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Home > News and views > The Power of Words

The Power of Words

Not all schools have equal access to debate. Head Teacher Geoff Barton makes an impassioned case for why they should

During my first year at a comprehensive school in Leeds, a Year 10 student handed in the first draft of some descriptive writing. I read the opening sentence. It went something like this: ‘The golden orb beat down from amid the azure wilderness’. ‘Erm, what does this mean, Helen?’ I asked. Fifteen-year-old Helen peered at me as though I was being deliberately dim. ‘It means the sun was shining.’

It was terrible writing but it showed that Helen sensed something that I’ve continued to explore since – that our vocabulary is in itself a gateway to success. For her, big words were better than little words. A ‘golden orb’ was more redolent with meaning than ‘sun’ and an ‘azure wilderness’ more descriptive than ‘sky’. In this instance, she was wrong. Her language was clumsy, overblown, self-consciously otiose. But look at the sentence I’ve just written. Look at the peacock-style expression I’ve used – a level of linguistic showing off that isn’t that much different from Helen’s.

I’ve since read widely on cultural literacy and the significance of vocabulary and in doing so, I have become obsessed with the idea that we have a duty to teach to the ‘word poor’ the insights and habits of the ‘word rich’. Because Helen implicitly knew something about the link between language and power. That is, in our culture – in schools, for example – the child who writes ‘In the book the writer says…’ can easily be judged as less intelligent than the one who writes ‘In the novel the author suggests…’. ‘Novel’ is more specific than ‘book’; ‘suggests’ is more analytical than ‘says’. This the word rich know.

Thus precision in vocabulary – not simply big words for their own sake – is a proxy for knowledge and understanding, for the way people judge us and for our personal ability to express ideas about the world. And it matters in speaking as much as it does in writing, especially where talk is being used publicly – for persuasion and performance. So part of my mission over the past 10 years has been to apply this interest in the arena traditionally dominated by the word rich, often by those from more privileged backgrounds. It’s my fascination with competitive debating.

Note, this isn’t public speaking. It isn’t teaching young people to write a well-crafted speech, to learn it by heart, and then to deliver it to an audience. That’s an important skill. But to my mind, debating matters more. Because debating unleashes thinking. It celebrates the ability to analyse. It’s more spontaneous. It channels an ability to decide what matters, which arguments count, and then trains us to express those views in a mode of language that will win our case and impress those who judge us. In no other area of school life can we pay a greater service to the word poor than by initiating them into an activity traditionally dominated by the word rich.

When I first became interested in debating, I’d take the teams from my comprehensive school to competitions at formidable university venues, such as the debating chambers at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. We still do this, travelling to 20 or so competitions each year, with different groups of students aged 14 to 19. In those early days, I spoke to a veteran debating coach whose independent day school boys routinely crushed every team against whom they competed. Their talent to be able to take any topic, regardless of debating position (opening government, closing opposition), and then, after just 15 minutes of closed preparation time, to weave compelling, lucid, unimpeachable speeches – this mesmerised me. I asked the coach: ‘How do you train them to do this?’ Over-modestly, but revealingly, she replied: ‘I don’t. They are north London boys who spend each breakfast and evening meal sitting at the kitchen table arguing with their parents about what’s in the Daily Telegraph. Why wouldn’t they win?’

Thus my interest in debating is to do what we can to recreate that culture of conversation, of controlled verbal dispute, of connecting abstract ideas to our own experience and making it accessible to youngsters who may not have a dining table in their house, let alone daily conversations across it with an adult. In bringing a debating culture into school, especially a state school, we bring our students into contact with a culture they might not otherwise encounter. It’s an act of social liberation.


In terms of the impact of debating on students’ oracy, here are my insights. First, debating has a specific vocabulary. It has a formality. It moves us linguistically to forms of speaking that carry prestige – to words that matter, and forms of delivery that are associated with successful communication. Some of this is about vocabulary. By its nature debating will use more Latinate vocabulary – suggest over says. It will bring with it abstract concepts relating to justice, or human rights, or hypothetical concepts of what we should ban or unban.

Debating also embeds a habit of formality. For example, it takes fillers like ‘er’ and ‘you know’ and replaces them with mannered but high status fillers – such as ‘ladies and gentlemen’. The student who is asked to speak about why school uniform is a good or bad idea might start: ‘Blazers and ties, ladies and gentlemen, might make adults feel happier, but they have nothing to do with the quality of education’.

We know that in colloquial, everyday talk, fillers are a key feature. We know that coordinated sentences dominate (sentences in which clauses are linked by coordinating conjunctions such as ‘and’ and ‘but’) This is how we speak. We know that more informal prosodic features such as uptalk – in which there’s an upward intonation at the end of sentences – are associated with everyday language.

But we also know that these linguistic features are not generally associated with prestige. The language of power tends to prize precision, fluency, formality. Debating therefore allows young people to practise modes of language which carry such prestige – the words, phrases, sentences and rhetorical devices which build confidence that translates into enhanced social skills and, in my experience, into an ability to be able to write better, as the mind becomes trained to structure ideas and express them more powerfully, more formally and more precisely. It’s why debate as a form should feature from time to time in every classroom in every subject, on every extra-curricular activity list and – crucially – in school assemblies. Assemblies matter because students can then see that it’s not just crusty, ageing blokes like me who can use powerful words in persuasive ways, but it’s also people like them, of their age and their background. In doing this, I believe, we give our students a huge linguistic advantage, opening doors into a new, often unfamiliar mode of self-expression. With that comes greater self-confidence in responding to the world and in expressing views about it. And with that more young people are inducted into modes of communication and linguistic habits through which they can feel on a par with, and no longer inferior to, the word rich around them.

This is an edited extract from Speaking Frankly, a publication produced in support of the new Oracy Network.

This article first appeared in Dialogue, our magazine.

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