A Significant (you’ll get the joke if you read the post) Opinion


“I’m bored, can you come over?”
“Sorry, Miguel, I’m going out with my mum; but don’t you have a book? A book is a good friend.”

“So… what do you want to play?”
“Mafalda”, rights belong to Joaquín Salvador Lavado, better known by his pen name Quino.

As I’ve already mentioned, I work with children. Well, I work with adolescents. For the most part, they’re reasonably nice kids. I was obviously far more awesome than them when I was their age *takes off and polishes rose-tinted spectacles* but they can’t help that.

There was one girl who could frequently derail anything we were meant to be doing because of her weird and unfathomable beliefs or lack of them, causing me to stop everything and try and argue the point with her. She didn’t believe in dinosaurs. DINOSAURS! She didn’t come from a really religious family that took the Bible literally, or skip science lessons. She just thought it was a bit unlikely. She’d taken the evidence presented, and decided that the idea that millions of years ago these monster lizard creatures were stomping around to the Rite of Spring was a bit farfetched. Fair play to her, she seems to have come to that conclusion all by herself and she’s entitled to it, however bizarre.

The thing that saddens me most is that the majority don’t consider themselves to be readers. They are obliged to get books from the library to read during scheduled silent reading periods in English lessons; they spent countless hours reading texts and Facebook messages and celebrity gossip sites; they flick through football magazines; but they don’t read for fun.

I can allow that they are busy with other interests or with work (it’s a farming community and a lot of the kids are involved on family farms or in local businesses). I can even make myself believe that some of them genuinely aren’t interested in reading (sacrilege!) in the same way that I’m not really interested in Napoleonic siege weaponry, or the minutiae of Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy, or learning to play the accordion.

What I don’t like is when they blanket declare “Reading is boring!” and when asked what they have read and found boring, they shrug and say they don’t read. A couple of the girls said that reading more than half a page of text without a break gave them a headache. Boring, eh, I reply. Maybe you’ve just not found the right story. What are you interested in? Shrug. Adventure? History? Magic? Animals? Something realistic? Something fantastical? Frightened shrug.

I do think a lot of it comes down to losing the ability to concentrate or to persevere with things. They’re too used to instant information, and the idea that they might have to put in the effort with something is too much. That’s obviously a generalisation and I do work with a lot of kids who work extremely hard and never complain. On the other hand I do see a lot of kids throwing down their pens in despair when they have a reading comprehension question to answer that involves going back over the text to find a key piece of vocabulary and they don’t spot it within two milliseconds. I see kids Googling for things and not even clicking on the links in the results. If the answer isn’t in the preview summary or the link title, then the answer can never be found and doesn’t exist (never mind that they Google with whole questions instead of key words and can’t be broken of the habit).

I know this seems like a “kids today!” rant, but I am genuinely concerned that because they are not using their brains, teens are getting less intelligent. They are being spoonfed information and they get help sheets for everything so they don’t need to learn stuff off by heart. A lot of them barely know what order the alphabet goes in, or have to sing it through from the beginning until they get to the bit they need. They don’t know their basic times tables up to 12×12. They can’t estimate and work out if it’s a reasonable answer. I’m not suggesting everything on the whole curriculum is learned by rote, but they need to take in and retain SOME information, don’t they? I taught two girls last year who had been to a battlefield on a school trip having studied the battle in numerous lessons beforehand, and they still didn’t even know what two sides were fighting, or even who won.

One of the most common things I hear (apart from the insulting “Can we do something fun today?”) is “We learn way more English words with you than we do in English classes!” I firmly believe that their vocabularies are stunted because they don’t read! If I hadn’t read Terry Pratchett’s Mort at fifteen, how old would I have been before I saw and heard the word “epitome”? I learned from my dad’s old books that even if it’s written “twopence”, it’s pronounced “tuppence”. A bosun is a boatswain. Gunwale is pronounced “gunnel”. (I may have read a lot of pirate books when I was younger). You may think that’s quite weird vocabulary. It is. They aren’t common words.

What about “signify”? I was showing a group of seventeen year olds a French question containing “Que signifie ‘le fossé de générations’ en ce contexte?” or something similar, and they didn’t recognise “signifie”. OK, what English word does it look like? I asked. Silence. Gormless and vaguely frightened silence. Signify? I prompted, feeling a little afraid myself. A weak light dawned in one or two eyes but most remained stumped. Signify, I repeated, y’know, like “significance”. You’ve seen significance before? I think my tone was desperate at this point. Grudging nods from the majority. Progress! OK, what does significance mean? Back to clueless. These were kids doing their Highers or Advanced Highers (AS / A Levels) and somehow in none of their subjects they’d come across signify as a word.

Do they all just walk around terrified all the time because people say words at them and they have no clue what most of them mean? I don’t mind language evolving or including new words, and getting rid of weird old ones that no one uses. Fine. I’ll keep saying “Hmm, that bodes ill” and “as is his wont” all by myself and be happy. But when there’s a poster for a charity up on the wall asking for school supplies to send to Africa because they’re “disparate” for books, pencils, etc and the kid who wrote it doesn’t even realise he means “desperate”, or that it’s more than a spelling mistake and has become a completely different word; I think there’s a problem.

So yes, I use cognates to teach French and yes that usually involves teaching them what the English word means at the same time. And yes, I do urge them to read in their free time. I’d settle for them getting to the end of a Mr Men book at this point. I don’t think there’s a lack of decent teen / YA fiction out there (in all genres). There’s certainly not a lack of fiction in general if they’ve got the balls to go for a “real grown-ups” book like a Bernard Cornwell or a Douglas Adams or a Neil Gaiman. I just wish they’d try a little harder to find something they’ll enjoy because once you’ve got it; the world is your oyster. Or toadstool. Or spaceship. Or crime scene. Or haunted shack. Or football pitch. Or prison cell. Or fairy kingdom. You get the idea.

“So, the French word for ‘flood’ in this context is ‘inondation’. Does that sound like an English word? …Inundate? If you’re inundated with stuff, what does that mean? …Guys? Example: ‘We were inundated with entries for the competition’. Yes, it can be a ‘Meet One Direction’ competition.


EDIT: I guess I stand corrected! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22714629

1 Comment

Filed under My ramblings

One response to “A Significant (you’ll get the joke if you read the post) Opinion

  1. It can’t be denied that learning is lazier now, and attention spans shorter. I think it even shows in the lack of physical books available. People like to read online because then they can flip back and forth to their email, twitter, etc… Also, the rise of the novella and short stories. I’m happy that they are popular in publishing again, but is it only because people can’t make it through an entire novel? Novels used to start slow….Anne Rice, for instance. Now if you don’t get instant action or change, the book gets tossed to the side, and even a query letter that doesn’t grab in a sentence is immediately slush piled.

    Obviously, I could go on for an hour about this. I guess I have a blog to write, too.


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