The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Listening to Donald Trump address a press conference is just painful. His tedious and insistent use of intensifiers -‘very, very’ – and reductive and bland adjectives – ‘bad’ or ‘good’ lie in stark contrast to the eloquent and articulate phrasing of Barack Obama’s rhetoric – which was always a pleasure to hear. This is not the space to comment on the content of these speeches but the language they use. To my mind, reducing language to its simplest form risks reducing ideas to their basest element whilst expression that is eloquent and articulate allows the listener to absorb and interact with the concepts. So what implications does this have for us as teachers? How can we ensure we are using language with both dexterity and the utmost care? Here are some of my ideas about why the way we use language matters and how we can support our students through the way we talk to them.

Using language to stretch and challenge

Whilst the ideas of Basil Bernstein’s sociolinguistic theory of the restricted and elaborated code have been largely discredited on the grounds of oversimplification, it can certainly be argued that the ability to use language with fluidity and flexibility is essential for success in life and is often a means of narrowing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. An impoverished, reductive vocabulary is unlikely to help students flourish. Conversely, a student who recognises the power of language to engage, amuse and persuade is placed in a strong position when gliding between the different facets of society.  The ability to code switch, to move between differing levels of formality depending on the context in which you are in, helps oil the wheels of social interaction. Being able to adapt your language appropriately and accommodate others is a skill that students will require for anything and everything they do in the future. Recognising that the classroom is an environment in which we use sophisticated and academic register is valuable in helping students to recognise that different contexts require different codes.

What we say in the classroom is one of the greatest assets we have in terms of ensuring that our lessons are high challenge and that we are stretching our students.

Alex Quigley in Closing the Vocabulary Gap talks about the need to focus language in the classroom around ‘academic’, ‘word conscious’ or ‘word rich’ vocabulary. In the move towards becoming ‘word rich’, students can be helped through rich and varied discussion in the classroom.

Quigley, Alex (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap Routledge; Abingdon

Defining, exploring and applying new and more sophisticated vocabulary is one means by which we can develop students’ knowledge and understanding of the world. It is also a useful proxy for a great deal of general knowledge in a range of subject domains. I am very much looking forward to Anthea Bancroft’s CPD session on this topic later in the year.

Related to this is the value of cultural capital and how it can be harnessed through the language we use. Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s coined this term to explain how, like material wealth, culturally valuable knowledge is a type of capital. Cultural capital is wealthy because it consists of knowledge or concepts that are useful to know in order to access society. So, for example, being able to understand why someone is considered a ‘Jekyll and Hyde character’ or that the students have all gone a bit ‘Lord of the Flies’ or that marking mock papers can feel like a ‘Sisyphean task’ means that you have enough cultural knowledge to navigate conversations in a shared cultural space that has value attached to it. My feeling is that we should never shy away from using terms and references such as these. Explaining and exploring them, not blithely assuming knowledge, is clearly essential and should be an inclusive experience rather than an alienating one. The effort can be rewarding – there is something incredibly satisfying for both student and teacher about making ‘in jokes’ when sharing the same cultural knowledge. I get a real kick out of making the students raise a wry smile if I refer to my Frankenstein-like zest in which I approached marking their assessments last night or their understanding of my Wilfred Owen quote ‘But nothing happens’ when no one answers a question I have posed and we wait in awkward silence.

The Gender Gap

Early on in my career (and not in this school), I can remember listening to some Year 10 students in my tutor group who were talking about their first Romeo and Juliet lesson. They were delighted because their teacher had announced that the play was “all about shagging”.  Aside from the inappropriateness of the language, I can see what the teacher was trying to do – seeking to engage a group of boys (it was a boy only group) by focusing on one aspect of the play that this teacher felt may hold appeal. Of course, by reducing it to this one element, he completely ignored the more significant and far more fascinating elements of the play (was he going to teach this by stealth?) and, I suspect, poorly equipped his students for the challenges of studying a Shakespearean play. Whilst the presentation of masculinity is an area worthy of exploration in Romeo and Juliet, this rather base banter style language did nothing to promote high expectations or the credibility of the teacher.

We know that society has some way to go in bridging the gender gap and language is no exception to this. There is lots of evidence to support the fact that our language reflects a sexist and unequal society. For example, linguists have identified many aspects of lexical asymmetry: no one is going to convince me that ‘mistress’ and ‘master’ carry the equivalent amount of gravitas, for example. Additionally, we still confront the problem of the generic ‘man’ on an everyday basis. Many of us frequently deal with older texts which inevitably contain language that would be considered inappropriate and sexist today. These texts offer us a great opportunity to identify the mechanisms of gendered language and the relationship between society and the words we use to communicate. Just drawing attention to outmoded or archaic use of language as they crop up helps students recognise that sometimes language lags behind and reflects societal concepts that are fast fading or that require confronting.

I think it probably goes without saying that using explicitly gendered terms in the classroom is detrimental for both boys and girls. Seemingly innocuous terms such as ‘man up’ and ‘girly swot’ help to reinforce insidious stereotypes that are harmful to all and does nothing to aid learning.  We know that boys are particularly prone to peer pressure and that being organised, cooperative and scholarly is seen as inherently feminine. Challenging and confronting stereotypes that surely no one believes anymore is a powerful way of getting students to think about what they say and to change the way they feel about their learning.

Covid Times

During the Learning and Teaching meeting last week I was really struck by both Rach and Su’s presentations about the language we use surrounding the Covid pandemic and the return to school. It made me realise how easy it would be to panic and fall into the trap of using phrases such as ‘you should have learned this during lockdown’, ‘you need to try harder now”. Talking about bounce back and consolidation is so much more positive and productive than talking about the ‘recovery curriculum’ and ‘catch up’. Not only can language empower, it can also reassure our students and help them to recognise that our fundamental role is to keep them safe and secure.

A word after a word after a word is power

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood famously commented that ‘A word after a word after a word is power’. For me, this quote has huge resonance and is a reminder of our responsibility, as teachers, about how we harness language to empower, enrich and reassure our students. No matter which subject we teach, our use of language matters and it makes a difference.

By Cate Mcgovern

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