A student stood up my class one day. She smiled as she asked a bold question. Her little voice was quivering but audible, “How many words can you write?” To my mind, I could not answer her. We began a class task, searching books, dictionaries (Cambridge and Oxford English), newspapers, everything and anything we could lay our hands on. The task followed each student and I from the classroom. It became an obsession. As time changed our research became simpler. Yet words expanded and multiplied. Eventually journals, magazines, compendiums and the internet came along, and how it grew and grew. We pooled our tasks together. The list for the student grew, even as she did not.
That first tough question was in the year 1948. I was a young teacher then. Just twenty five years of age. It’s now 2022. I’m still writing the list of words. I hope to be finished this decade. I fear our work will never be complete.
“Ben told the class that nouns are sexy. I couldn’t agree more.” – Mr Lee, 2020/21 cohort, TESMC, TWIS
Noun groups are everywhere. ESL (English as a Second Language) learners may find ordering tough, whereas a professor at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, may find that their description of the fictional Scottish public and private boarding school of magic for students aged eleven to eighteen child’s play. The British magical community’s Ministry of Magic may not be an ideal place to start an exploration of noun groups, that most specific to English topic, but we can begin here with a dabble into the magical realm of TESMC class with Mr Ben. It’s our seventh class, hence the title.
“Many a man has a treasure in his hoard that he knows not the worth of. (Sellic Spell)” – Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien
Perspectives on Vocabulary by John Polias, Nominalisation, meaning making in the written realm by Brian Dare, and How accessible are the texts we use by John Polias made for riveting reading. They kept me up into the wee hours and on my toes. Why? They made me question my teaching and my selection of textbooks. Hugely. I’ve always been a fan of a DK Board game called Very Silly Sentences. This game helps to expand the vocabulary and manipulates verbs, adjectives and nouns. The idea of manipulating the nominal group needs base knowledge. That is to know the density of meaning slapped together inside a written text by giving numbers to nominalization per clause. Heavy stuff. Really heavy packed stuff. As a teacher we want to see the evolution of a student’s writing. It must go from: ‘It is a cat.’ We’re aiming to add weight to the sentence. Students, like adults, should be spouting Shakespearian cat descriptive pieces.
“foul night-waking cat” – The Rape of Lucrece, Sir William Shakespeare
If we sit our student’s first grade work alongside the same student’s work as they enter their early teenage years, you will see progress. The same can be done if we take week two work, week ten and week 17 work. Analysis is easy because it is reactive. Our job is much more proactive though. We’re targeting an end product. The factory assembly line of our classes must be targeted to show our desired outcomes of language learning. The crux of the matter is vocabulary extension: It’s a pretty cat. John Polias makes some strong cases for playing detective and taking visuals aside for as good old interrogation.
Fellow hair-challenged Brian Dare points out the pros and cons of refined writing. The high end of the mode continuum gets a fair treatment. He points out that suddenly students are less likely to be thinking on their toes. Students should be encouraged to both rewrite spoken text and speak in different ways about written text. It has to be bidirectional and the transpositions should become the tools of meaning-making in language. Going back and forwards, inverting, flipping it a bit, and relocating words here and there will provide the necessitous scaffolding. Do you remember the joys of messing with words and creating something clean and trim? The mode continuum gives our students something to blend and bend as a way to develop knowledge about language.
Explain these terms to a student without using the terms: common noun, proper noun, abstract noun, concrete noun, countable noun, uncountable noun, compound noun, collective noun, singular noun and plural noun. Respective examples could include window, Manchester, love, house, bike and bikes, rice, textbook, crowd, monkey, and babies. Easy enough, right? Now explain the function and use of a noun group. A noun group is a group of words relating to, or building on, a noun. There may be a pointer (a, an, this, that, these, those, my, your, his, her, its, our, dad’s, Mr Ben’s), one or more adverbs and adjectives. Before and after the main noun. The pre-modifier and the post-modifier offer ample opportunity for exploration. Referring back and forwards, within a sentence is a highly useful skill and tool for an up-and-coming writer. Adding weight and detail to the noun expands the information about the noun itself. It offers a clearer mental image. With these skills, our students can tell us much more about a cat. It’s a pretty fluffy cat with a wonderful temperament. The students are now armed with magic wands to cast spells on their noun structures. Effective writers need detail. Expanding the nominal group should be a weapon of choice.
Note: Nominal means as planned, or as named, or as written (in the mission plan). It does not mean normal.
Synonyms and antonyms are keys and tools to create colourful and abstract language. They’re also ideal for adding dimension to concrete dialogue and reports. One of my earliest English class memories was at Clayton Brook Primary School in Manchester. I, under ten years of age, and my peers were tasked with finding as many synonym words for the words good and bad. Many students talked about it. Some sought books. The tall loner in the corner dived like goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and grabbed something useful. The dictionary fell into my lap. I was hooked. My personal vocabulary grew from word hunts, games, and reading. Mr Jones, class 5AJ, at Chapel Street Primary School, where I later attended, had me constantly finding words, or even searching for made up words, which made me look up similar words. These strange games certainly gave me reasons to live amongst the pages of discovery.
Here on vocabulary played a part. Even to this day, I enjoy expressions, terminologies, and styles of writing because the words within are shouting at me like conversations and whisperings that I must hear. According to TestYourVocab.com, most adult native test-takers range from 20,000-35,000. The average 8-year-old native speaker already knows about 10,000 words. Foreign test-takers tend to hit 2,500-9,000 words – and even by living overseas that only tends to hit 10,000 words. As I slotted my answers into tick-boxes and scored an estimated 32,700 words for my vocabulary size, I realized how few of the 300,000 entries into the Oxford English Dictionary that I probably know. In reality knowing one word from the 20,000 printed pages of the Oxford English Dictionary isn’t all that bad (and in truth, just 35,000 are useful). Are the website’s findings accurate? Well, entering your data is based on honesty and over two million surveys doesn’t accurately reflect a global population of umpteen billion people. Also, who uses the internet?! Their website’s methodology, the nitty-gritty argues that their accuracy is around ±10%, so in my instance, I could be closer to 35,970 or 29,430 words. Either way, it’s a curious little tool of play. I’m not showing off. Not at all. It gives me a good reflection on how many words I have yet to experience or learn. The bad news, however, is that their findings say middle age is where vocabulary retention tends to end. The best reading I found on their website related to reading habits. They found that reading habits directly increases vocabulary growth. It may sound like, as my Dad would put it, “stating the bleeding obvious” but it goes a long way to reinforcing the habit of reading at an early age. This website is part of an independent American-Brazilian research project. The decade-old findings of China show that the average vocabulary size here for English as a Second Language users was 6,636 words. Now, considering the education boom in China, that could be higher now. The website is an indication but not a science. It made me think about how many base words we need to learn a language. But, then how often do we use the words and do we lose the words? Who do we talk with that make us use new words? Are some words specific to some scenarios? Oh, the endless questions! Where on Earth is Anglesey?
“One forgets words as one forgets names. One’s vocabulary needs constant fertilising or it will die.”- Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, writer (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966)
Textbooks need selection. Most of us read reviews and even more of us get handed a reading list and stack of books tall enough to paralyse a student’s passion for reading. Trying not to overwhelm a young kids with a stack of books is a good start. As John Polias points out we need to support the students. If I throw the Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch at you and say read it. With that name of the Welsh village just over the Menai Bridge, you can unlock the language of Welsh, possibly. Possibly not. That’s where teachers must support every textbook handed to a student. A book without support may scare away passion for reading.
“Our song escapes, on little silver discs; Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits” – Reflektor – Arcade Fire
Too long, didn’t read? Well, that’s half the problem. If reading isn’t for you, how can reading be for someone else? And if reading isn’t a habit, how can writing be a skill? I haven’t read any of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Am I a sinner? Maybe. It just never grasped my attention. So, now, I believe that I must read it. I won’t read it alone though. I’ll make it my personal mission to read it with each and every student of my grade four class. Maybe they have read it in Chinese. Maybe in English. But, how did they enjoy it? I’m sure we can enjoy the magical journey as one. If you don’t have one of the Harry Potter books to hand and you want to dig on into the wider world of English, check out the below sites:
The Economist (Johnson blog: named after Samuel Johnson, who made dictionaries. This blog is all about the use and misuse of language, with its ripple effects)
FreeRice.com teaches and tests vocabulary whilst donating 5 grains of rice to the U.N. World Food Programme.
Language Log. Simply put, Mark Liberman, at the University of Pennsylvania, is a linguist with love of words. His Language Log website is a ticker-tape of blogs, posts and news all relating to language. Expect popular culture, controversy and history.
Dictogloss: a language learning technique. Used to teach grammatical structures. The teacher prepares text examples that need to be studied. The teacher reads it. The students just listen. No pens allowed. Next the students lift up their pens. Notes must be taken. By forming small groups, students can work together to reconstruct the text example using their knowledge, notes and teamwork. Afterwards reflection comes as students compare their various versions. With respect to my Grade 4 class, they tried this task twice and each time, they sailed the rough seas. Grade 4 are very capable sailors when the going gets tough. For extra experience, add a Powerpoint presentation whereby the words (and phrases) that you feel need noting pop up as you read it. It can reinforce student ability. After students become familiar with the dictogloss methods, take away the option of teamwork. First try paired working and then ask the students to work solo. This can also promote confidence.
“Fate goes ever as fate must.” – Beowulf, Seamus Heaney
As students move through schooling they will encounter different registers with full expectation to engage them accordingly. The use of nominal groups to enhance and even make complex text can be explained and shown to be more than useful. The dictogloss is there to be used as a tool, but not for exactitude. How many things change through new interpretation and retelling? Language and writing, like speaking can all be about exploration. As teachers we are captains of ships and we must wake our hypnopompic students with a sparge of word play. Our fuliginous fluffy funambulist of a feline with a wonderful temperament must exercise its vibrissae to avoid any pother as it balances on the tenebrous tightrope of life. With that, I end my braggadocio writing.
“Fate will unwind as it must!” – Beowulf, Burton Raffel
Mother: “Look, I’m a student. I’m balancing a traffic cone on my head.” / Son: “That’s not a traffic cone; it’s a small aubergine.” / Mother: Aubergine, traffic cone. I’m too drunk to tell the difference! – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series.
I’d had to move because Mum and her partner had to relocate. I was uprooted from New Moston School and sent to a strange foreign land: Clayton. I hated life in Clayton Brook Primary School. Luckily, I would spend just one and a bit years at the school.
“It took John a little while to settle down in class 3. He is a bright boy and is now working very well. Although he is very untidy, he has a good understanding and has been very enthusiastic about some topics we have tackled. He wants to do well and his attitude to work is excellent. Number work is also good, but he does tend to be careless. A very good start at Clayton Brook.” – I. Proudfoot, year 2 teacher, Clayton Brook Primary School, 3rd July 1990.
Chapel Street Primary School made me stronger. It was never an easy time there, but it wasn’t the worst time of my life. To my younger self, bullying and getting into childhood scraps probably readied me emotionally for puberty and the tests of young adult life. It didn’t scar me. In fact, I look back and think of how much of a little terror I was. I made silly mistakes – more than any other kid (probably).
Before Chapel Street, I’d already been at New Moston Primary School and Clayton Brook Primary School. They’d taken our classes to Moston Baths and Ravensbury Primary School’s swimming pools respectively. At Levenshulme Baths, Chapel Street Primary School students had long been making the area into a madhouse. Levenshulme Baths used to be located opposite Levenshulme Library and both were next to the back gate of our school. The Bluebell Pub (at one stage ran by a parent of a classmate) was to the other extreme of the back of the school, and lay across the north-eastern flank of the school was Chapel Street Park. Here I can remember great times playing football with Ben McGreavy and Kevin Fairfax, or climbing (trees?) with Dan and Peter Ridyard, or digging for treasures with Alex Muir.
At Chapel Street, I recall the great dinnerladies being ever so friendly and the dinnertime assistants at lunchtime (yeah, there’s a whole problem of terminology regarding mealtimes going on there). In the morning we’d have a bottle of milk around 10am. To this day, I sup as much milk as the cows can produce. I draw the line at soy milk. It gives men breasts, I read somewhere. The school day had three breaks, all of which involved the playground, running around crazy (pretending I was a velociraptor after seeing Jurassic Park at the Davenport Theatre; or I was one of the Royal Air Force Red Arrows after attending Woodford Airshow). I had my imagination and Micro Machine cars or Lego figures were in or out of my pocket often. I wasn’t the closest friend to anyone.
“How big is his danda?” – example of a catchphrase from Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series
Mrs Clegg’s class during year 4 meant that I would lose many Micro Machines and Lego men. Her big plastic laundry bag must have held hundreds, if not thousands, or possibly millions of them. She was an incredibly strict teacher who like many in her profession drank copious amounts of coffee. I recall her reeking of coffee. At that time, I hated the smell of coffee, but in hindsight, she knew best, coffee is wonderful. Although now, I only drink 1-2 cups a day, if any. I’m in China and there are too many wonderful teas to sample. This week at St. Lorraine Anglo-Chinese Primary School, Miss Zeng gave me Peach Oolong tea and anther oolong tea that tastes like champagne. At primary school, as a kid, all I’d drink was corporation pop (water) and the odd Barr’s Dandelion and Burdock if I had 20p to hand.
I joined Chapel Street Primary School in year 3 with a short-haired teacher (who I cannot remember the name of) charged to calm me down. I’d entered part way through the school year and was a little unsettled. I soon became friends with the shortest member of the class, Peter Ridyard. He had a few brothers and sisters. His sibling clan of seven weren’t all dwarves. Far from it. I always remember his long-haired taller and older by a year or so sister Amanda with golden-red hair flowing like Rapunzel. I was scared of her instantly. She was a girl and a taller one at that. Then there was Steven, and he was older and much more streetwise. He was the guy with the cool kids and maybe some trouble. Apart from one incident over they years, Steven was fair to me, and never gave me problems. Actually, he stopped a few local knobheads kicking the crap out of me. Dan was Peter’s younger taller brother. Jodie, Adam and Sally made up the younger trio of the Ridyard clan. I used to sing to the theme of a Toys’R’Us advert tune, “Millions of Ridyards all under one roof…” but I did it with affection and jest. One thing about their mother, Margaret, she is a damn strong woman and has raised seven kids over a tight age-range. Dan and Peter would go onto be my best friends. I’d enjoy good friendships with Alex Muir and James Cliff too, but both would drift away in time.
My friends were needed because not long after moving to Levenshulme, my sister Astrid was hit by a car. She would endure many weeks in Booth Hall Children’s Hospital and then years of schooling at a specialist school to help her recuperate and catch up, before she could finally start at Chapel Street Primary School. I love my sister Astrid fiercely and seeing her curled up with traction devices and machines attached to her is a vision that haunts me. When she was finally back out running, I had my sister back. But, around this time, ‘Titch’ was mobile and in the education system. Her and Paul (the youngest of our tribe on my Mum’s side) grew closer. Astrid and Paul were inseparable as I started to outgrow them and their games. It remains a pleasant memory to recall.
5AJ with Mr Andrew Jones was where I switched from maths work lover to someone curious and interested by words. Mr Jones would set us challenges such as write as many words as possible beginning with ‘st’ but we must understand the meaning of every word. I read the dictionary. I started with ‘st’ and then I carried on through all the words starting with S. Then I went to the letter T. I decided I needed to read the prequels A through to R. After that, I decided U to Z needed a look. It wasn’t exciting and I understood very little, but I actually read a dictionary. I recall building Lego models at home and stopping to take in a page, with occasional writing of the word, running downstairs and asking my mum how I could say a particular word. She must have thought I was madness personified.
Around about 1997, I discoveredGoodness Gracious Meon BBC Radio 4. Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and (my first crush on an Asian girl) Nina Wadia. I fell in love with Nina Wadia’s voice on radio and then when I did see the television version of the show, well she didn’t disappoint. Not that I could focus on her physique or voice. The show was far too funny for that. Here was a mould-breaking show, fast, witty and dynamic. It laughed itself, it mocked stereotypes, it ripped apart tradition. It flipped views of the British over to those of South Asia. It parodied and spoofed and after just 3 TV series, it left the world a better place. The best sketch has to be: Going for an English. In this sequence a group of Asian friends go for an English meal after a few lassis (non-alcoholic yogurt drink). They mispronounce and bumble the waiter’s name. They request the “blandest thing on the menu” and request a “stronger” steak and kidney pie. Who can possibly eat 24 plates of chips? The parody of British people, and you know there are some who still do this, getting drunk and going to end the night at an Indian restaurant. Surely, we’ve all met the macho guy who orders the hottest vindaloo. How many papadums can one actually eat?! Cheque, please. I need to go and watch Asian Top Gear again.
“The people here believe the tree to be sacred, so that even if one leaf falls onto the track, the whole line is immediately shut down.” – Goodness Gracious Me, BBC TV comedy series, sketch: Great Train Journeys of the World: Fenchurch Street to Southend
During the final year of primary school Miss Rowe (6RO) and her classroom assistant calmed me down. When the final last day came, I never collected signatures on old schoolbooks or signed my school jersey. I just walked out of the gate saying thank you and goodbye. It didn’t seem to be a big thing. The sterile looking Reddish Vale Secondary School awaited. I would move on a free transfer from Manchester’s educaton authority to that of Stockport. How bad could it be?