Vocabulary: bountiful, not barbarous.

Quickly skim read the following:

“I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God on these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands with so much innocent blood; and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such action which cannot otherwise but work remorse and regret.”

I’m sure that you were quick to place this quotation as part of a letter sent by Oliver Cromwell to the House of Commons in September 1649. For those of you unfamiliar with 17th Century English history, Cromwell here is justifying his actions following the slaughter of Irish civilians in Drogheda by his New Model Army.

I wonder what happened when you read those sentences. Other than general queries of, “What is this?” or, “Where is this blog going?”, were you aware of the cognitive processes taking place? How your brain was decoding the meaning of the words to make sense of them? What happened when you reached the words ‘barbarous wretches’ and ‘imbrued’?

I’ll tell you what my year 12s did when we analysed these sentences as part of the complete version of the letter last week: they went into what can only be informally described as a ‘melt down’.

“What is he on about?!”

“I can’t understand it!”

“What does ‘barbarous’ mean?!”

Cue me counting to down from 10 in my head and taking a deep breath because, although tricky, this is not the most complex of texts that an A Level history student will ever come across. A quick little readability test on Word shows that that quotation has a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score of 12.4. In layman’s terms this means that an American student in 12 grade (Year 13 for British students) should be able to understand those words with little difficulty. However, as I’ve just shared, this created panic among my students, who were months away from beginning year 13 themselves. I’m frustrated by my students’ questions because they SHOULD have been able to derive meaning from the words in front of them, but they either a) couldn’t at all, or b) were unable/ unwilling to think about similar words to the ones they were reading in an attempt to understand (e.g, barbarous is similar to the word barbarian so it’s likely that the word barbarous might mean something like savage or uncivilised). I’m worried because, in a year’s time, these students will be sitting their A level exam, faced with four sources containing similar language that they will have to quickly read and then analyse in a written response under very tight timed conditions.

No wonder, then, that a recent blog post entitled Against ‘Pupil-Friendly’ Language published earlier in May by thestableoyster resonated so much when I read it. The title gives the topic away (and I’m not going to give a review here because I urge you to read it yourself) but the takeaway point for the purpose of this post is that we should avoid dumbing down language for our students from their first day in Year 7.

I’m in complete agreement. So, in addition to the points made by thestableoyster, here’s what I do in my own practice to avoid dumbing down language:

  1. I avoid colloquialisms as much as possible when I’m talking to the class and the everyday language that I use in my classroom includes ‘big words’. I’m not trying to be pretentious or come across as highly academic, but I am trying to introduce students to a wider vocabulary and model the context in which you use it. Students might ask me what a word means, that’s fine and I actively encourage them to stop me and do so. This might lead to a pointed comment about dictionaries or Google, or I might ask the class if anyone can define the word.
  2. My students have glossaries in the back of their exercise books. Key words or unfamiliar words are written down with a definition that students can refer to and use when we are completing extended writing or are having a class discussion. I was delighted the other day when a student asked ‘what’s that word for…’ and another replied, ‘look in your glossary’ (albeit with an eyeroll as they pre-empted my next words). More importantly the glossary gives students the confidence to attempt more sophisticated vocabulary that I want them to utilise.
  3. I demand that students abandon laziness and use more complex prose in class discussions. Too often they want to give me a basic response: Me: ‘How might people feel about..?” Student: “sad/ happy”. Really Child X? That’s the best adjective in your lexicon? I obviously won’t say this aloud, but I will often follow up such an answer with a less aggressive response such as, “I think that you can do better than that, what other word could we use to describe how they would feel and why would they feel that way?”.
  4. When my students do stumble upon words they are unfamiliar with in texts, I’m getting better at asking them to use the context of the passage to derive the meaning, consider other similar words, or breaking words down before they reach for the dictionary. This is an important habit that will help them when it comes to assessments and exams…and in life in general (which is ultimately what we are here for).

The benefits of this are obvious: students can express themselves more confidently and this should lead to better written outcomes too. I’m sure that my campaign to improve the vocabulary of my students will have an impact on my Year 12 A Level students in the short term but I’m playing the long game here, just like thestableoyster. If I want to avoid having conversations about the meaning of ‘barbarous’ in 5-years’ time, sophisticated language must be integral to every history lesson from age 11.


Emma Smith, History.


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