English - Word-rich rule the world

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Talking matters more than we realise - so let's get it right

Back in 1989, the American sociologist Leonard Beegley invented a game of Monopoly with a simple twist. Each player was given a different amount of money to start with. One would begin with $5,000, another with $1,000 and another with $500.

The outcome of each game proved compellingly predictable: the rich player always won.

It was a simple demonstration of what social scientists call "the Matthew effect", an insight into the parable that teaches that "the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer".

And it is nowhere more true than with language. Thus a seven-year-old in the top quartile will have a vocabulary of about 7,000 words. A child of the same age at the other end will have just 3,000. And in the Monopoly game of real life, the word-poor child struggles to catch up with the other one.

That is why talk matters quite so much in our classrooms. English teachers don't need much convincing of this. Most English lessons are characterised by lots of speaking and listening activities. But unless we're conscious of the Matthew effect, merely packing our lessons with happy talk is not enough.

We know from the word of Myhill and Fisher at Exeter University that speaking can also be a log-jam, a barrier beyond which our pupils will not improve their other literacy skills.

Unless we get children to speak better they will remain trapped in a world of reluctant reading and limited writing.

Yet to help them there are some easy things we could do more often. The first is groupings. We need to make sure that the word-poor don't get stuck with the worst teachers or always get put in groups with others whose vocabulary is impoverished. We need an underpinning rationale for every activity in class.

While sometimes friendship groups might do, more often we will want to employ covert tactics of social engineering to group pupils by ability, interest, aptitude, knowledge, behaviour or gender in order to ensure that the word-poor mix strategically with the word-rich.

Next, we need to teach explicitly the vocabulary that will help our pupils to progress. The child who tells us "In the book the writer says." will do less well than the one who knows to say "In the novel the author suggests ."

These are the key words of our subject - novel, play, dramatist, suggests, proposes, implies - so let's display and teach them much more explicitly.

Finally, let's talk less as teachers. Let's scrap the mechanistic reliance on hands-up, ask more open-ended questions ("why?" "how?"), give thinking time, make space for collaborative conversations and oral rehearsal of answers, and then always ask pupils - rather than us - to comment upon the answer they have just heard.

In doing so, we move from classroom talk to what Professor Neil Mercer calls exploratory talk. It liberates our pupils to become better thinkers, speakers, readers and writers.

And we may just give them something of a head start in life's frenzied game of Monopoly.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, where he teaches English

What else?

Primary spoken language

Bluerose has shared useful speaking and listening resources for use with primary pupils

Secondary spoken language

TES English has produced material for covering the spoken language module (AQA) in the spoken language collection

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