A Pedagogic Idiolect: Words from the English Classroom

By Andy Atherton


What is a ‘pedagogic idiolect’ and how might focusing on your own pedagogic idiolect improve your teaching?


As a child, my mother would take her video recorder everywhere: on day trips, family gatherings, birthdays, Christmas, holidays. She had — and still does — a massive stack of these videos, piled like books on a shelf. If bored on a Sunday afternoon, she would take one down and we would watch it together.

Maybe seven or eight, I remember watching these with equal measures of awkward embarrassment and fascination. The same basic insight fuelled both emotions: to see myself as others did, to notice the way I talked, acted, moved; both familiar and strange. I would laugh and recoil; hide my face yet at the same time affix my eyes to the screen.

For many years, I have been a massive advocate of using video recording as part of my professional development. In fact, it is one of the activities that has had the most significant impact on my improvement as a teacher.

Yet, even now, watching myself played out on a screen conjures the same two emotions. Embarrassment but also studied fascination. It is, I think, the ability to see oneself at a distance, once removed from the actual remembered experience of doing whatever it might be. This frisson might cause a certain awkwardness — in me anyway — but it is also what makes it so hugely valuable for getting better in the classroom. We see ourselves as our students do; notice things we would not notice in the moment.

Having watched myself teaching for many hours, it is quickly apparent I speak with what I might call a pedagogic idiolect: certain phrases or habits of speech that I say over and again. These phrases comprise the patter of my pedagogy. In this article, I want to share three of these sayings; things I find myself repeating lesson after lesson. It is a useful test case in the kind of relationship I have to my subject; the way it is presented and embodied to students.


Why That Word and Not Another?

I must ask a variation of this question every single lesson I teach. To my mind, it is one of the most powerful questions English teachers can ask their students; unlocking a deep sense of the inherent multivalency of language.

The conversation might look something like this, using the poem ‘Walking Away’ as an example:

  • Teacher: Let’s consider Day-Lewis’ use of the word ‘wrenched’ in the line ‘like a satellite wrenched from its orbit’. What other words could have been used?
  • Student A: Maybe pulled
  • Student B: Grabbed
  • Student C: Tugged

And now, the all-important question: well, why do you think Day-Lewis chose ‘wrenched’ and not, say, ‘pulled’, grabbed’, or ‘tugged’? What’s the difference?

Just by asking this question, we guide students towards a far more precise, detailed and rich appreciation of the connotations and associations of the given word. It works so well, I’ve found, because comparison tends to be easier than trying to evaluate within a vacuum. It is easier to compare the difference (and therefore possible effects) of ‘wrenched’ in comparison to ‘walked’ than simply asking what the effect of the word is. [As an aside, this is the same reason why comparative judgement is probably a much better way to mark student work than trying to assess a single piece of work in isolation].

By making this question part of my everyday discussion routines — my pedagogic idiolect — it becomes a lot easier to direct and focus analytical attention. It also helps to avoid vague comments like ‘the word makes me want to read on’.


Diveable Language

Another way I help student to appreciate the complexity and richness of literary language, is to give it a name. There are certain images or quotations that repay analysis more than others. These are the images that if grappled with and poured over will yield a wealth of ideas. They’re the quotations we signpost, that we teach, that we help our students to remember in the hope they spend precious essay-space discussing them.

Such images go by many names. Power quotations, neon lines and juicy quotations are all ones I’ve used before. However, in recent years I’ve settled on calling them ‘diveable’. There are a few reasons this specific term has made its way into my pedagogic idiolect:

  1. It communicates what makes these quotations so useful: they are linguistically ‘deep’, repaying continued digging and exploration.
  2. It helps me to differentiate between those that repay such analysis and those that don’t. I talk a lot about ‘shallow’ quotations that students should avoid.
  3. It provides a useful way to express the need to keep pushing, saying multiple things about a given image. I encourage my students to ‘keep diving’ or to ‘dig deeper’.

Of course, simply labelling something does not automatically mean students will be able to do it. But, as a conceptual shortcut that signposts and makes explicit the intellectual process I’m hoping to inculcate, I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful.


What Does the Text Do?

Shifting from micro to macro, one of the most frequent questions I ask to help students grapple with the thematic landscape of the text is ‘what does it do?’ This has been one of the best and biggest changes I’ve made to my teaching of authorial intent in recent years.

Asking this question stops the text being seen as a container for an author’s personal views, but instead an active agent in its own right. It is capable of actually doing something, both when  originally published and when read now. It makes an impact; continues to exert influence long after the author has died.

Asking this question, opens up a whole attendant vocabulary that also forms a fundamental part of my pedagogic idiolect. I talk about the way a text might:

  • Challenge
  • Warn
  • Uphold
  • Subvert
  • Critique
  • Celebrate
  • Ridicule

In my teaching of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, I talk about the way the text subverts Regency Period attitudes towards marriage or how it ridicules the pomposity of character like Mr Collins. This opens up an entire way of thinking about the powerful impact a text can have that moves students well beyond the often unhelpful ‘Austen thinks’ or ‘Austen does this because…’

Whenever I teach non-fiction writing, I always encourage students to conclude with a call to action. Their writing should, I say and paraphrasing TS Eliot, end with a bang and not a whimper. And so here’s my own call to action. If you haven’t already, trying recording yourself teaching. It may be awkward to watch at first, but the rewards are well worth it.

And if you do, listen out for the phrases, snippets and repeated words that comprise your own pedagogic idiolect.


You can read more articles by Andy Atherton here.


Andy Atherton is a Teacher of English as well as Director of Research in a secondary school in Berkshire. He regularly publishes blogs about English and English teaching at ‘Codexterous’ and you can follow him on Twitter @__codexterous

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