International Literacy Day, 8 September - Caught in a web of jargon

17th August 2012 at 01:00
Education is drowning in dodgy doublespeak and baffling buzz phrases. It's not big and it's not clever, writes Jo Knowsley

One of my earliest words was "why". I employed it often, much to the irritation of my teachers and parents, and I always demanded straightforward explanations. Most of the time I got them. If I didn't, I kept repeating the question until I was given an answer I could understand.

As a journalist, my job has been to tell stories simply, even when they are complicated by complex economic, historical or political arguments. The aim is to inform, sometimes to educate, and always to stimulate and entertain. Not too different from the role of an engaging and inspiring teacher, really, as I discovered when I began working in the world of education and embarked on a University of Cambridge TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course this year.

Imagine my confusion, then, when I encountered academia's rarefied jargon - words such as "taxonomies", "plenaries" and "phonemic awareness", dropped casually by teachers into everyday sentences. They are understood by colleagues but often mystify pupils and parents. English, I learned, could be a very foreign language indeed.

Teachers, of course, have been victims of the spread of academic jargon for quite some time. Indeed, schools seem caught in a pincer movement between the language of universities - often impenetrable - and the dreadful buzz phrases of business. (Everyone has a boss or colleague who has urged them to "think outside the box".)

So perhaps it's appropriate as we approach International Literacy Day, and with the two Michaels (Gove and Wilshaw) banging the drum for improved literacy in reading and writing, to ask ourselves precisely what language is designed to do. If the answer is to inform and educate, while improving and refining communication, then another revolution is needed: a war to purge the clutter from our language.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword sums it up neatly: "There is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be good writing and what academics typically produce and publish.

"I'm not talking about the kinds of formal strictures necessarily imposed by journal editors - but about a deeper, duller kind of disciplinary monotony, a compulsive proclivity for discursive obscurantism and circumambulatory diction (translation: an addiction to big words and soggy syntax)."

She quotes from children's book Charlotte's Web, by E.B.White, to reinforce her point. "`First,' said Charlotte, `I dive at him.' She plunged headfirst toward the fly . `Next, I wrap him up.' She grabbed the fly, threw a few jets of silk around it, and rolled it over and over, wrapping it so that it couldn't move."

Sword concludes: "If you substitute `reader' for `the fly' and `academic prose' for the spider's silk, you get a fairly accurate picture of how academic writers immobilize their victims."

When I began my three-month Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) course in May, we student teachers were immediately taught to "mind your language". The phrase "to mingle" was banned in favour of "stand up, please" for fear that our foreign students wouldn't understand. "Keep it clear," we were told. "Keep it simple."

Yet the language our tutors used to teach us was more complex. Words and vocabulary became "lexis", clarifying meaning was "concept checking", and getting students to volunteer their answers or information was dubbed "eliciting". There is a logic to some of this jargon. It just took a little learning.

Our assignments, however, were more traditionally in line with academic protocol and we had to source support for our views from academic journals and essays. It was not enough to write about why we agreed with an argument or concept; we had to select a quote from academia to prove it. These usually ran to five or six sentences (often, ironically, including published grammatical errors) to express something that most of us could have summarised in one. Why?

It's a debate that is apparently raging among academics - some of whom seem to want to lead us like linguistic lemmings over a cliff of verbal nonsense. "Too many professors seem to think that using unwieldy language makes them seem particularly clever," says one professor, who declined to be named. "The attitude seems to be that if they make it too easy to understand, it somehow diminishes their own standing and intellect. That's ridiculous, of course. But it is one very strong train of thought."

At the same time, popular academics who become television or newspaper stars because they use accessible language to present their knowledge - think historian Simon Schama, physicist Brian Cox and Robert Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London - are often derided by those who have never had such commercial success. But surely making wisdom accessible is the point of being an expert?

Academics are not the only offenders, of course. The English language is being mauled across all generations, and across the social and economic divide. And if it can be overblown and unwieldy, it can also be so brutally simplified that words lose their precision (think "less" versus "fewer", the abuses of "you're""your", and "literally", which now seems to be used only to add emphasis). Then there is the language of the business world and officialdom, which seems designed to obfuscate and confuse.

Consider the following piece of impenetrable prose, discovered on the internet, from a professor of English at New York University named John Guillory, writing about American literary critic Cleanth Brooks and the way that Brooks establishes and treats the formation of high literature.

One paragraph begins: "The elaboration for the ideology into such allusive structures yields up the new criticism to the service of the liberal pluralism which is the regnant ideology of the academy and which the pedagogy in no way contradicts."

What does it all mean? And where will it end? Perhaps Sir Michael Wilshaw will give us the answers. On the other hand, you could give this passage to your students in an English lesson and ask them to turn it into "text speak".


Key stage 1: Teaching teachers

Help pupils to improve in the Big Writing method by refreshing your teaching skills with a training presentation from Literacy Miss.

Key stage 2: Sparkling words

Get pupils writing super, splendid, scintillating sentences with dillsage's popular game.

Key stage 3: Testing, testing

EstJam's big grammar quiz could help your pupils to write clearly.

Key stage 4: Grammar test

Show pupils why spelling, punctuation and grammar are important with this entertaining PowerPoint by dognosh.

Key stage 5: Word search

Introduce language acquisition with TESEnglish's thorough lesson.

Find all links and resources at


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