through my questioning and/or any tasks I ask them to complete. This contrasts with the way pupils are usually introduced to new information. Perhaps it is just me, but I know that, outside of vocabulary, it is rare that I have the opportunity to work with such small chunks of information and teach them so rigorously and explicitly. Furthermore, once I have taught a word it slips into the minutiae of the classroom culture. Once I am confident the pupils are secure with a word and concept, I am free to use it in my daily teachings. This produces a sort of de-facto retrieval practise, whereby pupils are forced to recall the word and what it means each time I use it, and if they are to fully understand what I am saying they are also required to think flexibility about the word, applying its meaning to various contexts. It is most satisfying when, a number of months later, we will be looking at a completely different text (say, Inspector Calls) and a hand will shoot up in desperate excitement, as though it must urgently touch the ceiling. A pupil will say: “Sir! Sir! He’s dehumanising her Sir!” in reference to Birling and Eva Smith. The sense of satisfaction pupils have when they can relate old concepts to new contexts is one of the most satisfying elements of the job, and one of the most visible reminders of how we make a difference.
Reflecting upon this has had implications for the ways in which I teach other knowledge to the pupils. Where possible, I try to reference old concepts in new contexts and I frequently use ‘Do it now…’ tasks to recap prior knowledge, as I know many other teachers do. But crucially, when necessary I will also stop lessons completely and return to a previous topic we have learned. This is particularly effective with a class who are becoming restless. I’m sure every teacher recognises the shiver that begins to twitch and quiver through a class when pupils collectively struggle with a difficult concept. Often, I’ll stop the lesson and ask some quick-fire retrieval questions about previous (often entirely unrelated) knowledge the pupils have been taught. There’s two reasons I do this. Most obviously, it allows me to recap and consolidate prior learning. Less obviously, it allows me to shift the dynamic of the room from one of struggle to success. I am not averse to struggle and many have pointed out that it is often necessary for learning. But we must also be aware that struggle is not pleasant and a class cannot spend all their time in a state of strain and confusion. By returning to something already learned, I am relieving some of the stress to which my pupils are exposed. But more than this, once I have shifted the dynamic, I can narrate my pupils through the process of learning, through the struggle. I remind them that there was a time when they had to struggle through the concepts in the questions that they have just found easy, and I reassure that there will be a time in the future when they breeze through questions on the ideas they are struggling with now. “But you must trust me,” I tell them. “You must let me guide you, and you must stick with me; we’ll get there, but we’ll only get there if we stay together.”