Education for All Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Reflections on Acquiring and Using Language

A warm welcome to Nick Pepin as a guest contributor on the website. During his career, he gained a national reputation in all aspects of learners’ language development. He has written this intriguing post in a personal capacity.

Nick Pepin

Early professional experiences

When I embarked on my career in education as a newly qualified teacher, I was particularly interested in language development and enthused by The Primary Memorandum and the writings of Margaret Donaldson and Noam Chomsky. This enthusiasm then bumped into the reality of the serried rows of 40+ children in a composite Primary 6/7 class in an inner-city primary school in Glasgow, each of whom was equipped with a copy of Angus McIver’s ‘First Aid in English’. I reflect on this now in a manner I didn’t then, the ways in which ideas are tempered by realities and the dynamics in resolving such tensions.

< ‘Meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat. > (George Carlin)

Of course, Primary 6/7 wasn’t really a starting point for anyone in that classroom other than myself. The children were now 10 or 11 years of age and had proceeded through classes from Primary 1. None had experienced pre-school education. Some had progressed well in their acquisition of language skills while others had not. All but a tiny handful had the same ‘First Aid in English’ as a text book. Three or four attended what was referred to as ‘Remedial’ a few times a week for help with their reading using the Griffin Pirate Readers. These children, who made little progress, and a good number more were struggling to achieve a level of competence which would allow them to access much of the curriculum in secondary education. Complicating matters was the clear understanding the children had themselves of where they stood in relation to their classmates and in their confidence in reading. Listening, talking and writing were similarly stratified but much less openly. Over the years this feature would remain the case while more differentiated reading schemes even more noticeably identified who was doing well and who wasn’t. This seemingly clear view of where each child was in relation to reading – and thus to language more generally was also evident to parents and carers. “What level is Alex on now?” was almost always a leading question.

Points to ponder

For many teachers the effects of poverty are evident every day and they struggle to compensate. Children who are underfed and poorly nourished do not learn as well. Breakfast clubs, free school meals and other mitigations, where available, help but the impact of uncertainties over such basics as food, clothing and accommodation are hugely damaging. Parents who labour with such problems are often unable to interact meaningfully with their children including by providing models for language development.

When I stand back from this partial picture of my first months as a teacher and use it as a backdrop to what I have seen and learned over the next 40 years of what key points strike me most and require consideration. These include the following.

  • Poverty and its attendance issues
  • The quality of interactions – listening and talking, behaviour and products
  • That children, especially when young, are always learning but not perhaps what we think or want, and this phenomenon has consequences
  • The huge importance of the early years in children’s lives for learning and the disparity in training, esteem and rewards for those working in early education
  • The expectations placed on schools and teachers
  • The quality of interrelationships across listening, talking, reading and writing
  • The impact of new technologies on language acquisition and use
  • The seemingly perennial problems over interfaces in the transition from early years to further and higher education
  • The importance of abilities in language in empowering citizens
  • The need to recognise how verbal language sits alongside other languages, e.g., mathematics, the arts and design.

Acquiring and using language

Setting aside for the moment formal tuition of the kind schools seek to provide, I believe that the key to language development from the earliest stages is the quality of interactions with someone who is more able in the use of language. Where this can be a person to whom the learner has a strong bond, the outcome is more powerful still. The provision through interactions of models of language whether in listening, talking, reading or writing is critical. Very young children, I believe, grow their vocabularies and how to use them by observing and replicating what they see those close to them doing. When, for example, the need to point to something they are interested in is replaced by the ability to ask for it, this represents a huge step forward. Where the models for such acquisition are plentiful and rich – including nuances of tone or alternative vocabulary – then progress is likely to be rapid, especially if opportunity, time and encouragement are present. When such modelling is neither present nor encouraged then progress will almost certainly be slow. It is interesting to consider how today the main models for spoken language – concerning hearing talking through listening – come via television or a computer-based technology where the nature of any interaction is very different from a traditional conversation or discussion. Children today are probably more used to listening to a variety of sources and media, often competing. It can be helpful where appropriate to specify a focus for listening. Similarly, when developing talking, sharing what has been heard in a focused way with referencing to points made by others can help discussion skills. Assisting learners to express themselves and to present their ideas is an important life skill. Again, children will benefit from positive models of listening and talking and from seeing that their contributions are valued.

Reading is something which many children do not witness. For adults to be seen reading in the home is rare. Even then, while the mechanics, the holding of the book, orientation, turning pages and so forth, can be observed only a few outward manifestations of the impact of reading – for example a smile of frown – can be seen. Functional reading may be more often seen than a longer text but is likely to be transitory. Again, the child from an advantaged home starts well ahead from one where in the midst of struggles to survive there is little time or money to provide models of behaviour or of products, books and texts of any kind.

The situation with reading is further complicated by the unique position it holds in the eyes of adults and children alike in delineating progress at school. The use of core reading schemes, of almost any kind, has pluses and minuses but one strength, which can also be a problem, is that it makes clear where the reader is, or seems to be, on the progression through the scheme. It Is the very stuff of many parent-parent chats, “Jack’s on Level 5 now” says the smiling mum to the neighbour whose child is carrying home Level 4. And children know it too of course. That progress isn’t usually on a simple steady gradient is well documented but again can cause concerns, specially where terms like ‘behind’ start to be used. Only today I encountered on Twitter comment from a newly qualified doctor from Cambridge saying how once she was described as being ‘behind’ with her reading.

There was a remark by Margaret Donaldson that, among many, impacted on me at the outset of my professional involvement in education and it was the idea that children, notably young children, are learning all the time and that, in a sense, this can’t be turned off. What they are learning is, of course, the key question. I have always railed at the idea that we specify aims and from these objectives then proceed to teach and that’s what is learned. I have no problem in trying to be clear as teachers what we hope children will learn so as better to plan how we’ll go about matters but what they learn may well be something different, even if our objectives seem to be met. Some of this can be delightful, for instance when a child notices a pattern in words that has not been part of the lesson. Sometimes children can bring to bear additional information from some extra experiences they have had. Making connections is hugely significant and good teaching will value contributions and use them, making explicit what might not be immediately clear to others. However, we need also to be aware that the child – compelled almost as they are – learns much else simultaneously. This can include how to appear engaged when they have drifted off to ‘dream’ or, to be kinder to them, reflect on and refine other aspects of their lives. They can learn that their ideas are readily welcomed or not. They discover that some of their peers are highly regarded while they are not, they seldom are asked to contribute, their ideas are laughed at, and so forth. Ascertaining their worth and standing in a learning context is a vital part of what children apprehend and this process is taking place from the very beginning. When they start to encounter ‘learning to read’ at school too many are not sustained in their image of themselves as likely successful readers.

Not all learning takes place within a school or pre-school setting. Those professionally employed as educators will have children who differ, often greatly, in the range and quality of prior experiences including with language. Some may have great richness, some considerable paucity, some may not have English as a first language and it may not be used at home. The challenge for the teacher – and here I use ‘teacher’ specifically as it relates most closely to the reality of almost all children – is therefore a daunting task in order to make an authentic difference.

I have used, witnessed, encouraged and inspected a range of approaches to early reading. I have read about some others and discussed methods with interested and sometimes expert people, from students to professors. I have never been a zealot – and such exist – for any particular approach rather seeing the crucial factors being the ability to have regular quality time for interaction on a text that matters to the learner. When the collaboration involves a skilled practitioner then the effect is enhanced.

In my consideration of language acquisition, I return time and time again to the importance of contexts. I believe that learning is quicker and longer lasting where the setting is meaningful to the learner and, ideally, engenders interest, commitment and pleasure. The drudgery of toiling through pages of worksheets and exercises is neither effective nor without collateral damage. I believe there are methods of teaching reading – or any aspect of language – which crush the desire ever to read, speak or write again.

While many of us who take a professional interest in education would argue for and strive to promote the use of language as a worthwhile pursuit, indeed a source of pleasure throughout a lifetime, we need to be careful to recognise that this may not be what everyone seeks. There are those who will not elect to read, write or engage in discussion, very often preferring perhaps other means of communicating such as art, movement, making music, or practical activities using their hands. We must see such choices as wholly valid.

Nonetheless, such is the central importance of verbal language that it behoves us as educators to do what we can to empower learners in its use so that the choice at least exists. Reading particularly is vital to learners as they progress through the tiers of education. A young person moving from primary to secondary school without a good level of reading ability is very likely to struggle with the texts upon which courses are based. Later in many further and higher education courses, especially in the humanities or social subjects – though these may today be decreasing – the ability to engage in discussion is an important ability.

Writing has always proved to be a problematic area. Talking through ideas, providing it is not overdone, can be a productive way of releasing ideas and building a desire to write. In engaging learners in writing, it is important that they have a sense of audience and purpose. Initially, of course, they are their first readers and where the teacher can so organise as to be able to interact meaningfully with the developing writer close to the point of writing then progress is maximised. Too often responses to writing in school regress to stock comments – “Too much use of and”, “Remember full stops” etc. – removed in time and relevance from the act.

Writing is an aspect where the creation of text was rarely witnessed by others and so the learner had no model of the process. When teaching, I would try to open up the activity by talking through as I wrote, amending ‘live’, and trying to engage the learners witnessing the procedure. This is difficult to accomplish or sustain in a class situation. Providing a range of written models is easier but many teachers still find that the pressures on managing a large class incline them to resort to published ‘schemes’. Working with learners on the nature of different texts is often replaced by written exercise-based chores. This is understandable but regrettable.

Contemporary innovations and future trends

In more recent times, technology has had a dramatic effect on language acquisition, notably I believe on writing and reading. When word-processing became possible, it greatly improved the opportunities for redrafting text, not simply making it look better but allowing the writer to reflect on it and formulate changes over time; a process which should allow for both a better piece of writing and an enhanced understanding for the writer. That this possibility is not well used in schools is unfortunate.

The coming of the misnamed mobile ‘phone’ has again impacted quite dramatically. I can still remember a teacher saying to me that children just didn’t write any more (not sure how much they ever did) and I’d arrived at the school via a train on which almost every young person was keying in text at a furious rate. The mobile has radically changed the nature of writing and consequently reading. For many, speech is infrequent on their mobile ‘phones’ having been replaced by messaging using one or more apps. The nature of this writing is very different with such features as predictive text and a host of abbreviations. Some of the language thus generated is already being absorbed into artistic forms as well as becoming widespread in business and social interactions. Little of this is taught. It is learned because of its context and relevance to those using it and the models peers provide. It is dynamic and fast in evolving. The young are usually more adept and I suspect that there are now more disputes over hashtags than the Oxford comma.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.”

(Four Quartets – T. S. Elliot)

Footnote: Nick Pepin taught for 10 years in primary schools in Glasgow, Cumbernauld, the Shetland Isles and Arrochar. He was Headteacher of three schools before becoming Lecturer in Primary Education at Jordanhill College of Education. His innovative staff development work, particularly in all aspects of language development, gained him a national reputation. He was a member of the committee which produced the national report on Education 10-14 and was a National Development Officer for the Primary Education Development Project

In 1990, Nick was appointed HM Inspector of Schools. During his 20 years with HM Inspectorate he held posts of responsibility for Early Years, Creative and Aesthetic subjects and as Depute Director of the Audit Unit. He drafted the report on The Education of Children Under Five in Scotland and led a European Commission project involving 9 countries on approaches to quality assurance in education. Latterly, he was District Inspector for North Ayrshire, Inverclyde and South Lanarkshire. He has inspected extensively in pre-school, primary and secondary schools, aspects of teacher education, and the provision made by education authorities.

By O'Hagan

Dr Frank O'Hagan has formerly worked as a science and mathematics teacher, social welfare officer, teacher education lecturer, university lecturer and inspector of educational establishments. Now retired, he continues to have a keen interest in education and provision for carers.