As a subject teacher I focus on developing vocabulary within my subject, Art. Basically this is not different from teaching in the Dutch spoken classroom. I need the word “value” to describe how surfaces differ in reflecting light, just as I need “helderheid” for the same phenomenon in Dutch. The word is a gateway into experiencing the visual world. It is one of many words that build up a systematic word bank, “Visual Elements and Visual Principles.”

The Word Bank

Each subject comes with its own specialized words.  Most of these words are quite recondite. The word banks for the subjects do not enter into common conversation. I guess using “isosceles triangle” when describing my house to a host in England would meet an amused raising of eyebrows, although the expression is perfectly suited to describe the mathematical shape of the gable.

Every day words

Fortunately my subject deals with the world at large, at least with everything that can be seen and represented in a work of art so as to engender emotions with the beholder. To enable my students to describe works of art I cannot evade dealing with each and every word for objects, conditions, moods or feelings. This can not be done systematically, each art work or art task leads to vocabulary in a different way. A favourite task of mine is having the students make a drawing of their own bike (which represents the category of constructions in the Word Bank) and teaching them all the words for all the parts. Some students that come up with the word “head set” in the test on this topic would not be able to produce the proper word for it in Dutch: “balhoofdlager.” These students are capable of explaining their problem in a repair shop in England if they have run a flat tyre (“I could not find a puncture but possibly the valve may be leaking?”).

So far for immersion

I have learnt to distrust the effects of the immersion programme. Yes, the students can come up with some conversation in English. The difference between the same word used as an adverb or as an adjective seems to come naturally. Nevertheless, they are often at a loss when a word just doesn’t pop up. Clearly the language used by their teachers does not even provide them with the vernacular of a six year old English child, which consists of a spoken vocabulary anywhere between 8000 and 14000 words.
The dustpan is an object in my classroom. I use the word frequently when asking the students to clean the room. I have given them the dustpan in their hands while using the word. I have pointed at the object when they looked quizzically. After half a year in my classroom one would expect the first formers to be able to produce the word ad lib when needed. Nope. I went so far as to produce a nifty paper with photographs and words for 46 objects in the classroom, to be studied. Then I tested them, a fill in exercise, without the photographs. All but three students failed. The average mark was 3.0. The dustpan was missed by most of the students. They thought that skimming the sheet with photographs and words for a couple of minutes would do.

Do we make them conceited?

I believe immersion in the foreign language in the tto-programme makes students complacent. They are being spoon fed with English, and this does not lead to learning how to master a foreign language actively and independently. The immersion is incomplete, and the child at eleven is beyond the development stage in which language development comes without effort. So they need to do a lot of effort. They have to cram seemingly easy words like “dustpan” to be able to remember them when needed. If we do not teach our students how to cope with the most boring of all school tasks, memorising words, we fail as teachers.


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