I was invited to speak to a group of school teachers and leaders who are part of the One Wakefield project, an intiative focusing on vocabulary and oracy development as a means to close the disadvantage gap and to improve pupil outcomes. Here's the first part of my keynote speech (parts 2 and 3 to follow!):
The extent to which you can communicate – to listen, to understand, to speak – affects every aspect of your life. Your oracy levels and the breadth and depth of your vocabulary can be make or break for you.
Think of all the circumstances when you need to use words in one way or another:
In your relationships – family life: your partners, your children, your parents. With your friends, acquaintances, colleagues...
In the world of work – to communicate our ideas, to get the best deal for ourselves, to share our vision... and as teachers, to stand – or sit - in the classroom (or in the sports hall, on the field, in the forest, or in the corridor because there’s no other space) – when you teach, you communicate.
We use words in our academic endeavours – you went to school yourselves, sixth form, college, university – can you imagine those places without communication? They wouldn’t exist – they couldn’t!
And communication isn’t all about work either. We need it when we play too. Think of all that you do to relax, unwind, take the load off after a long day at school. You engage with entertainment in its myriad forms, you enjoy your leisurely pursuits. You watch TV – communication. You listen to podcasts – communication. You read, you talk, you play sports, watch sports, play games – all of which to a greater or lesser extent rely on communication: even guttural grunts on the football pitch communicate something!
And when we’re not at work or enjoying ourselves, were doing the all important life admin – from the shopping to the mortgage application, buying train tickets to arranging new car insurance, it all relies on your communication skills.
And at the heart of so much communication lie words. Sure, we communicate so much non-verbally, but at the end of the day, when those lines of communication break down, its words that have the last... word. When a look is misconstrued; when a gesture is misunderstood; when a hug isn’t quite enough, it’s words that we turn to, to explain, to justify, to reason, to confide, to reassure, to comfort. Without words, and speech, and communication, it’s hard to imagine where we’d be.
The role of teachers and leaders is to unlock all of that, which perhaps we take for granted, for the children you work with, particularly the ones who come to you in the early years with very little language, very limited vocabulary, who are struggling to speak, finding it hard to understand what others are saying to them.
In a Foreign Country
Imagine being in a foreign country – many of you will be able to, because you will have had the privilege of a holiday abroad – imagine being there in that foreign country: everywhere you look are words you can’t read and people saying things you can’t interpret. You can’t communicate to the inhabitants of that country because you don’t know the language. Even those of us who’ve Duolingoed before heading on holiday, or who have the phrasebook to hand find it difficult. If we’re honest, the majority of us rely on the locals and their usually excellent grasp of English to get us by. Now imagine you’re not even in a lovely, hospitable environment where, even though the language is a barrier, you can still enjoy the sun, sand, ice-cream and cold cervajas/pivos/biers. Imagine you’re on your own, in a hostile environment, and you’re worried... scared... lost.
That’s what it can be like for some of the children we teach. In a word-rich environment, where spoken and written language is the currency, those children who lack a broad vocabulary and whose oracy skills are weak are the poorest citizens, unable to properly access education, work, entertainment and even aspects of their relationships. They don’t have that currency that makes so many of us so rich, and so able to walk through the doors of life.
The Language Barrier
We talk about ‘language barriers’ for a reason. When we have the words to understand what others tell us, to take in what we hear and to process it, to explain ourselves, to ask for what we need, to tell others what we know, to read the writing on the wall, and on the signs, and in the books, and on the webpages... when we have those words, we have the key, we have a way through the doors of life. When we don’t have those words we come up against barrier after barrier – locked doors, no entry signs, chasms we can’t cross, mountains we can’t climb.
Go back to your holiday. Think back to those friendly locals – the waiters, the bar staff, the Air BnB hosts, the tour guides – you appreciate them because not only do they serve you delicious food, hand you refreshing drinks and give you a place to stay in paradise, but because they also help you to overcome the language barrier due to their excellent language skills. Without them and their abilities, our holidays would be stressful and unrelaxing.
Giving Children The Key
And that’s the role you can fulfil for the children in your school who struggle to access so much of life because of how difficult they find communication and words. Now, all good analogies, just as with all good holidays, must come to an end. You are going to go much further than those kindly holiday helpers, because you are going to equip the children you work with – you are going to provide them with their own key to the door, you are going to give them the currency they need to navigate life successfully.
It might seem daunting to have to change your practices at school, or in your classroom. It might seem a lot to do, a lot to fit in, to make sure that children learn 1000s of new words and their meanings and how to use them, to embed talk across the curriculum, to teach dialogically, to ask more questions, to make sure that the curriculum is in place to incrementally introduce children to words and then refer back to them constantly.
There will be so many ways of improving vocabulary and oracy that you have come across in training sessions, visits to other schools, in books, articles and blogs. And it might seem overwhelming to think about actually getting back to school and implementing these approaches – that’s not to mention choosing the right ones, providing the training, supporting teachers in delivering them, monitoring and evaluating their use, and so on.
However, if you are serious about improving outcomes, and closing the gaps between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, about opening those locked doors and removing those barriers, then it is hard work worth doing.
The Matthew Effect
You may have heard of the Matthew effect. It’s named after a story that Jesus tells, recorded in the gospel of Matthew in the bible. In it, three people are given different sums of money which two of them invest. The one who is given the least money doesn’t invest it, instead they bury it. The ones who were better off initially become even more well off, whereas the one who has the least to begin with ends up with exactly what they started with. Although the story was originally told to illustrate a spiritual point, it has been used to describe the idea that, in many ways, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
This can be applied to money, popularity, relationships, and so on, however it can also be applied to literacy levels. If you are word rich, if you have a good vocabulary then you are likely to learn more words, thus growing your vocabulary. How is this so? It’s easy to see:
If you can read the majority of the words in a book, then you are more likely to come across new words and, one way or another, find out what that new word means, thus beginning the process of adding it to your vocabulary. If you couldn’t read that book in the first place, because your vocabulary was too limited, then you may never come across the new word. The more we have, the more we are able to get; the richer the vocabulary we posses, the more we will be able to add to it.
The same goes for communication and oracy too: if we can speak well, listen well, comprehend well, then, through the things we hear and the conversations we have, we are bound to learn more: we will notice the skills that great orators have, and employ them ourselves, we will come across new words, new ideas, new knowledge. It will open up so many doors for us.
That’s what we want for our children. Open doors. Barriers removed. But to do that for those who are at a disadvantage, we must make them rich in order for them to get richer. School is the perfect opportunity for them to be given those talents, to be given that currency, to be given that key. It’s hard work but it’s worth it. For pupils who, for whatever reason, are struggling with their communication skills, we can be those who bestow on them the richness that will eventually allow them to become richer and richer.
A Word Hoard
Old English poets speak of a word hoard – a collection of words stored in the mind, ready for retrieval at any time. In medieval times a hoard was a collection of wealth – gold, silver, jewels. A word hoard is a precious thing and when the old poets referred to it, they usually referred to unlocking it - a sure sign of its value but a reminder to us that, as educators, we can unlock the word hoard, and add many more priceless treasures to it.
And, the wealth that they gain won’t just be an overflowing word hoard. It will be a life enriched – a life where they can communicate with others, have fulfilling relationships, benefit from education, engage in entertainment and leisure pursuits and engage in rewarding work... and speak to their account about their tax return at the end of each year.