The Limits of My World

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)

To successfully enable pupils to access as much of the world as possible, teachers have a responsibility to broaden the cultural capital of their students. Most necessary for this is the development of language skills; language is the medium by which we access most content. This gives every teacher a responsibility to help their pupils develop their language as much as possible. Every teacher is a teacher of language.

For me, the above line of argument is the unshakeable bedrock for language teaching. The better we can sharpen the tools that pupils use to go forth and learn themselves, the better we are educating them. This is not to say that teaching skills is more important than content per se (I strongly favour a knowledge-based curriculum (cue: spark a knowledge vs skills debate…)), yet it is undeniable that the more we can do as teachers to develop the language of our pupils, the better they will be able to access the content we wish to teach them, but also, the better they will be able to access content outside of our lessons.

What do I mean by language teaching? How can we effectively build language teaching into our practice?

Firstly, I mean making pupils aware that language is a continuum in terms of the formality and technicality used, and teaching them how to use different types of language in different contexts. For example, there will be a difference in the language used when describing an object and its behaviour that everyone listening can see (here-and-now, spoken-like), compared to a description of the same object in a textbook (generalised, written-like). I’ve been surprised at times when pupils use slang and very informal language in lessons; shocked when I see it in exams. Pupils often do not realise that they need to use language differently depending on the context. Unless we can make this explicitly known to them, and support them to modify their language, they won’t change on their own.

Three strategies I share to achieve this and tackle in this blog post:

  • Teaching pupils about the register continuum
  • Insisting on full sentences
  • Re-casting pupils’ answers

Secondly, I mean making pupils aware of different genres and their language features. We must make explicit the language features of texts that we understand implicitly. For example, when reading a whole text, we know that subheadings and pictures give us valuable information that pupils often ignore and thus miss out on. We understand how the conventions of writing an explanation of how metals are mined differ from writing a review of The Kite Runner – and we use this implicit knowledge to gain understanding at a deeper, textual-level, more-so than mere comprehension of the individual sentences that comprise the text can achieve alone.

I share three strategies to achieve this in part two and three of this post:

  • Teaching and learning cycle
  • Oracy-to-literacy bridge
  • Referencing & foregrounding

Both of these require fostering good language habits in pupils. This means pushing students for more technical, generalised and formal – more academic – language to substitute otherwise less academically-articulated ideas. This needs to be practiced, re-enforced and refined continuously to enable as much progress as possible.

These tenets of language teaching can easily be embedded into any teacher’s practice; they should be routine. And by easy, I don’t mean it won’t take preparation, but that the preparation does not require resources that you do not already have – which makes it exciting – there is no reason to delay getting started!

As these strategies improve pupil access to texts, we can help accelerate their access to the wealth of knowledge available to them in an increasingly globalised world. We help them to broaden their capacity to understand the world; as Wittgenstein so poetically expressed, we expand the limits of their world.

Language: a register continuum

Pupils don’t always realise that the language they use needs to be modified to suit the context in which they use it. A classic example of this is when pupils use slang in the classroom, or worse, in their written work. Another, more frustrating problem that teachers sometimes fail to explicitly correct, is when pupils are giving an answer in class, reflecting on a discussion, and refer to everything with a pronoun: “He said that it’s not true because it didn’t show it.” What?! Out of context no-one would ever deduce that Meera is referring to Morgan’s conclusion that results of the experiment don’t agree with the hypothesis on surface area affecting rate of reaction.

The solution to the problem is to make these issues explicit to the students and give them a clear framework of language to refer to, so that you and the pupils have a shared language about language. The ‘register continuum’ gives us this shared language about language.

Register Continuum

On my classroom wall: Displaying the ‘register continuum’ is an excellent way for you to introduce the idea of language being different in different contexts. Pupils are familiar with the idea of a continuum (e.g. the number scale), which makes the concept easy to understand, and is also very visual. Each time a pupil gives an answer, you (or the pupils) can point to where on the continuum you think their answer is, and give them specific feedback that will enable them to shift their answer towards the right-hand side.

On the left hand side of the register continuum is language that is informal: slang words, absence of full sentences, referencing objects, ideas and people as ‘he’, ‘they’, ‘it’ and ‘this’. E.g. ‘When I put more coils it got stronger’. On the right-hand side of the continuum, is language that you would expect to find in academic texts: using technical language that is formal and also generalised. By generalised I mean that ideas are normally abstracted – referring to principles or conclusions rather than specific instances. For example, rather than saying: ‘I conclude that my electromagnet will pick up more paperclips if the electromagnet is made with more coils’, a more abstract text would say: ‘Increasing the number of coils on an electromagnet make is stronger’. Nominalising verbs (writing them in their noun forms) further develops the language to the right hand side of the continuum: ‘An increase in the number of coils in an electromagnet increases its strength‘.

So how can you introduce this idea to your pupils?

  1. You can use a display. It is visual and easy to understand. You can refer to it for any answer a pupils gives and push them to move their answer to the right hand side of the continuum.
  2. Always explicitly introduce the ‘register continuum’. Explain that language is used differently (the register changes) depending on what you are saying, where and to whom. Explain how the left differs from the right, with examples. I find it best to then use a task like the one in the picture below, where pupils plot sentences onto a continuum in their books:

Register Continuum task eg

Instructions to pupils: Copy the continuum into your books using a pencil and ruler. Place each sentence onto the continuum, depending on how spoken-like/formal/technical etc. you think it is.

Insist on Full Sentences

Once the pupils are familiar with the register continuum, you can refer to it constantly as a tool for giving feedback. One of my favourite things is to insist that every contribution a pupil makes in a lesson needs to be on the right-hand side of the continuum, and spoken in full sentences. Even if I am asking a very closed question to check someone has understood a fact or remembered a definition, insisting that they answer in a full sentences has been revolutionary! The benefits of doing so become very clear immediately:

  1. It is very revealing how closely someone has listened to the question;
  2. Pupils can no longer get away with whispering the correct answer to their friend-in-the-spotlight;
  3. The sound of pupils answering sentences in academic language and full sentences is much more impressive than a one word answer, giving both them and you a sense of pride;
  4. Answers in full sentences reveal understanding of grammar just as much as the fact itself – and you can give feedback on this immediately.

This last benefit is very important. Pupils might understand a fact or idea, but cannot correctly articulate it because they lack the grammatical know-how. For example, I asked pupils: ‘Which organ system contains the heart?’. Normally, I would accept, ‘Circulatory system’ as the answer. However, insisting on full sentences meant that pupils responded with answers ranging from: ‘The heart is the circulatory system’ to ‘The heart is the organ system which is the circulatory system’ etc. My role as a science teacher suddenly shifted from a focus on knowing the correct fact, to being able to explain or articulate the correct fact. The heart is not the circulatory system – it is one of many organs that makes up the circulatory system. As science teachers (or any subject teachers), we are not responsible solely for teaching our pupils subject knowledge, but also teaching our pupils how to express that knowledge. This is the importance of recognising our responsibility for developing our pupils’ literacy.


We constantly expose pupils to new vocabulary. An essential way we can ensure that they learn it, and that they can use the vocabulary successfully is to re-cast any answers they give. Re-casting means repeating their answer, but substituting less technical language for more technical language. In other words, you are re-stating their answer in a register that is further to the right-hand side of the register continuum. (See what I did there?!)

So when little Raihan says to you that ‘The plant uses light to make food’, you can respond with: ‘Yes that’s right, the plant photosynthesises to make glucose’. To step it up a notch, you can even ask: ‘Raihan that is correct. Can you say your answer again by using the technical term we have learned for plants making their own food?’ You can ask pupils to compare where on the continuum (pointing at your excellent register continuum display in the process) those two answers would be.

A worthwhile goal

I hope I have convinced you that that developing pupil language is a key responsibility of all teachers; given you some very easy-to-implement strategies that create opportunities to make language explicit to pupils; and finally shared ideas to create opportunities for pupils to receive feedback about their articulations. Over time, their awareness of language and their fluency will improve, empowering them to express themselves better. Surely that is a worthwhile goal to invest effort for?

See also Limits of My World (Part II).


2 thoughts on “The Limits of My World

  1. Pingback: The Limits of My World (Part II) | Bunsen Blue

  2. Pingback: The Limits of My World (Part II) | Bunsen Blue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s