Magazine article NATE Classroom

Hoards and Hoards of Words

Magazine article NATE Classroom

Hoards and Hoards of Words

Article excerpt

Once upon a time when smoking dragons ruled the world and only the wisest of wizards or cunning bards could lure dragons from their piles of gold, there were few heroic children willing to risk all to steal wizards' tricks and bards' treasuries.

Any such children were those who went on to become successful advocates, leaders and negotiators. Such children were those who went on to become the Seamus Heaneys of this world; the John Agards and Grace Nicholses. They needed no fistfuls of magic keys to enchant the United Kingdom (or beyond). Rather they cultivated only small, slippery and scintillating creatures: words.

The colours of words

A simple diagram may illustrate some English teachers' difficulties:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

'Daylight' words are those we've known for a while and use routinely in our speech and writing. We are confident and comfortable with them but can't necessarily express all the fine details and nuances of our ideas and emotions with the vocabulary we've acquired so far. Some of us like to stick to these words to avoid making fools of ourselves but, in so doing, actually limit ourselves as well.

'Twilight' words are those that we've heard or seen but don't actually use in our speech and writing; however, we can recognise their meaning from context clues, from the shape or structure of the word itself, or by referring to other languages we know.

'Dark' words are those we don't know at all and can't decode. A superb dictionary contains 60100,000+ words; however, even superb speakers or writers may have only 30,000 words in their 'daylight' vocabulary! Sometimes, even with the aid of a good dictionary, we still can't grasp 'dark' words' denotations--let alone their connotations. And we certainly don't use them!

Therein lies the challenge.

Enfeeblement ... or empowerment?

It's up to us.

In many of the ancient creation myths, words (or, at least one word, 'fiat') were the vital forces from which sprang life itself. So what has happened to such a dynamic view of language?

Rarely these days is the classroom ethos for word acquisition the sterile, stale place it was in the 1950s when I was a primary pupil and when vocabulary lists came in tens and twenties (rather like my aunts' cigarettes, come to think of it, and just as unpleasant!): lists that one learned by rote; or when The Reader's Digest contained word lists because ... 'It pays to increase your word power!' Now, we frequently assert that we want our pupils to expand their language skills. But do we actively foster the climate where this learning becomes likely? And do we actually believe that what we're attempting with words in all lessons (not just English) is profoundly radical and affects self-esteem and life chances just as surely as oracy and literacy?

For example, do we tactfully ignore the word 'like' as it, like, sprouts like a fungus from the, like, woodwork of our language?

In the interest of political correctness and misguided courtesy do we 'listen the other way' when Tom says, 'You was smiling, Miss'?

Do we grit our teeth and wince when Michael uses the language of texting to boast in a descriptive essay about 'Y I am so gr8 on the footy field'?

Do we ignore the verbal bullies who jeer when their friends bravely test the taste of a new word on their tongues?

And, worse, do we leniently tolerate vagueness about punctuation and syntax--in ourselves?

If the answer to any of these questions is an uncomfortable nod, we may be robbing those we teach of education. Yes, 'education' means 'leading out', not 'holding back'.

Now, back to those dragons. Is it possible that we, in fact, are the dragons (smoking busily, like my relatives) sitting on the treasure troves? 'No way,' you assure me. Really? So when was the last time any of us made a show of awarding merits for bold attempts (especially in front of a large group) to experiment with 'twilight' words in an effort to express something subtle or complex? …

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