Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own: Law of the Language

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The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory explain not only how to teach, but even more importantly, how people learn. We must be students of learning if we want to be effective homeschooling moms. Unless we understand the work we’re about day in and day out, we will be less fruitful than we could be.

The world’s best work, in the schools as in the shops, is done by the calm, steady, and persistent efforts of skilled workmen who know how to keep their tools sharp, and to make every effort reach its mark.

Let’s put in the time and energy to know our tools and use them well.

Begin with the introduction, summary, and table of contents for The Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own series.

The book is available for free online.


Summary of the Seven Laws of Teaching

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7 Laws of Teaching: Law 3, the Law of the Language.

Summary of Law 3: The language used in teaching must be common to teacher and learner, understood by both, with the same meaning to both.

Gregory speaks in this chapter of language as a vehicle of instruction, an instrument of learning, and a storehouse of knowledge. Briefly, he means that through common language we communicate experience, by speaking we appropriate what we perceive, that without adequate words we cannot think through ideas clearly, and that what we know we will name. Beware, he warns, words with multiple meanings or homophones -- children easily pick up confused meanings, unaware that their perception is inaccurate. It is what the student interprets in his mind, not what the teacher intends, that matters:
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.
Remember that children do not yet have nuanced and weighty vocabularies:
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.
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.
So, choose your own words carefully when you are teaching. There is a place for broadening and deepening the child’s vocabulary through exposure, but a lesson is not that place. Listen to the child’s words as well, correcting and honing his speech gently. The very process of thinking it fitting an idea into words. We master truth by expressing it, so the pupil himself should do much of the talking. Lecture should be given a small place in instruction. In doing the talking himself (through narration or discussion), the child must make the knowledge his own by putting words to thoughts and through his speech, the teacher sees what the child sees and knows where to lead him and what correction and strengthening he needs. Moreover, language gives us the very categories we use for thinking and perceiving. The language at the student’s disposal is no small matter. One cannot think about something one does not have the words for. Giving children words is a vital part of teaching.
The full and clear statement of a problem is often the best part of solving it. Ideas rise before us 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.
Abstract words, however, are not the only types of language possible. The teacher should not forgo communicating through nature, through concrete experience, through stories, and through pictures. All of these are tools and resources to be used for the development of ideas, concepts, thinking, and experience in the student’s own mind.

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SC009: The Law of the Language

Applications to the Homeschool

Words, words, words. We must carefully choose our words. We must gently correct our children’s words. We must purposefully expand our own and our children’s vocabularies. What struck me most was Gregory’s emphasis that the students should be doing more of the talking than the teacher. That means that our job is less presentation and more listening. This is both relieving and wearying. This, again, calls us to attention as teachers. Gregory does not use the term narration, but it so neatly fits all he requires of language as an instrument that we would do well to utilize it to its full potential. And, perhaps thinking of it merely in the terms of the student speaking about what he is learning might take away some of the mystery of the term. Get the student to talk about what he observed, or read, or thought, and you will see what he knows. Then you will know better how to proceed. This focus on language, of course, transcends school time and is as applicable in discipline, in training, and in casual conversation -- at any point that you might possibly want your child to understand what you are saying. And isn’t that every time we speak?

Application of the Law of the Language

  1. Observe the language of the children to learn what they know and what they need. There’s that old attention thing, again.
  2. Require full and complete narrations after lessons. This will be developed still further in later laws.
  3. Express yourself carefully to ensure you are understood. It is also good to encourage your children to freely ask if they do not understand a word. We foster this by our patient explanations or restatements.
  4. Use simple and few words, short sentences, repeat yourself with different language, use illustrations and objects.
  5. Encourage the student to talk freely so you may come to know and correct their knowledge and vocabulary. Finding out an error is an opportunity, not a failure.

Violations of the Law of the Language

    1. Unnecessary words add to the child’s work and increase the possibility for misunderstanding.
    2. Asking the child if he understands is futile, for he is too easily deceived about his own understanding, often mistaking a glimmer of understanding for full and complete comprehension. Children might also simply desire to please the teacher by professing to understand, and they may refuse to ask for explanations out of fear or shame. Instead of asking if he understands, have him retell in his own words.
    3. 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.
We must be willing to accept the fault if our children don't understand, and also be willing to change.
  1. Not seeking a clear statement in return from the student means you have no test of your success, nor does the student gain personal use of the words or concepts delivered to his ears until he uses them with his own mind and mouth. We must require narration of our students if we want them to learn.
It has often been found that one of the greatest obstacles to the general enlightenment of people lies in their lack of the knowledge though which they may be addressed. [...] If we would teach children successfully, we must widen and deepen this channel of communication between them and ourselves.
Let us not only use clear language ourselves, but also require it of our kids, then connection can happen.
Seven Laws of Teaching your Own Series

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