Earlier this week I was marking a piece of imaginative writing by a year 7 student. The sentence that sparked my thinking was “…and that was when Chris started to rob”. As a class we had a long conversation about the words “rob” and “steal” the nuances of word use and why perhaps “…and that was when Chris started to steal” might be a better word choice for that sentence.
This reminded me of some conversations I had with students about words and word use. It was during one of my PGCE placements and I was looking at teaching idioms and figurative language to EAL students, within the auspices of War Poetry and Romeo and Juliet. I wrote up the conversations in great detail at the time because I loved them so much. Below are some of my favourites:
Asking questions about words:
The extract below shows a typical example of a classroom exchange on how definition and meaning creation are often implicitly linked and need to be made explicit (it also shows some of my very early mistakes in questioning as a beginner teacher!):
Teacher LE: Queen Mab is described as no bigger than a stone of someone’s finger (.) What do you think that means?//
Pupil J: //What is (.) agate (.) stone?//
Pupil ZS: //The stone is (.) big (.) on the finger.//
Teacher LE: If a stone is (.) sitting on the end of my finger (.) do you think it is big (.) or small?
Pupil MI: [Small]
Pupil J: [Big]
Pupil N: [Small]
Teacher LE: //So Queen Mab is described as small enough to sit (.) on the end of a finger (.) what sort of creation is she?//
Pupil J: // Small//
Pupil MH: //Is she an (.) insect?//
Pupil N: //A germ.//
Teacher LE: So you’re not far off (.) If she is that (.) small (.) where can she go?
Pupil MH: //Everywhere//
Playing with words:
In her discussion of the benefits of multilingualism, Ophelia Garcia states “It is as if bilingualism provides x-ray vision, allowing the children to conceptualise underlying structures and to incorporate them into one functioning communicative system.” (Garcia, 2009, p95)
This examples below are taken from a lesson where pupils used language from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ to create their own poetry. Pupils had at this point not read the poem and were free to create interesting word combinations using a list of words taken from the poem.
Pupil MI: Anger stuttering in my brain
Pupil MS: My (.) brain (.) mind full (.) of stuttering anger
Pupil J: Innocent (.) candles (.) shine (.) wailing goodbyes.
Pupil N: Rapid hands draw silent stuttering (.) prayers
Pupil F: Monstrous (.) eyes (.) glimmer from (.) demented minds
Pupil ZS: Silent (.) tenderness (.) who call (.) now (.) for death.
Pupil N representing contribution made by non-participant pupils, reveals a relatively standard (although very poetic) response to the task. The combination of rapid with hands and silent with stuttering and prayers do not create for the reader atypical images. By comparison, although the combination of innocent with candles and wailing with goodbyes are again relatively standard, the overall image created by Pupil J (“innocent candles shine wailing goodbyes”) is much more vivid. Pupil ZS’s contribution of “silent tenderness who call now for death” again produces a much deeper response from the reader; there are several possible inferences and interpretations. The idea is more playful, although the image itself is anything but.
Written homework by Pupil MI revealed a continuation of this idea:
These guns shout sad words
Shells likes voices of hopeless.
Language is not fixed, it is fluid; additions and subtractions, manipulations and inventions are commonplace. The contributions made by multilingual pupils in the above lesson enhanced and increased the learning of all in the classroom. Their ability to play with words, to not see meaning as entirely fixed, allowed monolingual pupils the opportunity see the process by which deeper layers of meaning are created.
Finding your own interpretation:
Pupils discussing metaphors in two different texts were markedly more confident and creative at suggesting meanings after they had themselves written metaphors using the text. The below is inspired by Romeo’s metaphor ‘Juliet is the sun’.
Teacher LE: Lets (.) lets hear (.) some of your metaphors
Pupil N: Juliet (.) is a (.) rose//
Pupil MI: // Juliet is a (.) riped (.) ripe (.) apple tree
…returning to the text:
Teacher LE: So (.) that means Juliet is?//
Pupil MI: //That (.) Juliet is (.) like the sun for him (.) Romeo (.) because the sun is (.) at the (.) beginning of the world//
Teacher LE: //at the beginning?//
Pupil MI: //I mean (.) in the middle of the (.) the earth goes around it (.) it is important (.) we cannot live without it//
The above exchange shows, participant pupils writing metaphors based on “Juliet is the sun”. Following this task, pupils then move on to discuss possible meanings for Romeo’s metaphor. After some thought, Pupil MI explains that Juliet is the centre of Romeo’s world and he cannot live without her. As a result of this comment, pupils then continued to suggest a wide variety of other meanings for the metaphor, thus exploring deeper layers of meaning.
In comparison, the exchange below shows pupils’ discussion of metaphorical language in ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Appendix Five). At this stage, pupils had not explored the text beyond standard comprehension tasks.
Pupil MS: What is froth (.)
Teacher LE: It’s like foam (.) when a dog has rabies it’s mouth (.)
Pupil ZS: The lungs have foam? [Like] poison?
Teacher LE: [Yes] (.) Could it suggest (.) anything (.) else
Pupil MI: They have (.) disease//
Pupil F: //Like (.) rabies
Pupil MI: He (.) isn’t (.) Wilfred Owen (.) means only (.) that
The above exchange reveals pupils struggling to find meaning beyond that which is provided by the teacher. Pupil MI eventually concluding that “Wilfred Owen means only that”, this pupil is unable to conceive of any meaning beyond that which has been provided. The approach which invites pupils to clarify meaning and yet not explore it or use language creatively resulted in the pupils stagnating in their ability to find deeper layers of meaning from the text. Unlike the prior occasion, pupils here were not given the opportunity to use the language of text creatively and as a result, were limited in their ability to create meaning from the text.