Do you know what I mean?

7th June 1996 at 01:00
The main medium of communication in primary education is the spoken word. Teachers all have some grounding in the language development of children and we take this into account in the way we speak and listen to children - or do we?

Understanding what words actually mean is influenced by our unique previous experience of language as well as the context of the speech. Children learn very quickly that there are subtle differences in "school talk" and begin to predict the types of responses that a teacher expects, without necessarily listening to the precise message being given.

Common understanding of the meaning of words is vital to every aspect of the curriculum. How many wrong answers in mathematics are actually a misunderstanding of the language used? Take this conversation between me and an eight-year-old pupil who was stuck on a question:

Me: "It says, 'Which number is 12 more than 9?'"

Pupil: "Oooh, I see. Yes."


"Yes, 12 is more than 9."

"Ah, well, start at 9 and count on 12."

"I get to 21."


"Now which number is 12 more than 9?"


I suspect that there are a wealth of examples out there of children trying to make sense of what they hear in school. As well as making us laugh (good enough) they may also help us to understand and therefore bridge the meaning gap. This is my favourite:

We had been selling recorders to our children. Michael had not been interested, but changed his mind when he realised most of the class had bought one. I sent him to the teacher in charge and, on his return, heard him explaining that he couldn't have one because Mrs Jones had broken them all into pieces.

"Are you sure that's right Michael? What did Mrs Jones actually say?" I asked.

"She said she was very sorry, but all the recorders had been snapped up!"

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