This is an article about language, about two broad groups of people who use it. As a shorthand, let’s call them the word-rich and the word-poor.
First: the word-rich. This is you and me and people like us. It’s about those who – apparently effortlessly – can see inky words on a page or screen and decode them to make meaning, to see pictures, to understand ideas, and to enjoy stories. We routinely use vocabulary in both our speech and writing to express ourselves with precision and clarity.
We are the word-rich, and even the least confident of us will have ways of concealing our occasional linguistic anxieties. If there’s a word we’re uncertain about how to spell, such as "accommodation" or "fulfil", we’ll have a memory device, a mnemonic, to help us, or we’ll look it up, or we’ll simply substitute a different word with a similar meaning.
When we write we’ll avoid repetition of the same word because we learned that the repetition of the same word leads to clunky writing that is clunky because of the repetition of the same word. We’ll avoid doing so.
Language, culture and upbringing
As the word-rich, we’ll be able to read a book or article on a subject that’s familiar to us and scan it quickly, expertly, comparing what we’re reading now with our prior knowledge, simultaneously making decisions about what’s familiar, what’s novel, what’s true, what’s false.
You get the idea. We the word-rich will have habits of reading and writing and speaking and listening. We’ll have an idiolect – a personal repertoire of verbal mannerisms – that have accrued over the years and which help in part to define the people we are.
We’ll use language ourselves and be users of other people’s language. The result will be a self-confidence in being human, in being able both to interpret and express a view of the world and our relationship to it.
None of this is about intelligence. It’s about language, and culture, and upbringing, and power.
Then there’s the word-poor. This is the child who doesn’t hear conversations much at home, who doesn’t get read to, for whom books aren’t a feature of the family landscape, and for whom the world of primary and secondary school is marked by people talking in ways you haven’t heard much before, using words that may often be unfamiliar.
It isn’t about intelligence. It’s about linguistic and cultural opportunities – or the lack of them.
My obsession with the worlds of the word-rich and the word-poor goes back a long time. It’s rooted in my university reading of sociologist Basil Bernstein and my more recent awareness of Robert K Merton’s The Matthew Effect which in essence teaches us that while the word-rich get richer the word-poor get poorer. Linguistic success begets success in many areas. It gives access to the discourse of the powerful.
All of this surfaced again this week when, at the Association of College’s inspiring national conference, I heard first-hand what we do to those young people who struggle to gain basic skills in language – in particular, as readers and as writers.
These are the students who after 11 years of being taught by committed, hard-working teachers, across schools and across subjects, then arrived on GCSE results day to find that they’ve gained a grade 3 in English. Their peers achieving their standard pass (grade 4) or strong pass (grade 5) will have seen doors of opportunity open. The higher their grade, the more significant those doorways into their future will prove.
But with a grade 3, our culture appears then to want to rub their nose firmly in a sense of underachievement by insisting upon a mandatory conveyor belt of resit after resit.
GCSE resit re-think
And, of course, we want students to have the chance to resit their GCSE if that’s the best option for them. But what I heard from teachers and principals and parents and students this week was the devastating effect the mandatory resit requirement can have on some. There were stark concerns about young people’s mental health, stories of students being physically sick at the thought of further failure in an English or maths resit, of teachers doing their stoical best in a system not of their making.
That’s why a new approach is needed, one with more flexibility – a GCSE resit in maths or English if that’s the best qualification to open doors into a young person’s future; or a better, employer-backed functional skills package that enables every young person to finish their formal education with a qualification that commands respect, one that demonstrates a young person’s basic skills in the areas of English and maths that matter.
We need to do something because the current prescription of "more of the same" leads to a GCSE resit "failure" rate of around 75 per cent. This is bad for teachers, for parents and, chiefly, for the young people repeatedly branded unsuccessful.
We the word-rich know the way language empowers us. Those without such language confidence look to us to make it happen for them.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton