Plastic Surgery

When I was eighteen, I took my A Levels, and my last exam was Extension French.  I was nervous about this one; a long unseen text requiring full translation and response.  I remember sitting at my exam desk looking at the unopened paper, willing the words to reveal themselves from the other side.

We were told we could start.  I turned the page and scanned for the title:

La Chirurgie Esthétique.

Chirugie I had learnt in class – it meant surgery. Esthetique was unfamiliar but it sounded like ‘aesthetic’, which I knew meant appearance, the way something looks, the beauty of it. I settled then, reassured, competent. I knew these words and I could do it.

Years later I realise the full significance of knowing that word, aesthetic.  Whenever we ask students to analyse a text in depth, we are asking them to communicate a subtlety, a meaning implied but not stated.  Doing so comes easily to those who possess a sufficiently rich store of words from which to choose.  And sophisticated, academic words won’t just unlock this text, in this classroom, but open up the whole curriculum to those who have the key.

As Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr notes, word-knowledge is a convenient proxy for academic success across a whole range of disciplines. 

Word-knowledge gains more significance when we consider that the reading material students encounter as they progress through school deviates significantly from that of oral language. I don’t tend to use the words ‘repudiate’ or ‘imminent’ in conversation, but both appear in the sources I have recently shared with my students.  Research suggests that we need to know 98% of the words in a text for effective comprehension.  I can imagine what reading below that threshold would feel like: words blanked out like a redacted, confidential document.  This is the frustration of weaker readers, struggling at the least productive point.

We could of course encourage the students to go to the online dictionary.  But like anything on the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for.  There were eight definitions of aesthetic when I checked: noun, adjective, English or US?  Specialist art definition, anyone?  Then there are the two sidebars of adverts distracting me as I scroll.  Whenever we remove our attention from a text there is a cost; anyone reading a heavily footnoted article recognises a jarring, disjointed read.  Meaning is lost in the interruption.

Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov explains the importance of teachers providing a “tidy and efficient” definition. This should be part of our lesson planning and crafted with the specific text in mind. The initial precision allows for a collective learning experience, a group exploration of what might now be inferred.

Lemov also advocates giving “common use [of the word] and its nuance”, emphasising the slight but significant contextual differences students need to know for effective knowledge transfer. With active practice and repeated exposure, students begin to own the word; it is theirs to make use of when we challenge them again, to do more with what they know.

Importantly, when word definitions are clarified and shared, everyone is invited to the party.  Not just those who half-knew the words already – although everyone benefits when classrooms are places of rich, academic language.  But we are levelling the playing field by being intentional about vocabulary instruction. Everyone then gets to join, as writer Mary Myatt puts it, the ‘conversations of the powerful’, taking their rightful place in the world where language changes lives.  

I can’t remember ever being taught what aesthetic meant.  Maybe my parents said it, maybe my peers.  Some of our students will also ‘just know’ those words, their ease of use emanating all the signals of future success.

But many of our students won’t.  We can’t leave their word-knowledge to chance.

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