Why bother with complex terminology?

It began as a mistake. The other day, I went to an AQA GCSE English language feedback meeting. I shouldn’t have gone. Like a bruised rib that you can’t resist poking, or a declining TV series that you give just one more chance, I rarely find anything other than discomfort from these things. But, I felt I had to go. I wanted some answers. It’s a tough job, speaking on behalf of a huge organisation, fielding difficult questions from annoyingly opinionated people like me. I wanted reassurances that steps were being taken to avoid this year’s marking fiasco , which saw a frantic rush to mark papers before the deadline, and trainees and postgrads given contracts to mark. I also wanted to understand what in the hell examiners were looking for on Paper 2 Q2.

The AQA facilitator was really nice: an amiable woman who was clearly trying to reassure those of us (most of us, I felt) who were worried about key aspects of the spec and the first round of examinations. But one thing she said very much riled me. We were discussing technical terminology. We spent a lot of time discussing complex technical terminology. Technical terminology got a bad press. Technical terminology was asked to leave the room, tail firmly tucked between its legs. Her case against complex technical terminology went something like this:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks.

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

I’m paraphrasing, and taking a few stylistic liberties of course, but the central argument remains accurate. There was relief in the room. The backlash had begun. We could finally consign these esoteric and arrogant words to the (A level) dustbin.

I demurred vigorously. Here’s why I believe the argument against complex technical terminology is wrong:

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1.The pupils end up feature spotting and forget to focus on the effect

This is an odd argument for sacrificing sophisticated words. Let me be clear: feature spotting is a bad thing. Feature spotting should not be awarded good marks, regardless of how clever-sounding the features are. Feature spotting is, however, a sign of poor teaching – or perhaps poor listening on the part of the pupil – rather than the sign of an inherently unnecessary term.

What do I think is the most important part of analysis? Effect, effect, effect. If, in their desire to bedazzle examiners with sophisticated terminology, some (or rather, from speaking to examiners I have met, many) teachers haven’t made that clear to pupils then there lies the fault.

Good pupils can and will do both, if given sufficient models, practice and quality feedback. I’ve given examples of effective use of terminology and effect here and here.

2.  These words unnecessarily complicate things

Why bother with obscure Greek terms like ‘anthropomorphism’? It’s such a mouthful and difficult to spell. Well, firstly, the most significant myths of Western civilisation (and Eastern I’m guessing) are based around anthropomorphic ideas. The Garden of Eden and the Satanic serpent. Most of the Greek myths. Much of our great literature – such as Animal Farm – and classic children’s literature – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for examplerelies on giving animals human characteristics. But it’s a clever sounding word, so let’s ditch it right?

The gazillion different types of repetition like anadiplosis, commoratio and epimone are also daft aren’t they? If used without exploration of effect, or course they are. But wielded judiciously they can really help pupils achieve a whole new level of understanding of the writer’s craft. Anadiplosis offers an excellent insight into the way that the interaction between language and theme develops, often in a cause and effect structure, as in the classic example from the Star Wars:

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

Yoda’s s powerful wisdom is certainly amplified through the use of anadiplosis. The original emotion mushrooms to more destructive feelings. Anadiplosis is domino rally repetition and deserves our attention not mockery.

3.They are best saved for A level

If a teacher feels that pupils are ready to deal with more complicated-sounding ideas and terms, why should we wait? I walked in on a colleague teaching (or rather re-teaching) the concept of liminality to a group of Year 9s the other day during an Of Mice and Men lesson. Their mature appreciation of the notion astounded me. But no, let’s wait until we’ve just got our nice small A level class (full of well-behaved hardworking girls no doubt) to go over these things in a nice, cosy environment.  Why shouldn’t Key Stage 3 pupils be able to grasp litotes? Suggesting otherwise is low expectations in my opinion. I’ve taught anagnorosis, dysphemism and portmanteau neologisms to ‘bottom set’ kids before and they’ve risen to the challenge. This may be an unpopular opinion, but part of the problem lies in some teacher’s preconceived notions of what some kids can achieve.

4. We need a hierarchy of terms

Why don’t the exam board tell us what to teach, point us in the right direction, give us a list? Let’s teach to the mark schemes while we’re at it and direct our curriculum rigidly to what will appear in the exam while we’re at it. This sounds arrogant (okay it is arrogant but it’s also true), but I don’t need an exam board to tell me what’s appropriate for my pupils. I’m an expert in my subject. I’m trying to educate comprehensive, state schools pupils to appreciate unrestrained intellectualism in a way that will not disadvantage them when they come to compete with more privileged public school counterparts. Two of my Year 13 pupils recently sat the Cambridge English entrance exam. I’d hate to think that they came unstuck by reference to an ‘esoteric’ term that kids from Eton had learnt in Year 9.

Also, why should one Greek word – ‘metaphor’ – be more seen as more accessible and appropriate for younger pupils than another – such as ‘microcosm’? Yes, there’s the question of frequency of occurrence, but I’ve seen metaphor explained so badly at times by some teachers that it was almost not worth bothering. The concept of microcosm – when applied to Lord of the Flies for example – is arguably easier to get your head around – certainly to define – than trusty old metaphor.

And when it comes to feature spotting, some common language features are just as likely as obscure newbies to lead to empty comments. This happens a lot with our old friends alliteration and rhetorical question. How many times have you seen pupils identify alliteration and fail to clearly explain its purpose, or have read that the rhetorical question ‘makes the reader think’?

5. They’re only being used to try and impress examiners during analysis questions

Not only do these terms help appreciate the writer’s craft, they also help improve pupils’ writing skills.

Look again at the paragraphs where I paraphrase the AQA representative’s case against complex terms:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

Words like anadiplosis, polysyndeton and anthropomorphism aren’t required. They are fancy words, glitz and glamour terms that are used purely to dazzle. These words are superfluous and hinder clarity. They get in the way of meaning and are devoid of real impact. (commoratio)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. 

Complex terms are fine at A level but aren’t required at GCSE. Pupils will do fine without them; pupils will analyse more effectively in their absence. They’ve been put there purely to try and impress examiners but, in reality, they aren’t rewarded. They are an unnecessarily complicated substitution for the technical terms that we’ve always used. They’re show off words, given to pupils by teachers who have misunderstood what the exam board really want. (commoratio)Teachers tell pupils to use fancy words. Fancy words irritate the examiner. The examiner awards low marks. (anadiplosis)

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary.

These words are ridiculous and unpronounceable. I don’t even know what some of these words mean. These silly Greek and Latin words will just confuse pupils, not encourage them to arrive at perceptive responses. (commoratio)We shouldn’t teach them because:

Sophisticated technical terminology isn’t necessary. (epimone)

I can use these rhetorical features in my writing precisely because I learnt them when analysing texts. For instance, I used epizeuxis when I wrote about ‘effect, effect, effect’. And I’ve used other ‘lesser’ types of repetition as well. Simple, easy-to-spell and easy-to-identify Greek words like err… ‘anaphora’.

So have my pupils. They can take Yoda’s famous anadiplosis and do things like this:

Fear of the headteacher leads to homework being set. Homework being set leads to miserable pupils. Miserable pupils forget to hand in homework. Forgetting to hand in homework leads to suffering in a lunchtime detention.

So, you’ll hopefully forgive me for getting annoyed by the AQA facilitator’s well-intentioned but, I think, potentially damaging remarks. Let me know what you think.

Thanks for reading,

Mark

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6 thoughts on “Why bother with complex terminology?

  1. I think the more complex terminology is great for learners who ‘get it’. But I sometimes my learners struggle to identify a noun and a verb! They ‘get’ simile and personification but will never remember more complex terms. I currently tell them to focus more on the effect and not worry so much about trying to use complex terms.

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  2. Hi Mark – I couldn’t agree more but would like to share some more thoughts if you would contact me by the email provided. You will laugh, or cry.

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  3. I guess complexity is the eye of the beholder. I don’t think it’s a question of to use or not to use, but more a question of whether such terms are used precisely and for economy.

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  4. I wholeheartedly agree yet I’m finding this debate very contradictory (particularly from the boards!)

    PS: what are the poor metaphors you’ve heard teachers using?

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