So I once had a child in my form who was a real pain in the ass. A real pain in the ass. Everyday: “Raymond, put your food away”; “Where’s your tie? Your lanyard?”; “Raymond, I’ve just asked you to tuck your shirt in”; “Watch your language”; “Raymond, can you put your phone away, please? Raymond, put your phone away. Raymond. I won’t tell you again. Put it away.” Et cetera, et cetera.
But for all that, we got on well. We fell out a lot, but we got on. For example, he was internally excluded multiple times for swearing at me, but when I accidentally left my classroom door wide open and my phone on the table, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I returned. “Sir,” he said. “You’re such a beg. You left the door right open. Any crack-head could have come in and nicked your phone if I didn’t of sat here.”
I paused and smiled at him. “Thank you, Raymond,” I said. “But now put your own phone away.”
From time-to-time, I still think of Raymond. I think of how he couldn’t string a sentence together and yet occasionally said something so insightful it would altogether halt me. But I try not to think of these things. They make me angry. I’m angry because if things had been different for Raymond, if he were from the other side of the tracks and had gone to a prep school, then he could have gone to Eton. And if he had gone to Eton then he could have gone to Oxbridge. I’m angry because, while there are complex social issues at play, I don’t believe that social issues or the divide between private and state schools explains how a gap so large, between hardly being able to construct a sentence and going to Oxford, can form.
It’s well established that by comparison to those born in relative prosperity, children who grow up in poverty generally have a vastly reduced vocabulary. By some measures, at age twenty-four months they are already six months behind in terms of vocabulary and language understanding, and have heard thirty-million(!) fewer words by age three. Considered in light of these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage. It damages children like Raymond.
If we are to improve the vocabulary and language skills of our most disadvantaged pupils, if we truly want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, then we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address. We cannot simply bemoan issues that are outside our sphere of influence, such as government policy, structural power in society, or lack of parental enthusiasm for education. I’m not denying these things exist. I’m saying that, as things stand, we each have but one poxy vote with which to change them. And though wealth and vocabulary are correlated, income does not determine the breadth of a person’s vocabulary.
To broaden the vocabulary of our pupils, we must teach vocabulary, ambitious vocabulary, explicitly. But we must also allow our pupils to hear us talking, to hear the extent of our own vocabularies. And since most teachers possess a relatively broad vocabulary, it is madness—madness—to deny children access to our personal word banks as though they are as personal and precious as our piggy banks. I have written before about the remarkable stickability of vocabulary when compared to other knowledge, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth restating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.
To illustrate, we’ll compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Let’s say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children roam around the classroom finding the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, let’s consider all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk: a clear explanation employing rich language, complex words defined and then clarified with examples, and all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and then multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.
To compound matters, once we have denied them access to our own vocabularies, we deny them access to the vocabularies of our great writers, by studying texts that pupils can “relate” to. Some advocate this because they worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I sympathise with the concern and have no problem with the principle. But you have to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you fostering, and what, exactly, are you getting paid for, if all you are doing is providing pupils with a book that they will love regardless? Because anyone can do that. Literally any mug with a library card can say to a child: “Pick whatever you want, mate.” The challenge is to foster a love of great literature in children by illuminating the words and ideas that our greatest writers have left behind. That’s where, as English teachers, we earn our money. And it is with these texts that a child’s vocabulary really develops. It is here they are exposed to a plethora so-called Tier-2 words; words, such as “plethora”, that are found in print but mostly absent from oral language, and where the majority of discrepancy exists between children from poverty and prosperity.
(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature. However, in other subjects too, surely pupils should be reading quality material in every lesson and familiarising themselves with the nomenclature?)
Of course, more ideal would be to prevent the gap opening in the first place. This is why I think it would make more sense to direct the majority of Pupil Premium funds towards EYFS and infants. But that is perhaps a whole other blog, by someone more knowledge in EYFS and primary education than I. (And yes, I think that is the march of secondary Headteachers and their Business Managers I hear, as they line up to stone me for suggesting yet more money is taken from their budgets.)
More controversial still, are ideas around cultural literacy. (For expedience, let’s put asside the knowledge vs skills debate.) As soon as one accepts that our first responsibility as teachers is to teach “stuff” to the charges in our care, a culture war erupts centering upon who gets to decide curriculum content. During his excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) presentation at yesterday’s #REdRugby, Chris Peirce commented (words to the effect of): “I think it’s useful for children first to have an understanding of the culture they’re part of.” This prompted a couple of responses from other members of the audience, with one even commenting that she would be sending her own child to his school in September, and as such would be able to keep an eye on things herself, which I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic.
As it happens, I agree with Chris’s position. I contend that, if a person doesn’t have access to a rather large and complex web of metaphors, symbols, and references from
their own culture the culture in which they live (please note the critical difference there), they are excluded from opportunities within that culture. Ultimately, being unable to navigate the warp and woof of their surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation. And, like it or not, in every region of our planet there is a dominant culture that prevails. People need access to the culture of the place that they inhabit in order to participate in society. I, for example, have fairly decent knowledge of communist cinema during 1960s Hungary. While this is quite nice, it serves me little to no purpose on a day-to-day basis. Were I a film scholar, it would be useful. But I’m not, so it isn’t. Better, say, that I have a decent understanding of the Mary Celeste. Why the Mary Celeste? Well let’s have a look at a headline from today’s Sunday Times:
Without an understanding the Mary Celeste, a reader of this text misses most of the meaning in the headline. But knowledge of the Mary Celeste is not the only knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be recognised and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, that Theresa May is the current British prime minister, that in Britain political mandate is granted by a general election, what a general election is, the result of the recent general election, and what Brexit is.
Let’s investigate another:
Here, readers need to be aware of the different cultural stereotypes that are associated with people of old and new money. They need to be au fait with ideas about the corrupting influence of money, and how, in Britain, these are overtly connected with a person’s class. They need to know what a hereditary peer is, and to understand that they will require a fairly well-developed understanding of how the Palace of Westminster operates. They will also need to understand the stereotypes associated with hereditary peers, in order to understand the reference to his being “157”, as well as stereotypes around how they behave in parliament, if they are to infer what Liddle is implying when he says: “I’m not sure he knew who he was, or what he was supposed to be doing.”
They will need to know all this and have a developed sense of irony, if they are to understand that Liddle is not, in fact, saying the peer was a nice chap when he says, “seemed a nice enough chap” but, rather, is affecting the assuredly nonchalant language of those from “old money”. However, to pick this up, it’s not enough to simply know what irony is. No, the reader must understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes.
Last but not least, they need to take all this information and connect it to the reference to “old money” in the headline. So, as we can see, quite a lot is going on, and if one is to understand it, one must understand the minutiae of the surrounding culture.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think our children should be able to read the newspaper when they leave school. Many, perhaps even most, wouldn’t be able to extrapolate all the meaning from the examples above. If pupils are leaving school unable to understand the references in two very short extracts, which I found in less than a minute or so’s searching through today’s paper, then we have a problem. It is for this reason that a country’s schools should foreground it’s “home” cultural knowledge; it grants access and cultural capital to those who wouldn’t otherwise would possess it. Incidentally, this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, who have a triple-lock to overcome: they have comparatively limited understanding of the language; their parents’ cultural literacy in the new country is likely to be highly limited, so they are not exposed to it at home; and they often find themselves in inner-city schools, where ingrained attitudes suggesting that certain knowledge, or culture, is (not) for certain people often still prevail.
Some people believe it is elitist to foreground the teaching of particular knowledge and culture, but, in a wonderfully succinct tweet, Rebecca Foster exposed the fallacy of this position. She said: “I think it’s elitist NOT to teach challenging texts to certain groups of students.” I’ve already addressed the issue of challenging texts, but there is a broader truth implied by Rebecca’s words, and it comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought”. While no one culture is objectively better than another, all people in society ought to have access to the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be socially mobile, should they wish to be; elitism is not about the content of but access to that culture. The snob is not the man who asserts we should teach Latin, but the man contends Latin is not for those he considers socially inferior. If you’re arguing that certain knowledge isn’t for certain children, then take a look in the mirror, because you are the snob.
At KS3 especially, I believe we need to conceive of ourselves as teachers of culture, as well as teachers of our subject. Even today, I have basically no scientific knowledge. I’m embarassed to admit it, but I could not tell you for sure what Galileo (something to do with telescopes?) or Newton (electricity?) did, just that they are important. Until fairly recently, I knew basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans, actually nothing about art or art history, and felt entirely like a philistine if I got dragged into an art gallery. So I’d walk around gibbering about how boring and rubbish I thought it all was, as a cover for my ignorance (and I’m sure most who are reading this can easilly bring to mind a raft of pupils who blanket their ignorance with similar behaviour in the classroom). And all this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge is useful to me as an English teacher, for, in an English classroom, any subject can become relevant at a moment’s notice (I think it was David Didau who said at #REdRugby yesterday that knowledge is “Velcro”, ie it sticks to other knowledge). But as an adult, knowing where to look and what to read can be tricky. It’s far better to taught it by an expert teacher at school.