PART 3: The Law of the Language

The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.

John Milton Gregory goes into a philosophical discussion about language. He goes on at length, but the concept is really very simple. You have:

- The teacher: with his vocabulary and the meanings he has associated with those words.

- The student: with his vocabulary and the meanings he has associated with those words.

A word only comes across to the student if the student knows the word and the meaning that the teacher intends it to have. Words can have different shades of meaning, and the teacher must be careful that the students know the word in that context. Here is Gregory’s example:

Having mastered a word as the sign of a familiar idea, he is suddenly confronted by it with a new and unknown meaning. He has learned, perhaps, to tie a horse to a post, when he hears the strange text, “My days are swifter than a post,” or reads the warning, “Post no bills,” and hears of a “military post.” The teacher, knowing all the meanings of his words, and guided by the context in selecting the one required by the thought, reads on or talks on, thinking perhaps that his language is rich in ideas and bright with meaning; but his pupils, knowing perhaps only a single meaning for each word, are stopped by gaps in the sense, bridged only by sounds without meaning which puzzle and confuse them.

If the teacher uses a word that the student does not know, it is as if the teacher said, “Blank.” An overly technical lecture that includes all kinds of unfamiliar words might sound like, “The blank does blank to the blank when blank conditions apply, for blank.” Sometimes we experience this as adults when we read something full of jargon. The sentence has absolutely no meaning to us if we are missing knowledge of key parts.

How much more so this applies to the young elementary student with a limited vocabulary.

I think educators do a pretty good job of realizing that vocabulary used should match with the students’ level of knowledge. I think it’s easy to forget, however, that knowing one meaning of a word is not the same as knowing all its many shades of meaning.

Gregory points out that one misunderstood term can break the connection of the student’s attention. It is the teacher’s goal to discover where the attention was lost, explain further, and regain the connection.

He also says that teachers should be careful not to only use lectures. Since vocabulary truly becomes yours when you actually use it, teachers should allow students time to talk.

Some suggestions:

(2) Secure from them as full a statement as possible of their knowledge of the subject, to learn both their ideas and their modes of expressing them, and to help them correct their knowledge.

(A note on this—I think brief essays or oral examinations are some of the most useful tools teachers have. You can find out how much students really understand, and you can give real feedback when they clearly did not understand it. You can also gauge their vocabulary on the topic. Multiple choice does not have this value.)

(3) Express yourself as far as possible in the language of your pupils, carefully correcting any errors in he meaning they read into your words.

(Another note—teachers are too hesitant to correct students. When a student answers a question in class, there is a way to gently and kindly reword their answer when it is incorrect. Teachers are worried about hurting students’ feelings, but it is inexcusable to let the student misunderstand it for the rest of his life. Teachers owe it to the students to make sure they understand the material. This has to be done gently, of course.)

(7) Help the meaning of the words by illustrations; natural objects and pictures are to be preferred for young children. Take illustrations from the children’s own experiences whenever possible.

(9) Try to increase the number of the pupil’s words, and at the same time improve the clearness of meaning. Real enlargement of a child’s vocabulary means an increase of his knowledge and power.

(12) Test frequently the pupil’s understanding of the words that he uses, to make sure that he attaches no incorrect meaning and that he sees the true meaning as vividly as possible.