Some years ago, a friend of mine was teaching a class of eight-year-olds in a multilingual school in north London. It was Christmas and the school was getting ready for its Nativity play. Deepak, who was to be one of the three kings, had been diligently practising his part for weeks as he was not yet fluent in English. On the night, he said his lines clearly and confidently, much to his teacher's pleasure.
A few days later, she asked Deepak: "What were you carrying for Baby Jesus?" "Frankenstein," he replied. After the laughter died down, there was a class discussion on the meaning and importance of frankincense, which Deepak understood immediately as his grandmother burned incense every day on the shrine of Lord Krishna. His teacher realised that Deepak should have had the opportunity to talk about this before the play rather than afterwards.
Teachers can produce many such anecdotes, where children, particularly those who are learning English as an Additional Language, need to give special attention to the meanings of words. Phrasal verbs, for example, can cause havoc in their lives. Six-year-old Shamim began her writing at the bottom of the page and was surprised when her teacher asked her to start at the top, "Miss, you said write it down." Carlos left the room when his teacher asked him to clear up, thinking she meant clear out.
What's in a Word offers plenty of suggestions for dealing with this type of situation. It addresses how to build up pupils' vocabulary across the curriculum and to develop understanding of the meanings of words in the multilingual classroom.
Its five sections cover words for teachers; words for learners; words in the classroom; cultural belonging; and words to work on. Each section skilfully combines linguistic theories with practical strategies that can be used in the classroom.
The author also provides examples of words that change meanings or have multiple meanings. She offers strategies that encourage pupils to search out meanings and to take an active interest in the language they are learning.
For EAL learners, the understanding of word meaning is a prerequisite to reading and writing, the skills of which are generally not extensions of their spoken language. Learning phonics and vocabulary alone is not enough for them; they have to acquire meanings as well.
The book is particularlyuseful for teachers who have some knowledge of linguistics and grammar, but others, too, will find it accessible. There are plenty of examples which should help such readers to bring out their implicit knowledge of language and to make use of it explicitly in teaching.
Sibani Raychaudhuri is a member of the multicultural committee of the National Association for the Teaching of English