The Power of a Common Functional Vocabulary

I worked closely with a number of colleagues this week to prepare curriculum for a new IB English course, IB Language A: Language and Literature HL in full jargony regalia. During the course of our efforts, a cloud descended as we discussed strategies for grading an internal assessment done early in the students’ first year. I spoke of grading and scoring, another colleague used grading and marking, and our third colleague used all three. As such, great confusion arose as we sought to decode what, exactly, anyone was talking about at any given moment. When I spoke of scoring, I meant using IB rubrics to put IB-dictated numbers on a piece of work with corresponding feedback, but by grading I was referring to the letter grade we would assign to specific scores on the IB scale. Perhaps you’re already confused.

Any debates over the merits of grading and/or externally assessed courses like IB/AP notwithstanding, this time-sucking, frustrating conversation ended in laughter as we figured out how we had linguistically tied ourselves in knots. If we had a pre-defined, shared set of function words referring to specific teaching practices distinct from one another, the conversation would have shed 28 minutes of slowly escalating befuddlement and we could have made a decision and moved on. This is no different for students. In content areas or skill acquisition, teachers should agree on a common set of nonnegotiable, essential vocabulary that allow students to function within the discipline and stick with those. In the composition classroom, we have dozens of ways – generally inexact – of referring to concepts like voice or organization in writing and students must adjust and catch up year by year in the absence of a shared, explicitly taught set of functional vocabulary agreed upon by consensus. In reading and literacy instruction, dozens of like terms have bred, begetting myriad crazy labels for processes simple and complex. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what words we use as long as the definitions are clear, shared, taught, and regularly applied. Of course, many academic contexts or subject areas have common functional vocabulary, so it’s silly to force kids to learn “order of operations” as “fun with figurin'” in fourth grade, only to confuse them in fifth grade when the teacher uses the standard terminology.

The idea is to get past linguistic hurdles, give knowledge and skill steps clear, common labels whenever necessary, and move on to the doing of learning. In our conversation, we lost half an hour to inexact functional language – not Earth shattering, but a solid lesson in the power of a common functional vocabulary!

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