Dear Ted

10th January 2003 at 00:00
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email: dear.ted@tes.co.uk

Ted says

This issue caused particular difficulties for teachers in the United States who practised behaviour modification techniques in their classroom. According to behaviourist learning theory, undesirable habits will eventually disappear if you don't "reinforce" or strengthen them - for example, by using praise, reward or recognition.

Unfortunately, swearing is often reinforced by the pupils themselves, so merely ignoring it is unlikely to make it stop. On the other hand, tackling the issue head-on can also lead to problems, so it needs smart and sensitive handling.

Some teachers have got into hot water by actually having a lesson on the topic "swearing". The difficulty is that, if children write or speak swear words during this lesson, parents may complain, possibly directly to the press, under the wrong impression that their children are being encouraged to swear, rather than the opposite.

It is legitimate for you to object to bad language in school, even if it is not directed at you. It should be part of children's personal and social education to understand that, in the wrong context, such behaviour can cause great offence. Indeed, it should be an important element of the school's English programme to make best use of vocabulary, and swearing is often a lazy way of expressing an opinion or feelings.

If you are an inexperienced teacher it would be best to consult a veteran colleague for advice on tackling controversial issues such as this. If you are an old hand you may feel more confident, but you still need to tread carefully. Even a disarming statement like "I swear myself when I'm driving, but not in public" can rebound ("Our teacher swearsI ").

Nip swearing in the bud and keep any subsequent class discussion general, not about specific words. If necessary, talk to the biggest offenders privately, rather than harangue the innocent in your group.

You say

Explain your position to them

I have had to recognise that my Year 11 form has a "street language" that they use with each other which, though I may find it distasteful, defines their youth and their peer group. They have gradually learned not to use this language with me - I told them that if I was in the same room and could hear the conversation then I was, by default, part of that conversation. They still use bad language, but not when I am there.

Marie-Claire Cavanagh, Lincolnshire

'My mother wouldn't like it'

Putting on a slightly sad face and saying "I don't think my mother would like it if she knew I had to listen to that kind of language" works for me. It always results in an apology and a swift switch to a more respectful use of English.

Julia Dodd, Derbyshire

Discuss the meaning of the words

Citizenship presents a unique opportunity for tackling foul language in a constructive manner. I had similar problems with a class and devoted an entire lesson to the subject. I began by telling the youngsters that there was no such thing as bad language: only bad people who transform and misuse good words. We went through the lexicon that they had deployed with such felicity and they were amazed about learning the true meanings of the words. When one boy told another "F*** you", I asked him whether he wished to copulate with his peer. That really got to him. The foul language became less foul.

Don't be coy about pronouncing the words they use to ask them whether they know the meaning. They will immediately shy away from the exercise. Some will think it hilarious. Keep cool and be in control. My partner, a counselling psychologist, recently used this strategy in a primary school where she has to deal with many pupils who come from families steeped in four-letter words, not all of them pretty. The exercise turned out to be more fruitful than the literacy hour.

David Sassoon, education consultant

Your swearing must take precedence

You must deter your tutor group from incessant swearing for the simple reason that if they are swearing all the time, when you swear at them it will have no f***ing impact.

Tony Ireland, Manchester

Fight back - embarrass them

I once had a mixed Year 8 group for extra English twice a week. One afternoon, when I felt swamped by the passing torrent of swear words, I embarked on an impromptu, if hazardous, strategy: I told them I needed their help in assembling an alphabet of swear words. I began to write the most obvious words from A to E on the blackboard, but before I got to F, an anguished voice said: "Please Miss, don't go on. It's embarrassing." I replied that it was equally embarrassing for adults to hear offensive words used so constantly and that I wondered if we could find or invent alternatives. We then spent some time listing words such as "blast", "blow", "damn", and a few evocative of Chaucer and Shakespeare. The swearing diminished from then on - in my hearing at least.

Nixie Taverner, New Malden, Surrey

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