What a wonderful book! “What’s in a word?”

What a wonderful book and truly rare gem in the world of educational books! Norah McWilliam’s “What’s in a word? Vocabulary development in multilingual classrooms” has been written specifically for teachers working with children in multilingual classrooms. Meaning that it is pretty much for any teacher in the UK as it is rarer and rarer to find a teacher who has never taught an EAL child in their classroom. McWilliam’s book is actually about the importance of language. The book grabbed my attention from the very first few pages with McWilliam saying that teachers need to understand how language works in order to be actually effective. This actually rings very well with me not only as a university-educated linguist and English language teachers, but, quite frankly, takes me back to my own upbringing with my father repeatedly saying to me (and I believed and I believe up till now) that one cannot use a language successfully if one doesn’t know what’s going on in it. Indeed, McWilliam calls for the development of conscious, analytical language skills so that their pupils can benefit and develop their language. She also warns against the reliance on bilingual teachers as language teachers – and says that “it is a romantic and unprofessional notion” (p. x) to expect bilingual teachers to meet the needs of bilingual pupils speaking the same language as themselves. Equally so, she says, untrained adults who speak English cannot provide for the needs of English-speaking pupils. I am Polish myself, but could not possibly teach Polish. English, in which I was extensively trained in through university degrees and other courses, I can teach.

This fantastic book takes its readers on a linguistic journey: providing them with an understanding of how words carry meaning and comes with a host of strategies to support children across the curriculum. It could be “a Bible” for both EAL teachers themselves, literacy teachers and mainstream teachers in general. The amount of linguistic insights contained in the book is massive and includes:

  • Knowledge About Language (KAL): the need to explore in the classroom the meanings of words and their use in different contexts, synonyms and antonyms, word games, developing pupils’ interest in words, focusing on word families and encouraging them to experiment with vocabulary
  • Polysemy (changing meanings depending on the context)
  • Figurative meaning and literal meaning
  • Phrasal verbs (particularly difficult area of colloquial English)
  • Connotative meanings
  • Particularly fascinating part of the book on how language is acquired (as mother tongue), including concepts such as packaging – understanding that labels can be applied to groups of words, potentially leading to under-extension (e.g. a child using “dog” only for big dogs, but not for small ones) or over-extension (“dog” being used for all 4-legged creatures).
  • Mass nouns vs count nouns (young EAL pupils may prefer to use count nouns over mass nouns)
  • Metaphors, idioms and cliches
  • Phonemes and graphemes
  • Conceptual meaning vs associative meaning

And more! It is a fascinating read through word of language, vocabulary, how meanings are constructed and affected by L1. Largely, it is a language book for teachers who are supposed to teach language to children and it should make you aware of how language works, how multi-faceted it is and how difficult it can be to acquire for those who are not aware of these intricacies (EAL learners). Further, it should make you aware that not having this awareness seriously impedes your capabilities of passing on that linguistic knowledge to your students. Language is everywhere: it’s not just in English and literacy: it’s in Science, Geography, Arts, Music… wherever you go, you use language. In fact, you use language before you put a pen to paper in the first place. Teachers knowing about language is a necessity. Children knowing about language is a necessity if they are ever to write good GCSEs and if they’re able to express themselves clearly and with detail. Rich language does not just magically appear out of nowhere – it’s the awareness of language and how it’s used and how fun it can be that we need to develop in our learners.

On an almost everyday basis, I tell my EAL learners that the knowledge of linguistic areas such as prefixes and word building can put them in control of the language rather than the language being in control of them. Children find it fascinating that telephoneactually means “sound at a distance” or that “photosynthesis” is actually “making light“. Suddenly, the language they use does not all have to be learned by heart: not all of it, anyway. But, perhaps more importantly, they start using it to their advantage. And suddenly, they are more confident users of language. Why? Because they know what’s going on in the language.

Books such as this one (I say “such as this one”, but I’ve not come across many, if any, like it!) are needed, because unfortunately, language is often seen as inferior to content. Angela Creese has written extensively on CBLT (Content-Based Language Teaching) in English schools. Her studies, writings and research led her to conclude that very little language teaching (of any sort) actually exists in English schools. Somehow, it feels that language is not seen as important as content. Perhaps it’s easy to forget, including for students, that one needs the language first to express themselves properly when there’s an immediate “threat” of an assignment? But, I say, how can we possibly report on a Science experiment properly if we cannot distinguish between formal and informal writing? A-hah! We need to know the formal language first, for instance that “should” can be used as “if” in a very formal way in sentences like “Should you need assistance, place a call to 4567”. If you are learning a language, you don’t just pick these things up! One needs to know that contractions are not used in formal writing, not just think that a sentence sounds or looks more serious. One needs to know that passive voice is frequently used to increase formality of register and why less personal language tends to be more formal.

All teachers can do so, but they need to have the awareness of the language and the willingness to actually do so. Of course, it is this much more difficult to be willing if one knows very little about it. I mean, most probably know that “slowly”, “quickly” and “rapidly” are all adverbs, but how many know that “since last year” and “for a long time” are also adverbs (of time)?

Teachers need more training in language if our students are to improve. If mainstream teachers do not know about these things, they can’t teach them to their students. If they can’t teach them, chances are they will naturally consider them to be less important. If they consider them to be less important, chances are their students will not see them as important. And so we create our vicious circle of lower literacy levels.

I propose that everyone starts with reading this book. I can guarantee that your curiosity will be piqued. That’s a great first step – next step is to impart some of this knowledge and awareness of language into your lessons for the benefit of your students. Love the language and the students will respond in kind with so much more language creativity and better quality work. Mine – have amazed me already.

You can find Norah McWilliam’s books at Amazon at: follow this link

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One Reply to “What a wonderful book! “What’s in a word?””

  1. Hello Kamil
    I’m bowled over by your enthusiasm!
    What a wonderful, sparkling teacher you must be – I bet your students love you
    Every best wish for your teaching career

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