Starting a 'Rumpus', a 'Ruckus' and more. In this episode Andy, Emily and Adam talk about learning languages and expanding pupil's vocabulary. How many words are enough words? What is the 'Island of the spoken word'? Plus, practical advice on things that schools need to ensure are happening in the classroom.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hello, I'm Emily Guille-Marrett.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
Welcome back, everyone. All right. We're talking about vocabulary today. All right, Emily, how many words are enough words?
Sometimes, just one, potentially or actually. One of the ways I often think of vocabulary of wordless books. So maybe none, as long as the people can speak about what they can see. But yeah, sometimes it's less is more, but it's also about the right words, isn't it? And having the opportunity to have that language and vocabulary so that you can express yourself and be precise and confident in what you want to say, and how you want to put your imagination, your thoughts down on paper. How many words do you think, Andy?
I don't know. I have no idea. It's interesting because I'm watching my daughter right now, go through trying to learn French. And she's going through that. Vocabulary is an issue right now. And I've heard someone say once, I don't remember where it was. And this might be just complete nonsense, but someone said, "Well, you need to know 50 words basically, to start being of a converse in a language." I don't know if that's true or not, but would you say that's kind of accurate, or?
That doesn't sound like many to me.
Well, I don't know. I mean, listen, that encourages me to start learning a language. Let me just say that straight away. But it doesn't seem like many, but I guess, I suppose it depends on what sort of conversations we have most of the time. If they're just very short, brief, "Hi," "How are you," "I'm good," "Thank you," "Where's the toilet?". That sort of conversation, then clearly you don't need too many, but. Yeah, if that is the case, then I'm surprised. I would've thought it was more.
I guess, if it depends as well whether you are talking about vocabulary in terms of rich language vocabulary and a wide vocabulary, or the essential words that you need, because we know that there are high frequency words, aren't there? That you need. So I guess if part of those are the number of core words you need to be able to create sentences, to be able to have conversations, then I could actually see in that context and that would make... Yeah, that would make sense.
Well, yeah. So I think there's two different things here that we're talking about. One is learning, like beginning to learn a language, which is, probably a really messy, messy process. I hadn't tried to learn a new language as an adult. I speak three languages, but I learned them all when I was very young, it was effortless. I don't remember ever learning a language. And we all, I think everybody's quite well understood that if you learn a language when you're really young, it's just kind of a natural process, right? Doesn't feel like a struggle.
But when you learn a language as an adult, or even as a young... Or as a child, like beyond toddler, it's much more, it becomes much more difficult doesn't it to learn a second language, or a third language, or whatever the case may be. But if we talk... So let's put that one aside. We're talking about vocabulary, like people who speak language already, they're in school, and they're trying to expand their vocabulary. So what are some of the things that people need to think about or worry about?
So something that I find absolutely fascinating is how often children can be stuck in the island of the spoken word.
What does that mean?
Well, if you think about it, increasingly, people are not reading as much as they are. Or children aren't necessarily being read too, and there's language that we have even in simple picture books. So if you take something like, where the wild things are. You've got things, words like rumpus, there is a rumpus. It's not something we're going to go around, I'm not going to go around saying, "Oh, children, don't start a rumpus." We don't speak like that anymore.
It is a great word though.
It's a great word. It's a great word. And children, if we don't have these books read to children and don't have the opportunity to experience them, then we are stuck on the island of the spoken word. And I can't remember the academic that talked about that, it could well have been Isabel Beck. But certainly that idea, that actually we have a responsibility to read to children and we have a responsibility to ensure that children can get beyond the island of the spoken word, then they can really play with language and master vocabulary. I guess that's where I start getting firing on all cylinders and getting quite excited.
No. Yeah, it's great. And there's so many lovely words. Like words can be a lot of fun too.
Rumpus is a fun word. And it's fun to try to challenge yourself to slip it in somewhere, right? The word I like, that is sort of similar, is ruckus. I always try to throw that in wherever I can. I want to make a ruckus. It's just such a kind of like a beautiful word, right? It just draws these images of people, and rumpus is this same kind of thing. you can just kind of see it. What does that mean? I can see myself, even if you don't know what it means, you can imagine what it means. And that's fun, right? You think-
Yeah, and having fun-
... maybe words aren't fun. Yeah.
... having fun with words is a great thing. I think that's why some of the great children's authors invent words that almost become, I mean, if you look at Roald Dahl, he's got his own dictionary now rolled out. You can actually get a dictionary because there's so many made up words. You know, Snozzcumber become acceptable as if that's part of the natural language, and all those sorts of things. And because children love, I mean, authors love playing with words. We love playing with words. Children love playing with words.
But maybe part of that is freeing children up to experiment like that. I think there's the other thing is allowing them that space to do it. Because how many times do we see in classrooms where children are stuck? They know the idea, they know what they're trying to get across, but they just don't have the words to do it and being allowed to do it. So that's not, we don't want that to drive anxieties or anything like that, but that's when you can see the importance of words.
And that's where I think there's such a stark difference between, say Maths and English and schools, is that I think there's a bit more license in English to go around the houses to try to explain the idea. But the number of times I've asked a question in the classroom, hundreds of wee hands shoot up and they're keen, keen to. They know. It's in their head, they know what they're doing, or at the very least, they've got an idea. But of course without practicing it, and they try to get it across, and all of a sudden realizing, "Oh no, the words aren't there."
I don't know what it is, the difference between Maths and English, but it's almost like that becomes a full stop. Depending on how it's managed, of course. And depending on the teacher and the children, those sorts of things. But I think there's seemingly a bit more licensed in English. Whether you're writing or speaking to friends, and you can use different words to describe. And I think that that should be available for everything.
I just think there should be a general acceptance with, I'm not saying there's not, but I hope that you get where I'm coming from. I think with some areas, children get a bit stuck and they stay stuck, and there doesn't seem to be the same allowance for risk as there is as if you're sitting down and writing a piece of fiction, where you are allowed to just. Yeah, make up a word, because that's what the door sounded like or whatever.
Yeah. And it's yours, you own it.
But interestingly, right? When you introduce a second language, that paralysis that you're talking about sets in. So all of a sudden, the fear of making a mistake seems to be so high. It almost seems like you need to get to some level of proficiency where you build up enough confidence that you can make up a word or try to explicate something without really... You're taking chances, you become comfortable taking chances at a certain point, but when you don't have a certain level of fluency, you're paralyzed. And you become really afraid of making mistakes. That's kind of how I see it. And maybe that's where Math's anxiety comes from, because Math is a language. And watching my now 13 year old daughter doing French, learning French in school in a very formal way, conjugating verbs and all this kind of stuff. There's a paralysis. It's like, "I don't know what this word means." Panic. "I don't know what to do."
Well, I'm learning a language at the moment.
I can't do this, it's hard.
And I get it. The only difference being is that I swear. So that's my release when I can't, when there's a sentence structure and I've got words to choose from that I continually get it wrong.
But you're absolutely right. You're right, because there're times where I'll just, "No, I'm not doing this today. Oh no, I don't." It's terrible. I don't want to do it because I just don't want to feel that way. So this is as a grown adult is reasonably confident about getting stuff wrong. So yeah, no, I completely agree with you. I think that for children, that must be really tough when you realized you don't have the words, but you are not quite sure how to get them. I think that's the other thing. I also think that's something we need to be really mindful of. It's probably a discussion for another day, but not letting or not... No, that's unfair, not letting. But often we ask people to speak unrehearsed about potentially some pretty complex ideas, and that's tough. Like that's a really tough asking, I think we can underestimate just how tough that is.
So I think that's where... I'm listening to you talking. I'm thinking about the difference between the different types of points at which you meet vocabulary. So if you are learning to read and you start to perceive yourself as not being a reader, that anxiety level is going to go higher. And if you are not in a situation where actually your vocabulary level, you could actually have a very high ability in terms of you might be really good at storytelling, but you might not yet have the competency to write that word down. And that can hold you back. And it just shows how many points there are if you don't allow children to tell stories, be read to, and have a chance to learn to read it. If you're not reinforcing, they're not going to get the chance to play with the vocabulary in their zone at these various points so that they can do it.
And I find that quite fascinating because you could suddenly see how they actually might have a real competence for a rich language. But actually, an anxiety about not being able to then read. And then if they're not read too, to be picking it up until their fluency levels are higher, it can create, it's quite interesting how quickly it can, those anxieties and start feeling like, I can't do this. I'm going to remove myself from the opportunity to have this world of words. And that's where I think all of us, collectively as adults, have a real responsibility in our communities and our schools and at home, to make sure that we're always giving those opportunities. Because I think that you're right. You don't want kids to be having that feeling.
So what are some of the practical things that you think people should be doing at home, and some of the practical things that maybe schools knew to ensure it's happening in the classroom? Maybe, I don't want you to start with the school.
I just think giving space just for free discussion. Like our approach to mathematics, there's always that exploration stage where we utterly encourage people just to have a go. And they'll find situations that as teachers, we can't dictate that the situation that hints at being exploration. And then try to establish the language that comes with that.
And in terms of eavesdropping on those conversations, if there is a key piece of vocabulary, give it to them, just let them use it. And then, but also give them that space and relaxation with it. I think that if we are just learning it, if we're just learning it as part of, I don't know whether it's phased words or whether it's something really specific, I know that we have to do that. We have to develop the key skills.
But I just think, especially if listening to Emily talk just then. Just giving time to talk to one another, whether it's at lunchtime and... I don't know this sounds a bit old school, but I don't care. I just think that giving time for I unstructured talking and valuing just being able to have conversations, and to be able to discuss stuff without any consequence or... I just think it's as simple as that.
And I know that's really broad, but I think we can get hung up just on curriculum objectives. And we must learn this and this is key vocab for this lesson, and here we go and I'll give you the words and then I'll tell you where to put them, or... I think we just need to be careful, that we just need to practice them, and experiment with them and be safe to do that, and feel safe to experiment and get it wrong, and have it laugh or whatever.
All right. Come on, Emily, wrap it up for us. What does everybody need to know about vocabulary?
In order to build your vocabulary, you cannot stay on the island of the spoken word. You have to read. You have to encourage reading. You have to read to children. I'm with Adam, you've got to talk. Talk all the time and talk about books, and you've got to listen as well. Don't you? And I think the most fun part of our conversation is something that everyone can do, is just have fun with words and make things up. And I think if we do that, we're going to have very exciting time. I have to come up with a fantastic word to end.
All right. Come on. What's the word of the day? I think it's rumpus. I like rumpus.
It is rumpus.
All right. So here's a challenge for all the listeners. Try to use the word rumpus today in an appropriate fashion. There you go. All right. Thanks everyone. Thanks for joining.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.