Teacher Tip – Why You Shouldn’t Dumb-down Your Vocabulary

One of my personal pet hates as a teacher is listening to adults speaking to children like they’re idiots. They’re not idiots, they’re children. While speaking slowly and clearly can be a valuable way to help children process the language, it’s important to know where the line is so as not to hinder their learning. This is why I rarely change the vocabulary I use even while speaking clearly.

Vocabulary Building Writing for Children

Some of my favourite children’s books are ‘Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events’. Reading these books as a child was refreshing. New vocabulary is built into the story in a way that is informative but not patronising. As a reader, you’re trusted and respected enough to retain this knowledge and keep up with all the complicated happenings of the story. Instead of shying away from difficult words, the author explains them and reinforces them throughout the story.

Lemony Snicket explains dramatic irony on the Netflix production of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’.

When writing scripts for children I try to act similarly. My concern is not the level of the text, but whether the story is engaging for my students. In rehearsals, when we come to a difficult word I ask the children, ‘do you understand this?’ And if the answer is ‘no’ we discuss its meaning.

Throughout the process, the students are gaining new words and also learning that it’s important to feel able to ask questions. If they ever encounter a word they don’t understand they don’t feel embarrassed, but eager to learn. They often come to me asking ‘what’s the word for…’ and I’m so proud of their quest for knowledge.

Not Underestimating the Students.

This lesson was one I had to learn also. I remember in the early days of working with a young group, my co-teacher always used words that I felt were too complex for a six-year-old. I felt that she needed to adjust her level to fit the students.

One day, a student was asking me for some direction and in a very convoluted way, I was trying to ask her to be more precise in her actions. Eventually, she understood what I was saying and replied, ‘Oh, you mean I need specificity?’. This had been one of the words I had silently criticised my co-teacher for using and suddenly I realised, she didn’t need to adjust to their level, they were rising to hers. Since then I’ve tried to use a more challenging vocabulary with the students and their progress has been phenomenal!

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Rebecca is the founder and chief executive officer of Silly Fish Learning Ltd. She is a children's playwright with a vast and varied career in education, primarily teaching drama and English.

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