Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

International Literacy Day, 8 September - Caught in a Web of Jargon: Resources

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

International Literacy Day, 8 September - Caught in a Web of Jargon: Resources

Article excerpt

Education is drowning in dodgy doublespeak and baffling buzz phrases. It's not big and it's not clever, writes Jo Knowsley.

One of my earliest words was "why". I employed it often, much to the irritation of my teachers and parents, and I always demanded straightforward explanations. Most of the time I got them. If I didn't, I kept repeating the question until I was given an answer I could understand.

As a journalist, my job has been to tell stories simply, even when they are complicated by complex economic, historical or political arguments. The aim is to inform, sometimes to educate, and always to stimulate and entertain. Not too different from the role of an engaging and inspiring teacher, really, as I discovered when I began working in the world of education and embarked on a University of Cambridge TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) course this year.

Imagine my confusion, then, when I encountered academia's rarefied jargon - words such as "taxonomies", "plenaries" and "phonemic awareness", dropped casually by teachers into everyday sentences. They are understood by colleagues but often mystify pupils and parents. English, I learned, could be a very foreign language indeed.

Teachers, of course, have been victims of the spread of academic jargon for quite some time. Indeed, schools seem caught in a pincer movement between the language of universities - often impenetrable - and the dreadful buzz phrases of business. (Everyone has a boss or colleague who has urged them to "think outside the box".)

So perhaps it's appropriate as we approach International Literacy Day, and with the two Michaels (Gove and Wilshaw) banging the drum for improved literacy in reading and writing, to ask ourselves precisely what language is designed to do. If the answer is to inform and educate, while improving and refining communication, then another revolution is needed: a war to purge the clutter from our language.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Helen Sword sums it up neatly: "There is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be good writing and what academics typically produce and publish.

"I'm not talking about the kinds of formal strictures necessarily imposed by journal editors - but about a deeper, duller kind of disciplinary monotony, a compulsive proclivity for discursive obscurantism and circumambulatory diction (translation: an addiction to big words and soggy syntax)."

She quotes from children's book Charlotte's Web, by E.B.White, to reinforce her point. "'First,' said Charlotte, 'I dive at him.' She plunged headfirst toward the fly ... 'Next, I wrap him up.' She grabbed the fly, threw a few jets of silk around it, and rolled it over and over, wrapping it so that it couldn't move."

Sword concludes: "If you substitute 'reader' for 'the fly' and 'academic prose' for the spider's silk, you get a fairly accurate picture of how academic writers immobilize their victims."

When I began my three-month Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) course in May, we student teachers were immediately taught to "mind your language". The phrase "to mingle" was banned in favour of "stand up, please" for fear that our foreign students wouldn't understand. "Keep it clear," we were told. "Keep it simple."

Yet the language our tutors used to teach us was more complex. Words and vocabulary became "lexis", clarifying meaning was "concept checking", and getting students to volunteer their answers or information was dubbed "eliciting". …

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