A Student’s Thesaurus

Gabriella Gruder-Poni writes about her experiences as a PGCE (i.e. trainee) teacher in English in an article called ‘The Reader Gets Angry‘. She describes the repeated opposition she encountered from fellow teachers when attempting to teach students about areas of knowledge unknown or without immediate to relevance to them. Gabriella becomes isolated as she tries to introduce new material to her students: for example, another teacher criticizes her for mentioning Leonardo da Vinci on a worksheet because a student ‘won’t have heard of the 1500s or of Leonardo’.

Gabriella concludes that her state school suffered from a ‘poisonous combination of classism and anti-intellectualism’. The teachers assumed students wouldn’t or couldn’t grasp anything not already familiar to them. Topicality rules. I’ve heard similar stories from state-school teachers in English and other subjects who speak warmly of teaching, but feel disillusioned at schools as learning environments. I’ve been told several times that students aren’t challenged or appreciated as individuals. Gabriella writes that:

I eventually came to suspect that the real reason for the banishment from the classroom of anything that smacked of culture was the lack of interest not among students but among teachers. For the students, especially the younger ones, regularly showed themselves to be curious about subjects other than gadgets and celebrities, giving the lie to the teachers’ assertions that times past and distant places were ‘inappropriate’ material for lessons.

I’ve written before that I don’t think Shakespeare is for everyone, but I’m still very sympathetic to Gabriella’s experiences. I admire Gabriella’s stand on seeking to develop students’ curiosity for new ideas. I’m struck by how the teachers she encountered took relevance and familiarity to be synonymous: a subject is relevant if the student is already familiar with it. So ‘gadgets and celebrities’ are in, and other cultures, other ways of thinking are out. This seems a logical fallacy. There are always topics that are unfamiliar but have hidden relevance. I believe that it’s fundamentally a good thing to reach out to something new and seek to understand it because the process fosters tolerance, open-mindedness and curiosity. ‘Relevance’ becomes an issue when deciding which new topics to teach: that’s why British students tend (if they learn any language) to learn French or German, not Malay or Sanskrit, though all of these languages would bring pedagogical benefits to all students. One reason that Shakespeare is still read so often and still placed on school curricula is that for centuries people have empathized with the basic sense of humanity that radiates from his works, and still do.

Her frustration with vocabulary teaching is exemplary. Having read her article in another source (a college alumni magazine), I know that the series that enraged Mr F— is called Wordly Wise, which looks like a reliable method to learning new words. The main arguments against learning complicated, polysyllabic vocabulary is that it’s unfamiliar and irrelevant: the students won’t know the words, and they don’t need to know them. You might well ask why students who’ll never use or hear words like ‘spurious’, ‘reiterate’ or ‘apocryphal’ should be made to learn them. These words are just used to sound smart, right? Here’s Gabriella again:

‘They’ll never need those words’, never need words like ‘assail’, ‘assimilate’, ‘mishap’ or ‘ostentatious’. Why not? Didn’t he expect them to read and write? I began to suspect that my students’ woeful ignorance might be a consequence of attitudes like those of Mr. F—.

She’s right that if you don’t expose students to such vocabulary at school, then they’re less likely to encounter more texts that use them and so remain with the basic literacy skills to read, say, a tabloid newspaper but not much else.

There’s also an important argument to make about the larger purpose of language acquisition and usage. We don’t just learn difficult words so that we can write well: it’s usually best, as George Orwell tells us, to use the fewest and simplest words possible. But sometimes the simplest word will be ‘assimilate’ or ‘reiterate’. That’s because we use language to describe the world and make distinctions. ‘Red’, ‘yellow’, ‘green’ and ‘blue’ articulate primary colours that we see, but there’s a whole wide spectrum out there: vermillion, teal, cyan, magenta and many many others (and even more if we count Dulux neologisms like ‘Indian Ivy’ and ‘Summer Surprise’). There are many other word spectrums. ‘Gesticulate’ has a different shade of meaning to ‘point’, ‘waggle’, ‘gesture’ or ‘wave’. There’s an important moral difference between choosing the words ‘catastrophe’, ‘disaster’, ‘screw up’, ‘accident’, ‘error’, and ‘mishap’. I wouldn’t use the same word to describe losing £5 that I would to describe famine, just as I wouldn’t think that starvation and a lost takeaway meal are misfortunes of a similar scale.

A thesaurus (from a Latin word meaning ‘treasury, store-house’) helps a writer to locate just the right word in a given spectrum. Choosing words requires sensitivity and attention: just the sort of skills you learn by studying English, listening for different connotations and learning advanced vocabulary. Gabriella reports that she was scolded for overemphasizing dictionaries: they should apparently ‘only be used a last resort’. In fact, I think the impulse to look up any word you’re not sure about is one of the best habits you can learn from studying English. But if you suffer a ‘lack of faith in words’, as Gabriella puts it, then you’re not likely to appreciate the cognitive skills and mental agility to be learnt from studying new words and new literature.