When food is the sauce of learning

20th February 2015 at 00:00
Give pupils a taste of language analysis with a generous helping of `spag bol' words

Complex language analysis is a difficult sell for a class of restless students. But food? Now that's an easier product to shift: teenagers have hugely disparate interests but hunger will always be a common denominator. So, to teach the former, I adopt a strategy involving the latter.

The task is to show students just how much time a writer spends agonising over choice of words; searching for the perfect word to encompass the specific trait of a character or place, for example. This helps pupils to more readily understand the purpose and effect of word choice. By opting for "scurried" instead of "stamped", an author clearly communicates the feelings of a character, but how can you get your students to grasp that? Well, in my classes this is known as a "spag bol" word.

When a cook is preparing spaghetti bolognese, they will select certain ingredients. Each of these is cooked for the required amount of time before the chosen liquid is added (in my case, red wine and Worcester sauce are crucial). The heat is then reduced, the lid is put on and the bolognese is cooked slowly for a couple of hours. When the lid is removed, the level of sauce has reduced, making its taste much stronger and more concentrated.

I explain to my class that the process is the same when an author is writing a text, but their ingredients are verbs, adjectives, punctuation, adverbs and nouns. These are put on to a page in much the same way as the bolognese ingredients are put into a pan. The author then edits and refines these choices until they believe they have selected the best possible words and phrases. This takes time, like cooking the perfect bolognese. But what is left at the end are words that are more intense, more concentrated, more penetrating. These are spag bol words.

My classes soon become extremely adept at spotting spag bol words, then brainstorming the reasons why they were chosen and analysing their effectiveness. Often these words are verbs or adjectives but they can just as easily be pronouns. We recently had a great discussion about Philip Larkin's use of the relative pronoun "that" in the phrase "That vase" from Home is so Sad.

I've also overheard a discussion between two pupils about J K Rowling's use of the word "waddled" to describe Dudley entering a room in the Harry Potter books. One boy said "waddled" suggested that Dudley was moving from side to side like a duck or a penguin, because "they're quite broad aren't they? A bit unbalanced, like Dudley would be because he's overweight."

The great thing about the skills developed through spag bol analysis is that they can so easily be transferred to many other subjects. Most topics have "key words" that we are desperate for pupils to know how to spell and use, and we also want children to understand their meaning and significance for the subject.

Zareena Huber teaches English at a school in North London

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