Developing eloquence


Think of the impressive people you meet in life – very often they will have a shared characteristic. They have a range of vocabulary with which to express themselves clearly; they speak and write well in an engaging manner; they say or write exactly what they mean and, when they listen to you, they understand the nuance of what you are saying precisely.

All this is based on much more than being literate. It is being eloquent.

At Bolton School this year we have launched our mission to make the boys eloquent. They are able pupils and literacy in its functional sense is not the issue. But we are very well aware that, perhaps even more harshly than in Eliza Doolittle’s day, the boys will be judged not only on their ability, or their personal presentation, but simply on how well they express themselves. They must be eloquent to succeed. Just think when you hear ‘them’ when you should have heard ‘those’ and imagining that it does not, even slightly, alter your view on who you are speaking to.

As with most schools a few early ‘literacy across the curriculum’ campaigns fell into a morass of correcting spellings and the detailed discussions between staff of the correct symbols to be used to do so. This time we have three simple strands to developing eloquence.

The first is just practice – we have developed imaginative schemes to get the boys to read across all subjects and provided opportunities for them to speak as well as for them to listen at decent length. As with many things time spent doing an activity improves it immeasurably. As they read, vocabulary increases, as they speak the command of how to express an argument increases and a virtuous circle can begin. An important spin off from reading lists is to ensure that the boys have read the classics, will understand a literary allusion in conversation and generally be intelligent, eloquent young men.

The next two strands address what may be the two most astonishing anti evolutionary tendencies of the modern age. Generally evolution and time make things better but in this generation the young people know fewer words and are less well read than their parents and also they increasingly cannot write.

So the second is developing vocabulary – through reading, through various activities and through a relentless focus from colleagues on using a wide range of words. It really is vital that teachers in any school do not reduce the range of their vocabulary to suit the pupils. The pupils must gain words, not the adults lose them. For this to work a culture of being able to ask what a word means is crucial.

Finally there is writing. Here we do not mean only the ability to write well, with good grammar and control of the message. We actually mean the physical act of writing. Young people are finding the physical task of using a pen harder and harder as they do it less and less. We are not against technology at Bolton School, indeed we have embraced e-learning, but we have equally embraced the need to ensure the boys can write. It may well be exams go on line one day, but the time scale for that feels  a little like the 25 years it will take for oil to run out and for nuclear fusion to work, which have been 25 years for the last 20 years to my knowledge. A line of A4 every half minute would see a decent length exam answer crafted and that is what we aim for. Confidence in the physical act of writing will breed confidence in the all-important quality of what is written.

We aim to end up with eloquent young men, who can be judged on their talents not by the surface appearances we might like to think belong to the days of Pygmalion but are all too evident today.


About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.