The Clear Word 

A Ministry Of Mid-State Ministries  

 

Seven Laws for Effectual Teaching

 

Lesson Five

 

THE LAW OF THE LANGUAGE


We have now, confronting each other, the teacher with his law of knowledge, and the learner with his condition of interested attention. We are next to study the medium of communication between them and learn the Law of the Language.


Two persons, who have material bodies which are limiting prisons, are to be brought into intellectual intercourse -- the fine commerce of thought and feeling. There are no known spiritual connections between individuals in this world. Here the organs of sense are parts of material bodies, and can be touched and impressed only by matter and material phenomena. Out of these phenomena persons must construct the symbols and signs by which they can signal to one another the ideas which they wish to communicate. A system of such symbols or signs is a language. It may consist of the picture writing of the savage races, the alphabet systems of civilized peoples, the manual signs of the deaf, the oral speech of the hearing; but, whatever its form, it is language -- a medium of communication between minds, a necessary instrument of teaching, and having, like all other factors in the teaching art, its own law.


This law, like those already discussed, is as simple as an everyday fact. It may be stated as follows:


THE LANGUAGE USED IN TEACHING MUST BE COMMON TO TEACHER AND LEARNER.


In other words, it must be understood by each, with the same meaning to both.


THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE LAW


The Law of Language reaches down into the deepest facts of mind, and runs out to the widest connections of thought with life and with the world in which we live. The power of thought rests largely upon this fabric of speech.


Language in its simplest form is a system of artificial signs. Its separate words or signs may have no likeness to the things they signify, and no meanings except those that we give to them arbitrarily. A word is the sign of an idea only to the one who has the idea and who has learned the word as its sign or symbol. Without the image or the idea in the mind, the word comes to the ear only as a sound without meaning, a sign of nothing at all. No one has more language than he has learned. The vocabulary of the teacher may be many times larger than that of the pupil, but the child's ideas are represented by his vocabulary, and the teacher must come within this sphere of the child's language power if he would be understood. Outside of these limits, the language of the teacher will be characterized by lack of meaning, or perhaps perverted meaning, in proportion as the unfamiliar words exceed the familiar ones.


Many words in our language have more than one meaning. For example, consider the following expressions: mind and matter; what is the matter? what matters it? it is a serious matter; the subject matter ...; the same word is made to carry several meanings. This variety of meanings may enrich words for the use of the orator or the poet, but it presents difficulty for the young learner. Having mastered a word as the sign of a familiar idea, he is suddenly confronted by it with a new and unknown meaning. He has learned, perhaps, to tie a horse to a post, when he hears the strange text,"My days are swifter than a post," or reads the warning, "Post no bills," and hears of a "military post." the teacher, knowing all the meanings of his words, and guided by the context in selecting the one required by the thought, reads on or talks on, thinking perhaps that his language is rich in ideas and bright with meaning; but his pupils, knowing perhaps only a single meaning for each word, are stopped by great gaps in the sense, bridged only by sounds without meaning which puzzle and confuse them. It would often amuse us if we could know what ideas our words call up in little children. The boy who wanted to see "the wicked _flea_ whom no man pursueth," and the other who said, "Don't view me with a _cricket's_ eye," have many companions in the schools.


THE VEHICLE OF THOUGHT


Language has been called the VEHICLE of thought; but it does not carry thoughts as trucks carry goods, to fill an empty storehouse. Rather it conveys them as the wires convey telegrams, as signals to the receiving operator, who must re-translate the messages from the ticks he hears. Not what the speaker expresses from his own mind, but what the hearer understands and reproduces in HIS mind, measures the communicating power of the language used. Words that are poor and weak to the young and untrained may be eloquent with many rich and impressive meanings to the mature, trained mind. Thus the simple word ART may mean "craft" to some minds, a mechanic's "trade," or even the pretense of a hypocrite; to a Reynolds or a Ruskin it is also the expression of all that is beautiful in human achievement, and of all that is elevating in civilization. It speaks of paintings, sculpture and cathedrals, and of all that is beautiful in nature, in landscape, sky, and sea -- all that is noble or picturesque in history and life-- all that is hidden in the moral and aesthetic nature of man. Men's words are like ships laden with the riches of every shore of knowledge which their owner has visited; while the words of the child are but toy boats on which are loaded the simple notions he has picked up in his brief experience.


So, too, words often come to be liked or disliked for the ideas they suggest. Thus the word RELIGION to many is sublime with the divinest and most profound meanings. It paints on the dark background of human history, filled with sin and sorrow, all that is glorious in the character and government of God, all that is highest in faith and feeling, and all that is hopeful and bright in the future of man. To the more worldly, religion is sometimes the name of a mass of more or less disagreeable ceremonies or of distasteful duties. To the atheist it suggests superstition and creeds. In some degree, such variations of meaning belong to hundreds of the common words of our language. That teacher will do the best work who chooses his words wisely, raising the most and the clearest images in the minds of his pupils.


The reason goes further. In all effective teaching, thought passes in two directions -- from pupil to teacher as well as from teacher to pupil. It is as necessary for the teacher fully to understand the child, as for the child to understand the teacher. Oftentimes a pupil will load ordinary words with some strange, false, or distorted meanings, and the mistakes may remain uncorrected for years. Children are often compelled by their very poverty of speech to use words with other than their correct meanings. The teacher must learn the needs of the pupil from his words.


THE INSTRUMENT OF THOUGHT


But language is the INSTRUMENT, as well as the vehicle of thought. Words are tools under the plastic touch of which the mind reduces the crude mass of its impressions into clear and valid conceptions. Ideas become incarnate in words; they take form in language, and stand ready to be studied and known, to be marshaled into the mechanism of intelligible thought. Until they are thus given expression, they are like vague phantoms, indistinct and intangible. It is one of the most important functions of teaching to help the child to gain a full and clear expression of what he already know simperfectly. No teaching is complete that does not issue in plain and intelligent expression of the lesson; this means that the expression should be in the language of the child, and not mere repetition of ready-made definitions of someone else, in words very likely in many cases to be totally unfamiliar.


We may go even further and say that talking is thinking, for ideas must precede words in all but parrot speech. The most useful,

and sometimes the most difficult processes in thinking are those in which we fit words to ideas. The full and clear statement of a problem is often the best part of solving it. Ideas rise before us at first like the confused mass of objects in a new landscape; to put them into clear and correct words and sentences is to make the landscape familiar. Thoughts disentangle passing o'er the lip.


We master truth by expressing it, and are glad when we have clearly expressed our thought. But in order to make TALKING into THINKING, there must be independent and original effort, not a mere parrot like repetition of the words of other people. The pupil himself must do much of the talking. What teacher has not watched the battle when a little group of children have attacked some knotty problem, and each has tried to reduce the truth to proper speech? and how proud the victor when he has forced the thought into fitting words which all recognized as the true expression! Krusi tells of one of his pupils who was told to write a letter to his parents, and complained: "It is hard for me to write a letter." "Why! you are now a year older, and ought to be better able to do it." "Yes, but a year ago I could say everything I knew, but now I know more than I can say." Krusi adds: "This answer astonished me." It will surprise all of us who have not thought of the difficulty of obtaining sufficient mastery of language to express our thoughts.


Language has still another use; it is the STOREHOUSE of our knowledge. All that we know may be found laid up in the words concerning it. Thus words are not only the signs of our ideas, but they are clues by which we recover and recognize those ideas at will, and in the manifold derivative forms and combinations of these words, we store up the modifications and relations of the notion of which the simple word is the symbol. A group of words like act, acted, acting, actor, actress, action, actionable, active, actively, actual, actually, actualize, actuality, actuate, suggests a large volume of facts concerning persons, movements, relations, qualities, etc.


The language of the child, then, may be considered not only the measure of his attainments, but the embodiment of the elements of his knowledge. When we employ in our teaching the language of our pupils, we summon to our aid their acquired experience. New words must be learned when new objects are to be named or new ideas are to be symbolized; but if care is taken that the idea shall go before the word and that the word is mastered as a symbol before it is used in speech, it will guide and illumine rather than cloud the child's perception.


THE LANGUAGE OF OBJECTS


Words are not the only medium through which to speak. There are many ways to express thought. The eye, the head, the hand, the foot, the shoulder, are often used in speech in ways that are most intelligible. Among savage peoples whose language is too meager to meet their needs, symbolic actions often take the place of words. The gestures of some speakers frequently tell more than the spoken sentences of others. There is speech also in pictures. From rough sketches on the blackboard to paintings that are works of art,teaching by pictorial representation is swift and impressive.


Finally, nature aids speech.... she speaks a various language. Her innumerable forms are always ready as effective illustrations, and her analogies throw light on many deep problems. No teaching was ever more instructive than the parables of Jesus, drawn from nature around Him.


Ordinary artificial language probably must be the chief means of communication between teacher and pupil; but no wise teacher will forego the aid of all these various means of entrance to the minds of their pupils. Language by itself is at best but an imperfect medium of thought, and no one knows this better than the experienced teacher, who has sometimes found it ineffective, and who has been compelled to resort to any available means of illustration to make himself understood.


This discussion of language should not be interpreted as an encouragement to the teacher to become a lecturer before his class. The lecture is useful in its place, but its place is small in a school for children. It will be shown elsewhere that a too-talkative teacher is rarely a good teacher. An accurate knowledge of language is, however, of great advantage; those who talk little should certainly talk well, and those who expect to teach through language should know language themselves.


RULES FOR TEACHERS


Out of our Law of Languages, thus defined and explained, flow some of the most useful rules for teaching.


(1) Study constantly and carefully the language of the pupils, to learn what words they use and what meanings they give to these words.


(2) Secure from them as full a statement as possible of their knowledge of the subject, to learn both their ideas and their modes

of expressing them, and to help them to correct their knowledge.


(3) Express yourself as far as possible in the language of your pupils, carefully correcting any errors in the meaning they read into your words.


(4) Use the simplest and the fewest words that will express your meaning. Unnecessary words add to the child's work, and increase the possibilities for misunderstanding.


(5) Use short sentences, of the simplest construction. Long sentences are difficult to attend to and are frequently confusing to children.


(6) If the pupil obviously fails to understand you, repeat your thought in other language, if possible with greater simplicity.


(7) Help the meaning of the words by illustrations; natural objects and pictures are to be preferred for young children. Take illustrations from the children's own experiences whenever possible.


(8) When it is necessary to teach a new word, give the idea before the word. This can be done best by simple illustrations closely related to the children's own experience.


(9) Try to increase the number of the pupil's words, and at the same time improve the clearness of meaning. Real enlargement of a child's vocabulary means an increase of his knowledge and power.


(10) As the acquisition of language is one of the important aims in the process of education, do not be content to have your pupils listen in silence very long at a time, no matter how attentive they are. Encourage them to talk freely.


(11) Here, as everywhere in teaching the young, MAKE HASTE SLOWLY. Each word should be learned thoroughly before others are added.


(12) Test frequently the pupil's understanding of the words that he uses, to make sure that he attaches no incorrect meaning and that he sees the true meaning as vividly as possible.


VIOLATIONS AND MISTAKES


This third law of teaching is violated more frequently than the best teachers suspect.


(1) The interested look of the pupils often cheats the teacher into the belief that his language is thoroughly understood, and all the more easily because the pupil himself may be deceived and

say that he understands, when he has perhaps caught only a mere glimpse of the meaning.


(2) Children are often entertained by the manner of the teacher, and seem attentive to his words when really they are watching only his eyes, lips, or actions. Again, they will sometimes profess to understand simply to please their instructor and gain his praise.


(3) The misuse of language is one of the common faults in teaching. Not to mention those teachers who attempt to cover up their own ignorance or indolence with a cloud of verbiage which they know the children will not understand, and omitting also those who are more anxious to exhibit their own wisdom than to teach others, there are still many honest teachers who try hard to make the lesson clear, and then think that their duty is done; that if the children do not understand, it must be either from willful inattention or hopeless stupidity. These teachers do not suspect that they may have used words which had no meaning for the class, or into which the children read a wrong meaning.


(4) It may be a single unusual or misunderstood term that breaks the connection, but it does not occur to the teacher to hunt up the break and restore the connection. Children do not always ask for explanations, discouraged sometimes by fear of the teacher, or shame for their own ignorance, and too often they are charged with stupidity or inattention when no amount of attention would have helped them to understand the unfamiliar language.


(5) Even those teachers who naturally use simple language to their classes sometimes fail in the higher uses of this instrument of teaching. They do not take the trouble to secure from the child in return some clear statement, and they have, therefore, no test of their success. The children do not talk themselves, nor are their vocabularies enlarged.


(6) Many teachers have no proper appreciation of the wonderful character and complexity of language; they do not reflect that modern society could scarcely exist without speech. Many persons have decidedly limited vocabularies. It has often been found that one of the greatest obstacles to the general enlightenment of people lies in their lack of the knowledge through which they must be addressed. A commission from the British Parliament was once sent to investigate the language of the coal miners and other laborers of England in order to ascertain the possibility of diffusing useful information among them by means of tracts and books. It was found that their knowledge of language, in a large number of the cases examined, was entirely too meager to permit of such a means of instruction. How much greater this deficiency must be among the young, whose experience is so much more limited. If we would teach children successfully, we must widen and deepen this channel of communication between them and ourselves.


(7) Many of the topics studied in school lie outside the daily life and language of the children; and every science has a language of its own which must be mastered by the student who makes any progress in it. The teacher in the Sunday school should recognize that here lies one of his problems; many times the facts and truths of religion are likely to be distorted by the half-understood terms in which they are told. To the teacher of children in the schools of Bible learning should come the warning to make his words clear.

 
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