Against ‘Pupil-Friendly’ Language

Last November, I blogged on the challenges we face when it comes to the limited vocabulary among our pupils. I wrote about how this may impact on reading ability and the identified correlations with poverty. Here, I look at vocabulary again, with a focus on how we adapt our language for teenagers. I believe that simplifying our language is contributing to this Great Word Drought.

My daughter is two. She’s a typical two-year-old and coming out with tens of new words every day. Every parent likes to marvel at the language acquisition of his/her child; it’s incredible to witness. My toddler come out with utterances that make me stop in my tracks and think, ‘where did she learn that?!’ She’s limited at this age, though, when it comes to processing complex instructions and she don’t always understand everything that we explain to her. Her phonological realisation isn’t fully developed either and so she’s hard to understand. Despite all this, I don’t adapt my language for her. I don’t simplify anything. Conversations with her are remarkably complex both in terms of grammar and vocabulary. She is processing new words, acting on instructions, echoing words and contracting words. I continue to speak to her in full, unabridged English and she continues to acquire new words and structures every day. She learns through total immersion and exposure.

Why is it, then, that when children reach their teens, we feel that we need to introduce ‘child-friendly’ language? This happens a lot at secondary. It has been an approach taken since I started teaching and evidently prior to then. I argued with our local-authority advisor against ‘child-friendly’ APP grids, about 10 years ago. The resources available online often feature ‘child-friendly’ documents. I have lesson-observation feedback forms with advice to ‘consider adapting your language – you speak like they’re much older!!!’ (original punctuation).

So, we adapt it, we change it, we water it all down and we wonder why our students can’t reach the top grades at GCSE level, for which they need to have an extensive and ambitious vocabulary. If we are to support our pupils in developing and retaining knowledge of these words, they need to be exposed to extensive and ambitious vocabulary. If they’re learning English as a second or additional language, they need to be exposed to extensive and ambitious vocabulary. If they had low prior attainment, they need to be exposed to extensive and ambitious vocabulary. Every group on your target list, every child you’re tracking, every single child deserves to have access to this language. By simplifying language, we’re lessening each child’s opportunity to do well. The phrase ‘dumbing-down’ actually applies more to the impact on the pupils, rather than the language itself.

Another issue I take with the watering-down of our language is that we actually alter meaning when we simplify words. Consider the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Stevenson describes the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde. The word ‘transformation,’ for some of my students, was a challenge. I explained what it meant. One Y10 boy asked, “why don’t you just say that he ‘changed,’ Miss? It means the same thing.” Actually, it doesn’t. A transformation is significant. There’s an implication of it being more pronounced than just a ‘change.’ Traffic lights ‘change.’ Jekyll transforms.

It’s not an easy journey. I’m not suggesting that you just stop altering and simplifying and Hey Presto! Their vocabularies instantly expand. Some words need teaching. A look of puzzlement at a word can indicate that you need to teach them what it means. Then use it again and again. It takes time, repetition and embedding across the school. Of course words need to be explained, explored and teased apart. It needs to be done early – as early as possible. Over time, we’ll see the transformation take place.