Distilling the best out of words

Tharby-language-cultureImage: @jasonramasami

Discovering a weakness in our own teaching practice can result in one of two feelings (or a mixture of both). The first is one of utter frustration and overwhelming fatigue. I cannot bear to face this out – under the carpet it goes. The other – as sickeningly saccharine as it sounds – is to treat it as a gift. Bravo! Finally I’ve found something that I can work on. This week’s epiphany had me languishing closer to the former initially, but beginning to shift towards the latter after some thinking.

Here’s the context. A few months ago I wrote a post about challenge.

Its concluding paragraph read like this:

One final thought – forgive me if I am stating the bleeding obvious. I have come to the conclusion that challenge is almost entirely bound up in the way we immerse children in language. This might be the language we encourage students to read, write, speak and think in, along with the language we model through speech and the written word. Ultimately, if we raise the quality of language, we raise the challenge. Simple?

Looking back, the question mark after ‘simple’ was telling. I had a grandiose answer, but not a pragmatic one. I knew the problem, but not the solution.

After reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion this weekend, I got to considering two of the main strategies he advocates: ‘Right is Right’ and ‘Format Matters’. Essentially, ‘Right is Right’ is about holding out for the best answer in classroom dialogue, whereas ‘Format Matters’ is about insisting that students speak in full sentences with proficient grammar. It was only on Monday, during a class discussion with my year 10 group, that I realised how shamefully far away from this goal I have been for so long. The realisation was a tough one: for many years not only have I accepted sloppy speech patterns from my charges, not only have I regularly settled for half-complete answers but I have also prided myself on being skilled at leading question and answer sessions!


This uncomfortable insight has led me to a broader reflection. As an English teacher, words are my medium; my students will rise and fall depending on their ability to distil language into the best form they possibly can. This must begin in the dialogue I elicit in my classroom, but should extend further into other areas of pedagogy. It is the language culture of an English classroom that matters and this, I am starting to believe, is more important than any innovative, fly-by-night teaching strategy. It is the root, the bone, the beating heart of what I must do.

But how? First, it is a shared, guided process. Students will not progress if left to acquire sophisticated language by themselves; similarly, I cannot expect them to become the kings and queens of grandiloquence merely by lending an ear to my silver-tongued sermons. Second, it involves cutting the pace of my lessons and an acceptance that the growth and protection of a classroom culture is equal in importance to covering lesson content. And last of all, it will only be through deliberate and sustained practice that I can make it happen – I think it will take a year to make it so.

In a nutshell, this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Yes, that war is repetitive and inevitable, like the tide.

Becomes this:

Teacher: What does the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggest to us about the poet’s opinion of war?
Student 1: That war goes back and forward.
Teacher: Back and forward – how might you rephrase that?
Student 1: It’s repetitive like the sea.
Teacher: So war is?
Student 1: Repetitive too.
Teacher: Now as a full sentence. The phrase…
Student 1: So, the phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is inevitable because the sea never stops.
Teacher: Who can take this insight a little further?
Student 2: War is like nature; we cannot avoid it.
Teacher: Good. Can anyone help her with a better version of ‘cannot avoid it’?
Student 3: Inevitable?
Teacher: Okay, fire away in a full sentence.
Student 3: The phrase ‘ebbing tide’ suggests that war is repetitive and like the tide it is an inevitable part of nature that we cannot avoid.
Teacher: Good. Let’s write that sentence up.

I know that it will take time for students to learn how to respond to my cues and prompts, but once the groundwork is done this might well provide richer pickings than I have ever been able to offer before. Most beautifully of all, it should not add to planning time at all.

The ultimate aim will be to make refining and redrafting part of the fabric of classroom life. This culture will be supplemented through other strategies that I have already made headway with such as ‘live’ co-constructed writing, paired writing, Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, regular redrafting/editing of written work and allowing students more thinking and ‘mental rehearsal’ time.

The missing link, however, has been embedding this process further up the chain when ideas are first uttered in words. My new focus, I hope, will provide the missing link between speech and writing I have long been looking for.

5 thoughts on “Distilling the best out of words

  1. Pingback: Edssential » Distilling the best out of words

  2. Pingback: TLC – Verbal Feedback (2) | drowningintheshallow

  3. Pingback: A directory of my posts on teaching writing | Reflecting English

  4. Pingback: TLC – Verbal Feedback (2) – drowningintheshallow

  5. Pingback: Content, thinking and shaping: three principles for working with brighter students | Reflecting English

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