Latent meaning

18th November 2005 at 00:00
James Woodcock uses vocabulary as a tool to help Year 10 students improve their causal reasoning

Everyone has moments during their education when something clicks and suddenly makes sense. I remember my GCSE history teacher using the word "latent" to describe the tensions in pre-revolution Russia. This was a revelation: I had never encountered the word before, but, more interestingly, the ideas it contained were also new to me. With this word, the idea that historical events could be explained in ways other than a simplistic, linear chain of events started to make sense.

As a result of working with Year 10 students on the causes of the Second World War, I have come to believe that articulate vocabulary is not simply a gloss to improve the appearance of students' work, but a fundamental tool with which to develop conceptual understanding: words are tools, not just for speaking and writing, but also for thought and developing new ideas.

True historical understanding requires a grasp of concepts such as causation, and change and continuity, which help us to explain circumstances, events and processes. In order to develop students'

understanding of the Second World War, I experimented with providing them with new vocabulary, which they would not otherwise have known or chosen to use.

The causes of the Second World War are complex, and if students thought only in terms of "One cause was... Another cause was...", their understanding would remain superficial.

Instead, I wanted to exploit the analytical power of vocabulary to help students to understand and express the complexity. By encouraging them to consider the deep, varied meanings and implications of words, I hoped to introduce new ideas, new ways of thinking about events, and new means of expressing subtle, precise ideas.

"Latent" is a good illustration. Dictionary definitions refer to "potential" or "dormancy", valuable ideas in the context of causation.

"Latent" suggests longer-term chronological positioning, slow development followed by a release of tension, and dependence upon other factors to become an active cause. Depending on the context, "latent" might also suggest something ominous, sinister, brooding, or, conversely, a sense of hope and optimism. Students using words such as "latent" to reflect upon and analyse events in an informed manner would have a more sophisticated understanding, and their resulting oral and written work would be better history.

This last point can't be overemphasised. In history, we know that assessment of students' written work is not about style for the sake of appearances, or ticking a box every time a clever word is used. The language enabled - and was integral to - students' analyses, but it was the analysis which I was assessing.

In planning my lesson sequence, I first needed to decide on the success criteria for an analysis and explanation of a causal process. These are familiar to history teachers: selection of evidence; categorising evidence into broader factors; explanation of how a particular point answers the question; explaining links between events and themes to reveal interaction; deciding upon a hierarchy of causes; and drawing a substantiated conclusion. The sequence, taught to a mixed-ability Year 10 class, led to the essay: "'Hitler was not to blame for the Second World War.' To what extent do you agree with this statement? Explain your answer."

The most important lesson came towards the end of the sequence, and was based around the question, "Was it really the straw that broke the camel's back?", for which I adapted Arthur Chapman's analogical tale of Alphonse the Camel (see details at the end), a proud camel with a birth defect, a cruel owner, a gruelling job and unhelpful friends, who died in predictable fashion. I am particularly grateful to Arthur Chapman and Alphonse, whose sad demise was the inspiration for these lessons. Students identified as many causes of Alphonse's death as possible, and we then discussed what this simple list did not explain: chronology, pace of events, connections between causes, and their relative importance. A worksheet with a wide range of words which could be used to express precisely these ideas was then introduced. Students considered and discussed what these words actually implied in an historical context, and then used them to analyse and explain Alphonse's death with this greater sophistication, improving their explanations through self-reflection, peer review and teacher questioning.

In the preceding lessons, students had gradually been exposed to different forms of historical causation and the vocabulary needed to analyse and explain the process. We examined the motivations of individuals (eg Hitler), reactions to circumstances (eg the Japanese invasion of Manchuria), rationalised decisions (eg appeasement), more spontaneous chain reactions (eg the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash) and so on. Each type of causation requires different words: economic events might be "triggered"

or "precipitated", an individual might be "influenced" or "motivated".

I used card sorts, debates, decision-making activities, worksheets where causal webs were to be drawn between events and written tasks requiring explicit causal explanations, in order to develop students' understanding of the ideas and events themselves and the broader causal process. From lesson to lesson I gradually increased the conceptual complexity, moving from identifying reasons to explaining how they were causes, then explaining how these factors influenced each other and analysing their relative importance.

At the same time, I introduced students to increasingly sophisticated language with which to analyse the causal process they were unravelling.

For example, students were required to categorise the events and factors which led to Hitler's foreign policy into those which "motivated" his actions or "facilitated" them.

Alphonse was introduced after this series of lessons, when we specifically focused in depth on the analytical power of language. This lesson saw a culmination both of the various causal concepts we had been examining and the language used to analyse them. We could then move on to use the same analytical tools to review the causes of the Second World War as a whole.

I have subsequently extended language work to other historical concepts and topics, and to all year groups. What has been particularly noticeable is the enthusiasm with which students of all ages and abilities have played with the words (eg, "The Treaty of Versailles bred an ingense hatred...") or devised their own phrases (eg, "Hitler took advantage of appeasement"). One Year 7 student taught by a trainee even argued that a particular cause of the Battle of Hastings was not merely important but "necessary"!

Those with weaker literacy or powers of explanation have been greatly motivated to hear themselves sound more like articulate historians, even if only using simpler words. For the more able, focusing on the sophistication and precision of their language has proved a great way of pushing them into deeper thought and analysis. Sophisticated vocabulary is becoming part of the everyday language of the history classroom as students become increasingly confident, and, most importantly, discriminating and accurate, in its use. As they do so, they can only become better historians.

l James Woodcock writes about these ideas in the Historical Association's magazine, Teaching History (issue 119, June 2005). http: home.htm

He also recommends: "Camels, diamonds and counterfactuals: a model for causal reasoning", by A Chapman, Teaching History 112; Thought and Language by L Vygotsky (1986); The Language Instinct by S Pinker (1995); In Defence of History by RJ Evans (1997); What Is History? by EH Carr (1984) James Woodcock is a history teacher at Cottenham Village School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Cambridgeshire

Word mats

In order to extend how I use language work in the classroom, I developed laminated "word mats" with extensive lists of words for a range of historical concepts and methods of analysis, including "Cause and Consequence"; "Chronology and Timing"; "Relative Importance"; "Change and Continuity"; "Comparison, Similarity and Difference"; "Typicality"; "Historical Significance"; "Historical Interpretations"; "Reliability and Utility"; "Confirming and Contradicting". I use the mats with any year group, at any point in a lesson for almost any purpose. I have found them most useful when helping students to define and develop an understanding of a particular concept, to illustrate the type of analysis required for different types of questions, or for peer and self-assessment tasks, such as redrafting. Other uses include competitive games built around the idea of using the words in debate or discussion, or the mats are simply made available for reference when writing or discussing.

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