Further to James’ excellent opinion piece on literacy last week, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the successes and challenges of our current drive for expert communication across subjects at DHSB.
I was delighted with the emphasis that James placed upon enthusiasm in teachers’ approaches to literacy issues. I’d like to extend that to our students: fuelling a sense of curiosity and interest in language must be the starting point for renewing a focus on communication. But how to achieve such lofty aims? If I use acronyms and hashtags in learning objectives, my literacy ambassadors reliably inform me I’ll swiftly switch my students off. Attempting to elucidate the nuances of the term ‘swag’ is just as likely to fail spectacularly (or should that be ‘epically’?).
In order to engender a buzz around language, I’m convinced that we need to enable access to ‘expert’ language, rather than presume that our students will reject that which fails to engage with their social rhetoric. Hence the arrival of our first ‘juicy words’ collection to the English department this year. In its current manifestation, this consists of a steadily growing collection of words, written on to one of our classroom windows. What is compelling about this collection of keywords is that it has been created solely by Year 8 students.
In order to engage my Literacy class with the important matter of using vocabulary that is ambitious and expressive, I suggested that each week our lesson should culminate in a sharing of ‘juicy’ words. These are the more nuanced adjectives (rambunctious, zealous), the potent verbs (discombobulate, bloviate) perhaps more esoteric nouns (qualm, euphoria)…
Two lessons in, and I had queues of students at the end of the lesson, refusing to go home until they’d told me about their juicy word. This was Friday period 5. Students began to stop me in the corridor to share lexical gold discovered in other lessons and terms brought in to class began to be debated as we made connections through common root words, prefixes or suffixes. Furthermore, of course, we had to determine what actually constituted a ‘juicy’ word; this remains a hotly debated topic.
This has been a joyously simple but productive strategy in engaging students with the diversity that language offers them. What works so well is the way that, rather than being apathetic or even disheartened by unfamiliar vocabulary, students are embracing it as a challenge – a potential for originality in the juicy words vote and therefore an opportunity to gain a space on the window pane. The interest that these simple blue scrawls have garnered in one classroom alone demonstrates that students do have a genuine interest in expanding their communication; the words form the basis for conversations and musings, for starters and plenaries (form a persuasive sentence using 1 juicy word, mime a juicy word etc.) but, most importantly, for empowering our students to take ownership of that which may have seemed esoteric beforehand.
Teacher of English and Media Studies