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Words apart from a Year 7 class

Teaching children is an art that's pretty new to me. But it's one that I am enjoying enormously.

There was a lot crammed into my PGCE course, and coming to grips with everything from the ever-changing national curriculum to detailed lesson planning, meant I did not pay enough attention to a crucial issue related to work in the classroom.

In those first few weeks of teaching, as I crossed from the adult world, I carried a lot of complicated vocabulary as baggage.

I was aware of that but an experience early in my first autumn term woke me up to the significance of the way we use words in the classroom.

The instance has since been a constant reminder of the folly of taking too much for granted and confusing a child with a single misplaced word.

I'm a biologist, and some things come naturally even among the quagmire of balanced science curriculums.

I was teaching a Year 7 class about fossils and had a few out on the front desk.

The students had looked and I had explained.

They were interested - aren't most 11-year-olds? - but without a frame of reference, a rocky shell-like thing from a world beyond imagination can seem intensely banal.

So I tried enthusing, talked about dinosaurs and, as will always happen when addressing experts, was corrected a couple of times. The moment came for a definition on the board - fossil would surely be an easy word to define now they'd looked at one.

And so I wrote: "The imprint of a long dead animal or plant preserved in rock."

A hand went up. Stephen, a bright, inquisitive boy who was always asking intelligent questions.

"Sir?" "Yes, Stephen."

"Do they have to be?" "I'm sorry Stephen, do they have to be what?" "Long, Sir?" I shook my head, flummoxed.

"What do you mean, long?" "Do the animals and plants have to be long?" Stephen was looking quite concerned by now, his point was obvious to him and, by the look of it, to many in the class.

I re-read what I'd written on the whiteboard and the penny dropped. After I'd recovered, I rephrased my definition to read: "The marks left behind in rocks by animals and plants which lived a long time ago."

Stephen was right of course. So many times in life it is the obvious and everyday which passes us by. Nor was I adequately prepared to think so carefully about the way I used language in the classroom. It wasn't something my college course was lacking - it can, in the end, only be learnt on the hoof.

Andrew Wright has been teaching for two years and works at Angley School, Cranbrook, Kent.

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