The Mastery Mystery
Like most English teachers, I relish the opportunity to recommend books to students. Only, for some students, browsing the library shelves feels like scouting out the enemy. They search for the least imposing, thinnest book on offer. I always enjoy shifting their perspectives - turning it into a hunt for hidden gems which will open up their minds, world view and ultimately help shape their sense of identity.
It began in 1910. Over one hundred women from seventeen different countries around the world agreed to meet in Copenhagen for what would be the second ever International Conference of Working Women. Numerous issues were discussed and debated, from universal suffrage to women’s pay. One woman, by the name of Clara Zetkin, brought forward the proposal for a global day for women, in which all women around the world should celebrate their contributions in unison, and push for their respective demands. The proposal was unanimously agreed upon. The next year, over one million men and women participated in rallies and campaigns to fight for “women's rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination”. International Women’s Day had begun.
This morning, I woke up with a very unusual impulse to come into work dressed as the Cat in the Hat. After a short moment of introspection, I realised that this could mean only one thing: IT’S WORLD BOOK DAY!
Today is National Read a Book Day, which, as you might expect, is a day that encourages everyone – our students, colleagues, children, mothers and grandfathers – to pick up a book and start reading.
In the 1980s, some Italian neuroscientists at the University of Parma were running some tests on an area of some macaques’ brains. They discovered, quite by chance, that when the scientists reached for a peanut to give to the monkeys, the neurons in the monkeys’ brains would fire. Even more surprisingly, they realised that the SAME neurons would start to fire when the monkey itself grasped the peanut. They called their discovery ‘mirror neurons.’ Obviously, the next step was to see whether the same was true of humans. Christian Keysers, a psychologist from the Netherlands investigated just that question. He wanted to explore the emotion of disgust. The brain activity of 14 male participants was monitored as everyone inhaled a noxious odour. Their brains were also imaged as they watched a video of an actor screwing up his face in great disgust. In both cases, ‘a particular segment of an olfactory area of the participants' brains called the anterior insula’ was activated. Whether ‘mirror neurons’ exist in human brains is yet to be proven, but such studies might suggest that empathy is a neurological response.
Firstly, why does it matter? Surely students just pick up new vocab as they move through life? Well, yes, to a certain extent that is true. But think about two students. One who reads extensively, who lives in a language rich household and whose parents or carers talk to them on a regular basis. Now take a second child. This child doesn’t enjoy reading and avoids it at all costs. They don’t live in a household where they are immersed in new language all the time; maybe they don’t live in a household where English is the first language. Consider the disparity between child one and child two. What is your school doing to bridge that language gap? Your response might be ‘we encourage reading through excellent, engaging schemes, we ensure all students benefit from outstanding teaching and learning practices, we model excellent spoken English at all times…’ but how are you tracking the effects of this on their language acquisition? Are you certain that you are narrowing the gap?
The Language and Reading Acquisition (LARA) team from Royal Holloway University are currently undertaking research that aims to clarify the relationship between oral vocabulary and reading attainment in Secondary Schools. Whilst much research has been conducted in to language acquisition in Early Years education and also in Primary education, how students continue to learn language in Secondary Schools remains less well documented. There is such a lot of noise around literacy improvement in schools that this seems a conspicuous absence.
The first 20 lines of the only specimen Paper 1 that English teachers have to work with at the moment contain these 10 words. There are obviously other words in the 20 lines, but these are the ones that I think most of my Year 10 class will squeal at and/or ignore. And that would be fine, they might be able to get the general sense of the text without knowing this academic vocabulary, but then in the first question, they’re asked about the weather and now it turns out that pallor, penetrated and mizzling are all pretty important words to know if you want to get those 4 marks. Those 4 marks that your English teacher has told you should be the easiest marks you’ll earn in any GCSE exam.