On meanings and complexities

Years ago, I observed a lesson on Ciaran Carson’s poem ‘Belfast Confetti’. It’s an incredibly powerful poem, conveying the confused aftermath of a bomb blast and the narrator’s sense of disorientation as he tries to make sense of his changed surroundings. The lesson itself, however, conveyed none of this. Part of the problem was that the teacher had started the lesson with a glossary of words and phrases that he thought the students needed to understand. What this glossary essentially showed was his own lack of understanding of the poem. Carson refers to the labyrinth of Belfast streets – ‘Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street’ – that the narrator is trying to navigate. In his glossary, next to ‘Balaclava’, the teacher had put ‘A form of knitted headgear’. ‘Raglan’, meanwhile, was ‘A way of fixing the sleeves to a jumper or cardigan’. Cue a group of very confused students, wondering why the poet had suddenly started banging on about knitwear.

So wrong, in so many ways (Image: Pinterest)

I’ve been thinking a lot about meaning lately, partly because thinking about meaning forms a huge part of what I do but also because of that cursed Ofsted research review. The review places a lot of emphasis on the direct teaching of vocabulary. It states, for example, that ‘While pupils of all ages will gradually learn vocabulary through repeated encounters as they read, there is evidence showing that it is beneficial to identify and explicitly teach some vocabulary.’ And given the review’s clear affinity with models of education predicated on a ‘smooth ramp’ – do this, read that, and you’ll understand this – it’s easy to see why this approach to vocabulary would have such an appeal. Teach students the meanings of the difficult words they’ll encounter in a text, teach them the text, and they’ll sail through without any problems. Get them to use these difficult words in different contexts in order to consolidate their knowledge, teach them about word roots and affixes, and you’ll be building their word power. Add in some spaced recall and you’re ticking a CogSci box as well. Simple!

And there’s nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of English teachers will approach some vocabulary in this way. The emphasis there is firmly on the some. As English teachers, we have an array of approaches to vocabulary to draw upon. Sometimes we’ll pre-teach particular words, and we might especially do this if there’s a particular reference that we need students to understand. (Think, for instance, about the word ‘equivocator’ in the Porter’s scene in Macbeth. It links, of course, to the theme of appearances-versus-reality that runs throughout the play, and to the wider concept of equivocation in Jacobean society, but it’s the first time students will have met it, and therefore it probably needs some explanation.) Sometimes we’ll choose texts that have marginal glosses, or create our own versions, so that students get used to glancing across or down the page and picking up a reference without the need for too much intervention: it’s an important aspect of working with texts and one that they need to know about. Sometimes we’ll reach an unfamiliar word and ask the class if anyone has come across this word before: a way of empowering students and moving away from the idea that the teacher is the only source of knowledge in the room. Sometimes we’ll look at words in their contexts and work out what they mean. This isn’t an exhaustive list: it’s not difficult to think of other strategies we use.

There are a number of problems, though, with what the review says about the explicit teaching of vocabulary. I’m just going to look at two of them here. The first is the evidence base that the review draws upon. One of the sources they cite is a US report, A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, published in 2010 by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center. But as we’ve seen with other sources (as Barbara Bleiman demonstrates in this Twitter thread, and as Gary Snapper, Andrew Green and I have experienced in the review’s misuse of our book Teaching English Literature 16-19), the review uses this report to fit an agenda that it doesn’t necessarily support. The headline findings are there: direct instruction, multiple exposure, active engagement. But look more closely, and you’ll see that it is based on studies of children no older than Grade 3: seven of the fourteen studies it draws on focus exclusively on children in preschool and kindergarten, and two further studies focused on older children with weak literacy skills. One of the studies focuses specifically on scientific vocabulary, one on nonsense words, and several on early literacy. One focused on the learning of just three target words. Yet Ofsted present this as research whose findings can be generalised to the teaching of English at secondary level.

The second problem is just so screamingly obvious that it really shouldn’t need saying. It’s that meanings can be connotational as well as denotational. In fact, in English, it’s the exploration of connotational meanings that occupies a significant amount of our time. Nowhere does the review refer to this. It’s as if meaning is all simple, straightforward, univocal. There’s no space whatsoever in the review for the associative, the ambivalent, the strange.

In English, it’s not necessarily the ‘hard’ words, the unfamiliar words, that make us pause. It’s often the words whose meanings we think we know, used in contexts that are unexpected. Think of ‘Death of a Naturalist’, for instance, and Seamus Heaney’s description of ‘the warm thick slobber / Of frogspawn’: my Year Eights all know what ‘slobber’ is, but they’ve never seen it used to describe frogspawn before, and they also wouldn’t normally see it in the superlative light that Heaney does. We needed to think about the colour and texture of frogspawn, to imagine scooping it up and trying to contain it in our hands, to understand the sense of delight captured in that description. Or the way Ted Hughes uses ‘raw’ twice in the first two lines of ‘Bayonet Charge’ – ‘raw / In raw-seamed hot khaki’ – and, in doing so, suggests not only different meanings of the word itself but also the dazed state of the soldier as he drags himself into action, with no time to think of an alternative word. Words don’t just mean things. They can hint and gesture, be playful and ironic. We and our students know this, because we experience it every day.

My Year Twelves are starting to look at different critical and theoretical approaches to literature, and one text I love using to explore the idea of multiple readings is another of Ted Hughes’ poems, ‘Lineage’, from his 1970 collection Crow. (I’ve got Gary Snapper to credit for this particular lesson: he introduced me to it years ago, and it is now one of my absolute favourite lessons to teach.) Here’s the poem:


In the beginning was Scream
Who begat Blood
Who begat Eye
Who begat Fear
Who begat Wing
Who begat Bone
Who begat Granite
Who begat Violet
Who begat Guitar
Who begat Sweat
Who begat Adam
Who begat Mary
Who begat God
Who begat Nothing
Who begat Never
Never Never Never

Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood
Grubs, crusts


Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth

I don’t tell the students anything about the poem beforehand, because I don’t want to guide their responses. Instead, I give them five minutes on their own with the poem, to read and annotate and see what they think it means, and then give them some time in pairs or small groups to discuss their ideas. It’s a brilliant example of how meanings are constructed as part of a shared process of discussion. One thing students often spend a lot of time on is the presence of nouns such as ‘Violet’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Sweat’: they know what these words mean, but they’re obviously being used by Hughes in a way that doesn’t correspond to their simple denotational senses. They clearly have a significance that’s given to them by their presence in this particular sequence and the fact that they’re being treated as proper nouns, but beyond that, what they mean in this poem isn’t clear. Do they point to human culture, to industry and toil, to a sense of beauty? We talk about all these possibilities, and about the other images and suggestions in the poem: the sense of unmet need, the violence and squalor, the apparent rejection of God. All of this takes a long time.

Do they know what the poem means, by the end of it? Do I know what it means? Should I be able to tell them what it means, give them a nice neat knowledge organiser? We talk about all of this, too. In the end, they decide that the important thing is not arriving at one final meaning, but the process of exploration. It makes your brain hurt, says one of them, but it’s really interesting. And they’re right. This is what makes English such an incredible and complicated and bloody amazing subject to teach, and the Ofsted review contains none of it.

1 thought on “On meanings and complexities”

  1. Excellent – thank you. As the OFSTED view of reading generally shows, they don’t really want to link words to meaning, because meaning means concepts, and where would they take us?


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