The language of display

I’ve always wondered how long head teachers spend thinking about their headline gig at the start of term.  Does it keep them up the night before? Or does it become second nature after a while? Do they spend any of their precious summer holidays considering which tone to strike? If you’re a head, I’d be delighted to know how you deal with it!

Anyway, this September I joined a new school and in my humble opinion the Head nailed it. The school is a well-established comprehensive school and year on year the students do really well, but as the head pointed out, for many of the students, a fistful of A* grades isn’t enough. With reference to the works of Pierre Bourdieu, he spoke about the importance of ‘cultural capital’ in achieving true social mobility and how, if schools are to enable students to sculpt any future they choose, we need to be furnishing them with more than just good grades. He spoke about how this might happen; he spoke about the value of display…

In most schools, visual displays form part of the environment. At the very least, they help to make a space visually appealing and help create a stimulating learning environment for the students. At their best, they play an active role in the learning process, shaping the way in which students engage with a topic. Prosser (2007) and Grosvenor (2007) explore how the visual-spatial design of a school (essentially how it looks and how it is laid out) can inform the configuration of ‘the learner.’ It is important at this point to consider that as soon as a student engages with a display, it ceases to be ‘inert’ and becomes activated by the student, i.e. the student starts thinking about what they might already know about that topic or how it links to something they already know about; the display becomes charged with the student’s personal experience.

At this point, Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s (2001) research around tiered language comes in useful as a point of reference. You probably know this already, but for those of you who haven’t come across this research, it goes as follows: They suggest that the everyday language that students use, such as clock, baby and happy, forms the basis of Tier 1 vocabulary.

Tier 2 vocabulary consists of words that are regularly used by mature language users and in a school context, would be used across the curriculum, for example industrious, absurd or notorious. Tier 3 vocabulary refers to subject specific terminology, such as isotope, alliteration or peninsula. It is Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary that so often poses challenges for students. It is entirely possible that this more academic vocabulary has not formed part of their day to day experience at home. If they are reticent readers, the likelihood of an encounter with ‘industrious’ or ‘notorious’ diminishes again and such a student could feasibly travel through the landscape of his or her school career without troubling themselves too much with this more academic vocabulary. This type of language has never formed part of their personal experience.

Devoting time in class to reading or encouraging reading on a school wide basis could help to increase the amount of exposure to academic vocabulary for all students, but let’s think about displays again. Kress and Van Leeuwen (2001) suggest that “visual displays and the arrangement of the classroom can…be understood as a teaching tool, a medium to communicate desired qualities and expectations, in a manner that is to be lived by the students” and I would add that visual displays around the school are equally important.

If schools can be ambitious in the language they are using around school, if they can paint the walls with Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, then this type of academic language will form part of students’ personal experience. They will have encountered ‘peninsula’ in the display on the Geography corridor and ‘notorious’ in a display about Dickens’ characters in English and when they finally meet these ‘new’ words in a classroom, they won’t feel so dauntingly ‘new’ at all.

Are you conscious of the language you use in display? Do you use display to show case students work or primarily as a teaching tool? Have you got any bright ideas for using display to teach vocabulary? Share your ideas with us in the comments below or on Twitter.

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