Page 7, 26th November 1971

26th November 1971
Page 7
Page 7, 26th November 1971 — The verbal approach to education

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Locations: Nottingham


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The verbal approach to education

B. A. HARRINGTON emphasises that home speech patterns are the early key to every child's development

IN the first article of my occasional contributions to this "Education" section I stressed the dangers of a too verbal approach to education. It would be quite wrong to assume from it that I was advocating any restriction of the child's power to develop an adequate mastery of and competence in language. What has to be made clear is the distinction between verbalism and language.

Verbalism was described by the Russian psychologist, L. S. Vigotsky, as "a parrot-like repetition of words," which frequently cloud meaning and understanding. Language, on the other hand, is the vehicle of thought, expression and communication. The former may have no base in experience and may conceal shallowness; the latter may well be the tool used both to reveal and to assess the depth of understanding.

It is mainly through language, both in its vocal and written form, that we develop the more complex and abstract concepts such as justice and truth. An ability to analyse such concepts is a feature of Piaget's Formal Operational Thought, and usually arises and matures through discussion of the qualities of an abstract concept and their application to different instances.

This ability is the pinnacle of language development, but it may not be reached by all children and adults. Professor Kenneth Lovell points this out very strongly in his concise review of modern educational

p s y chology, "Educational Psychology and Children" (University of London Press). He urges great care, therefore, in the selection by teachers of the concepts they use in their teaching. The verbal answers given may not arise from real understanding.


Like SCi many other aspects of child development, language power first evolves in the home by the imitation of parents' words and speech forms. The acquisition of these in a developed fashion is one of the essentials for success in our type of society. Parents who already possess this facility do much therefore to assist their children's progress.

Those whose own speech is characterised by short, simple, often unfinished and grammatically incorrect sentences, who use few adjectives, repeatedly insert conjunctions, formulate questions to set up a " s y mpathetic circularity" (Lovell gives "It's only natural, isn't it?" as an examp(e) and eschew verbal explanatory reasoning in favour of short, dogmatic authoritarian injunctions, stunt not only the growth of language power but also of the thinking power with which language is so closely associated.

The most frequently quoted modern authority here is Professor Basil Bernstein, who found that language deficiency in adolescents correlated with inefficient modes of thought, the roots of the deficiency being found in social class. He employed two types of intelligence tests, verbal which required language power, and non-verbal which used figures, diagrams and pictures to illustrate the same types of problems as the verbal tests contained.

The non-verbal were thus as independent as possible of acquired language power. Working class boys who scored high on non-verbal tests, achieved intelligence quotients of up to

20 points lower on the verbal tests. They were hampered by inadequate language ability. (Readers will understand how important a part intelligence quotients derived from verbal tests play in the selective system for secondary education.) STRUCTURES The results with public school boys did not follow the same pattern. Bornstein attributed the apparent inability of the working class boys to achieve in the verbal test their innate potential as measured on the non-verbal test, to the different language structures which arose out of different modes of speech. These, of course, are derived from the social strata and begin to be effective in the first year of life.

Recent research in Nottingham indicates that differences in potential language development become discernible as early as six months.

Bernstein describes the language of the lower working class family as a linguistically restricted code, that of the middle class as an elaborated code. The latter is flexible and discriminating, with a much greater abstraction potential and consequent advantages in secondary education. There it is possible for the teacher to use highly verbal teaching techniques and to be less dependent upon concrete situations.

Bernstein emphasised the vastly more difficult problem the working class child has to overcome to reach his potential in a school system in which language is so much of the substance and its measure. He has first to change and then to develop his language skills.

The environmentally more favoured middle class child already has the skills necemary as a base for development. His progress is eased and speeded by his early acquired language power. Fortunately much is being done, especially in primary schools, to bridge the language gap by smaller classes, a school programme of cultural enrichment, and the extension of direct experience with subsequent benefit to the child's language.

Discussion periods in all schools further stimulate its development.

JUSTIFICATION Some of the difficulties these children have in the mastery of complex systems of thought and their ability to communicate them are thereby removed, justification indeed of many of the methods now used. Another Russian, A. R. Luria, in his study of identical

twins, showed how unfavourable environmental conditions of which the home is the most important, produces language deficiencies which in turn produce a low level of mental life.

A sustained improvement in the conditions brought about significant changes in mental development.

At the recent British Association Conference it was stated that the ideal school should contain more than 50 per cent middle class children. All children do better in schools with a high middle class concentration. This for many middle class parents, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, is the point of departure between principle and practice as Jill Tweedie illustrated in an article in "The Guardian" of September 27, 1971.

If what she observes is correct, the social gap will widen in our society where social progress depends more and more upon profiting from educational opportunities. E. Stones in his "Introduction to Educational Psychology," states his remedy : "Is is likely, however, that the deleterious effects of cultural deprivation can only really be ended by changing the conditions producing them, and when they arc changed they

can have a dramatic effect, as Luria's work shows."

Some studies of which Havighurst's "Development of the Ideal Self in Childhood and Adolescence," and Kohlberg's "Moral Development and Identification" are examples, indicate that children's moral development is related to their ability to form concepts. They learn to abstract the essential ingredients of a moral situation and to deal with one separately from the rest.

As language power, in which parents play so important a part, has such an influence upon concept development, the way in which parents use language to discuss problems with their children from their early days, has itself an effect upon their moral development.

This is not to say that wellspoken parents produce children with sound moral concepts and behaviour. Attitudes gained through imitation affect behaviour even more. Nevertheless the importance of the parents' ability to use language, and their willingness to discuss with their children and so to set up two-way communication situations should not be under emphasised.

The latest investigation published in October by the National Foundation for Education Research in England and Wales, "The Plowden Children 4 Years Later" (G. F. Peaker) confirms the vital importance of the literacy and language ability of parents.

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