Are you – or ARE YOU IN CONTACT WITH – a school pupil? (Post 37)

Here in the UK we’re facing another period of schools – some of them, at any rate – being closed because of Coronavirus. It’s January 3rd 2021 as I write, and the four nations of the UK have made different decisions about closures, but each of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is going to have at least some pupils working from home for some of this month.

This blog has – since April 2020 – posted online ideas for pupils who are stuck at home, so that they can continue to develop their English language skills. The suggestions cover talking, listening, reading and writing. They don’t require much equipment at all. They develop skills such as communication, analysis and reviewing, as well as the more obvious ones such as creating stories, reports and speeches, and playing word-games. Look back at some of the earlier blog-posts if you’d like to get some ideas.

Now, here we are again, with pupils of all ages at home when they would normally be at school.

Schools will set work to be done at home, of course, but there can be problems there. Last summer term showed us that some schools managed this better than others – and that’s not necessarily their fault. Technical issues were undoubtedly a barrier in some cases. Home situations can also be difficult: does each pupil have access to a laptop or tablet for his or her exclusive use during the school day? (A phone isn’t really as good, here, because of the size of the screen and of the “keyboard”.) Is the broadband connection at home (and at school) good enough to allow the downloading and uploading of work in a reasonable time-frame? Is there a quiet place at home where the pupil can concentrate, and work without interruption? What happens when (s)he gets stuck with a work problem: is there someone either at home or contactable by phone or online who can help?

None of these is a small problem – and if you are in touch with a school pupil who has to work from home, maybe you can help. If you’re an older sibling [brother or sister], or a grandparent, can you lend a tablet or laptop to someone who doesn’t have one? Can you provide a quiet workspace for some of the day? Can you be nearby to help with any problems – and perhaps provide hot or soft drinks, and something nice to eat, when the pupil needs to take a break?

Most of all, can you help a pupil with her or his motivation to work? That’s probably the biggest obstacle of all to working from home for any length of time.

You may not think you can help a young friend of yours, but you can.

There is nothing more influential on a young person than an older one who has chosen to take an interest in him or her. (And although parents are hugely important and – although they may not think so, at times! – do have an influence on their children, they don’t count as having chosen to take an interest: it’s part of the parental job description to do so.)

You don’t have to be heavy-handed about this. You don’t need to have done well at school yourself – although it’s not a barrier if you did do well. You don’t need to be a family member (although you might be). Just by asking your young friend or contact what the home-schooling arrangements are, by taking an active interest in how the arrangements are working and how the young person’s getting on – and keeping that interest going – you are showing that it matters to you how well that person is doing.

It’s often easier to talk to someone outside your immediate family about any problems or negative feelings you’re having. If you’re that someone outside the immediate family, gently ask about any difficulties your young contact is having with working from home. If you identify a difficulty, ask whether you can help, and if so how. If the answer’s “I don’t know”, perhaps you can make some suggestions – but don’t feel that you have to solve the problem; just being there to listen to the difficulty is helping; sometimes the person can solve the problem him- or her-self after having talked it out with someone else.

Similarly, if it’s an “academic” problem in, for example, maths or physics, you don’t have to be a maths or physics person to help. You can suggest where help might be found; but even more simply you can say, “Talk me through what you’ve done so far” and “What did your teacher say you had to do, when you were taught this?” Sometimes that, too, will trigger the learner to realise that (s)he does actually remember what to do after all – or knows where to find the method that (s)he’s been taught.

You might think that if you hated school, and couldn’t wait to get out of it, you’re not the best person to motivate someone who’s still a pupil, but that’s not the case. You might say – as a great member of the estates staff [a workman] at one school where I taught often did to pupils – “You don’t want to have to do the job that I do. You want to work hard and get qualifications so that you can choose what sort of job to go for.” He was a great motivator, and he wasn’t bitter about his work, just honest.

You might say that you didn’t enjoy being at school, but you realise that you did learn something by being there – even if it was what you didn’t want to do in your life beyond school. Even having the conversation about what you liked and didn’t like, and what your young friend likes or doesn’t like, about school, will help her or him to realise that (s)he isn’t alone in that. One parent apparently told a pupil of mine that he might not like school, but that it was “a short pain for a long-term gain”; I’d hope it can be a bit better than that – but at least, again, he was being honest, and it did make his son realise that there was a reason why he was expected to do the work set by his school.

And if you happen to “hit it off” with your young friend, and get to talking about a subject that both of you really enjoy – well, there’s no end to the help you can give, and the pleasure you can both have in exploring it together.

You may think there’s nothing you can do to help a home-learning pupil in these coming weeks, but believe me: if you know one, you can help.

PS – There are some pupils who are perfectly happy learning from home and don’t need much, if any, help. There are others who think that they don’t need any help; and there are some who think they don’t want any help. Nevertheless, your taking an interest will be appreciated, and what you do after that will depend on the young person’s response. Good luck – and thank you.

Word (Dis)Association Activity (Post 30)

This activity can be used either as a challenging game or, more seriously, to try to find out more about the person you’re talking to.

We all associate different things in our minds. So, for example, snow might, for you, conjure up images of cold, wet, darkness, hunger and other unpleasant things. For me, however, snow suggests whiteness, crisp cold air, sparkling sunlight, blue skies and Christmas. These associations are called the connotations of the word. A word’s connotations are not its literal meaning (which is its definition) but its associations.

Connotations can be different from person to person, therefore. Some words are generally agreed to have similar connotations for most English speakers, however. For example, jolly, fatherly and homely are all thought to have positive connotations for most people. Cold, tight and ghost are all thought to have negative connotations for most people.

You can see that this is far from being universal. Each of the six words above could easily have completely different connotations for some people.

However, this game – or activity – allows you to have your own associations.

If you are using it as a game, you need to be prepared to defend your associations.

You can either be reasonable with one another and make your own judgments, or you can appoint a third person as judge (or arbiter).

Version 1: Speaker A mentions a word, and within a reasonable space of time Speaker B has to respond with a word associated with it. Versions of Speaker A’s word are not allowed. So, for example, if A says snow, B may not say snowing or snowfall. (S)He may say cold, or Christmas, or wet, or any number of things . . . but if B says, for example, hippopotamus, A may well challenge him/her.

Then, it is up to B to defend him/herself by explaining why hippopotamus is associated with snow. If B fails to explain this convincingly, A gains a point and comes up with another word for B to respond to. If a reasonable explanation is forthcoming, the game continues: A has to come up with a word which is associated with hippopotamus.

A might say river or water or horse. If, however, A says cloud, B might reasonably challenge this. A must defend his/her choice of cloud; if he/he is successful (coming up with a convincing explanation), the game continues, with B responding to cloud. If A fails to defend the choice, however, B gains a point and comes up with another word for A to respond to.

As you get better at this, try to make the time-limit for each response shorter.

Version 2: as above, except this time the challenge is to respond with a word which has nothing at all to do with the previous word! This is much more difficult than Version 1! Challenges are more frequent, and they can also be ingenious and funny. If you want to hear comedians tackle this, try to listen to some broadcasts of the Radio 4 programme I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue.

Version 3: this isn’t a game. It’s a way of finding out about your partner/friend. Played with great trust and honesty, it can reveal a great deal about a person and his/her past. It might be something to save for someone close to you, therefore. Simply, you ask the other person, “What comes to mind for you when you hear the word [and then you choose a word]?” Suggested words: friend; happiness; fear; hope; comfort; love; funny; childhood; home.

You can take turns asking each other about the connotations of a particular word, or you can just use the exercise as part of a normal getting-to-know-you-better conversation.

Code-switching (Post 28)

It sounds like something a double agent in a spy story would do. In fact, it’s something we all do – or at least, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t do it.

We speak in different ways when we are in different settings. I think the most influential aspect of the setting is the person or people we are with at the time. There are things that we would say to friends that we wouldn’t say to our parents; similarly, there are ways of speaking that we would use with friends which we wouldn’t use with our parents. For many people, swearing falls into this category.

HOW we speak, as well as what we say, changes when we are in different groups. In Post 3How do you sound? I asked you to record yourself speaking. You probably sounded rather different when consciously recording yourself, compared with when you speak naturally and in a relaxed way. That slightly more formal, more self-conscious way of speaking is one code; the relaxed, informal way of speaking with your friends is another code. Yet another code might be the way you would speak in an interview – more thoughtful and formal still, trying hard to create the impression you think the interviewer wants to hear (and see).

Gangs very often have their own codes – their own ways of speaking – which they use to identify one another. Rap often contains examples of gang code.

You might choose to speak in only one way all the time, and of course that is your prerogative [that is, it’s your choice to make]. You might think that that shows integrity, and it probably does. If you do only speak in one way all the time, however, you are losing what might be valuable opportunities to establish bonds with other people, and you may be displaying a lack of empathy [sharing other people’s feelings].

It is valuable to be able to code-switch. If people regard you as more like themselves, they are more likely to trust you. If they consider that you are not “one of us”, you must be “one of them” and so they might not accept you into their group. If their group happens to be the university you want to attend, or the business you want to work for, that’s going to place you at a disadvantage.

Here is the writer and journalist Oliver Kamm explaining why knowing how to speak (and write) in an appropriate manner (“code”) is helpful to you. The explanations in square brackets are by me. The extracts which follow are from his book Accidence will happen: The NON-PEDANTIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH. The title makes use of both a pun (see Post 18) and a homophone (see Post 19): “accidents will happen” is a much-used expression in our language, while accidence is the part of grammar dealing with inflection – where we put the stress on words; see Post 17Rhythm.

“We all adapt our style … according to our audience. We use intimate terms (and perhaps a private vocabulary) with a loved one, casual language with friends, and varying degrees of more formal language … with strangers, experts or figures in authority. … code-switching … saves us time and gains us credibility with listeners or readers whose attention we want … .”

” … the conventions of language enable you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised [treated as if you were a child] because of the way you write or speak … .”

“The reason for speaking and writing fluently in Standard form [conventional or “correct” English] isn’t to show refinement; it is to make us at home in the world. Slang makes us at home in a like-minded group. That isn’t wrong but it is limiting.”

“Teenagers may be highly intelligent and also habitual users of slang and non-Standard forms; but if all they use is slang or non-Standard English, then their intelligence will not be recognised and their abilities will be needlessly constrained … .”

“… Linguistic superstitions don’t matter. Tacit [unspoken] conventions that make up Standard English do, because they enable you to get listened to without prejudice.”

And here is another writer on English language use – Professor David Crystal – making the same point about punctuation [commas, full stops, inverted commas, etc] in written English:

“… non-standard punctuation used in settings where we expect standard forms to prevail … can affect the user’s social credibility or career prospects.” [From his book Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.]

I’d argue very strongly, then, that knowing how to speak and write in Standard or formal English is a valuable tool for anyone to have in his or her language tool-box. It might be said to be a power-tool. And this blog is all about the power that language use gives you!

Another Word Game (Activity 20)

I hope you’re enjoying playing Just a Minute (Post Number 12). Today’s game requires a little more preparation but the preparation itself is easier. You need teams of two; if there are only two of you, you can play together, but it’s more competitive if two-person teams compete against one another.

This is a communication game: it tests how well the speaker can describe the word on the card, and how well the listener can pick up the clues that the speaker is giving to him or her.

The more people you have playing, or the longer you want to play, the more words you have to have prepared in advance.

Get some paper and cut it into strips (15cm by 6cm is a minimum size) or if you have access to card, use or make cards of about that size.

Take a marker pen (a pen with a very thick nib) and write clearly on only one side of each strip or card.

Write one word on each. The words can be as easy or as difficult as you choose – but as with subjects for Just a Minute, remember that you may well have to guess the difficult ones yourself!

If you can manage 100 different words as a minimum, that allows you a good stretch of playing time (see below for ideas to get you started). If you can manage 200 or 300, all the better! And if you want to return to playing this game, of course people will forget the words they saw the first time, and/or there will be new players, so your pack of cards or strips can be used many times over.

The rules are simple. The speaker sits with the cards in front of him, with a shield between the cards and the listener – perhaps a cereal box, or a pile of books. A timer is set for one minute (or two minutes, if you prefer). If you have a third person as a time-keeper, that can help.

The speaker has to help the listener to guess correctly the exact word on the card in front of her/him, without using the word, or part of it, directly him/herself.

For example, if the word is HAPPY, the speaker mustn’t use (or spell out) HAPPY, HAPPINESS, HAPPIER, UNHAPPY and so on.

The speaker starts with the word on the top card/strip on his/her pile and is not allowed to move on to the next one until the word has been correctly guessed by the listener.

When a word has been correctly guessed, its card is put on a separate pile. When the time is up, the number of correctly guessed words is noted as that person or team’s score. If there are only two of you, whether you count the score as the speaker’s or the listener’s is up to you! That’s the important thing about communication: it requires both a good speaker and a good listener to be successful!

In the next round, the listener and the speaker change roles.

Don’t just put the used word-cards back to the bottom of the pile. Keep them until the game is over and then shuffle them around for the next time.

Suggestions for words to get you started: cat; dog; house; sky; clouds; planet; universe; stars; food; water; clothes; vegetables; lemon; purple; uncomfortable; wet; newspaper; sadly; song; theatre; poem; bowl; tennis; partnership; business; will; crash; books; music; terminus; forcefully; weak; curtain; rushing; trip; velvet; muddy; deep; theoretical; triangle; substance; incredible; diver; oxygen; trumpet; shellfish; quilt; see-saw; carpet; shoes (50).

Stealthily; fog; needle; jumping; twinkle; loud; forgetful; waterfall; puddle; tiger; horrible; dizzy; opera; baseball; over; virus; thermometer; electricity; waist; slippers; category; final; opening; across; island; remarkably; volunteer; pencil; yellow; flipper; magazine; tentacle; hypothetical; professor; writing; kick; dry; fold; pathway; mist; laptop; sunshine; dirty; propose; upset; quotation; keypad; remote; chair; shadow; porcupine (another 50).

Be careful what you say (Thought 14)

This is a reflection rather than a suggested activity – but it might affect your behaviour; the choice is, of course, yours.

To be known as “a woman of her word” or “a man of his word” is one of the greatest compliments you can ever be paid. It means that you “deliver on” what you say you’ll do.

If you “keep your word” – that is, do what you say you’ll do – then people will come to trust you; and being trusted – and trustworthy – is both a compliment and an asset to you.

Trust, however, takes a while to build up: you might have to prove on several occasions that you can, indeed, be trusted, before another person will take that for granted.

Trust is also very easily broken – and it is possible that you may never be able to rebuild it fully. It only takes one broken promise for the person to whom you made the promise to feel that he or she can never truly trust you again.

You may have heard the expression “white lies”. It means things that are untrue, but either unimportant, or a way of explaining something where the truth would do more harm than good. The Tooth Fairy might be an example of the first kind of white lie; saying that you like a present that a relative has given you when you don’t actually like it at all might be an example of the second kind of white lie.

Actually, I don’t believe that white lies are a good idea, or harmless. You may of course disagree. I think it’s better either not to make up untrue explanations – in the first example – or to find something different to say that is true, in the second (perhaps, “That is a really generous and thoughtful present! Thank you VERY much.”).

OK – enough of the “heavy stuff”.

Why does it matter that you keep your word? It matters because being trusted is the way that most of the important relationships in our world are built up. Personal relationships are an obvious example, but business and workplace relationships also work best when built on trust.

So does it really matter, in these bigger, more important settings, if you say, “I’ll get us something for lunch when I’m out this morning” and then don’t bring anything back? Surely that’s trivial – ? Or say you’ll empty the dishwasher, or put the clean washing up to dry, and then “forget” to do it – ? I think it does matter – because if you can’t be trusted with the small things, why should anyone believe you can be trusted with the bigger things? Are you a person who is true to his/her word, or not? Best to be able to answer that “Yes” or “No” rather than have to settle for “It depends …” – which isn’t really much use to anyone.

Think before you speak. If you can’t be sure that you’ll do what you say, then be honest: “I’ll try to get that done, but I might have to put it off until tomorrow or the next day.” Or “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not do that.” People will admire you far more for being honest than if you’d said what you thought they wanted to hear, and then failed to deliver on it.

You don’t have to be hurtful, however, to be honest. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, or to say something different, rather than tell the truth and hurt another person’s feelings. If you haven’t already heard it, you soon will hear people referring to the classic excuse, “Sorry, I have to wash my hair this evening” – used when someone doesn’t want to go out on a date. It’s so well known now that it probably isn’t used any more in reality – unless the speaker wants to say it as a code for, “I don’t want to go out with you!”

Better not use that one, then – but there is no reason to be brutal and say, for instance, “I really don’t like you and I wish you’d stop asking me out”. How about, “I don’t see this friendship going anywhere, and I appreciate your asking me out, but I’m going to say no. Thanks anyway” – ?

I’m writing this from experience, as you can maybe tell. When I was quite young, my mother – who had brought me up always to tell the truth – was appalled when I told my grandmother that I didn’t actually like the present she’d bought for me for my birthday. Well – she had asked me what I thought of it! My mother told me later that day to go back to my grandmother and apologise, and tell her that I did like it after all. I still haven’t really got my head around that one – which is why I developed the belief that if you can’t tell the truth without hurting someone, you should tell a different truth instead, if that’s possible. Even although I was very young, I could have said to my grandmother, “Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I love you.”

How to Write a Story (Suggestion 13)

Of course there are some of you who don’t need to read this! Many people love writing stories and find that they can do so without any help from others. If you are one of those, I hope that you are enjoying having the time to write more, while we are living in Covid19 “lockdown” conditions.

Other writers just need a stimulus – an idea to start them off – and then they’re happy to get down to the task of creating a story based on it or in some way related to it. If you’re one of those writers, here are some ideas:

“Long ago, it must be. I have a photograph … .”

Jennifer.

The end of the road.

The argument.

My first love.

May Day.

Architecture is frozen music.

Those who do not remember their history are condemned to re-live it.

There is nothing new under the sun.

“This is the dawning of the Age … .”

If however you are someone who finds writing a story quite difficult, here is a suggested way of doing so.

Make some notes in answer to the following questions; make the answers up with the thought in your head that these are going to be the ingredients of a story you can write.

WHO is going to be in your story? Don’t have too many characters, but give at least five details about each one, e.g. name (if you want him/her to have a name); occupation (job); physical characteristics (such as hair colour, height, gender); age-group; the mood (s)he is in at the start of the story.

WHERE is the story going to take place? Give as much detail as you want.

WHEN is this happening? Most stories are written in the past tense – that is, as if they have already happened. This is probably the easiest way to tell a story, even if it is actually set in the future or another imaginary time. For example, a science fiction story set in the future might begin, “She got off the space shuttle around 6 pm as usual, but it was only when the animal crossed the road in front of Louisa that her day became unusual.”

WHAT is going to happen in your story? Give an outline of the plot/story-line/events. This can be the most difficult part for writers who find story-telling tricky. Some writers don’t map out their plots in advance, but just start writing and see what happens!

WHY have these events taken place? Often this is the climax – the most exciting – part of the story and for the reader the part that (s)he’s been waiting for. For that reason – the build-up of suspense, which keeps people reading – the climax of the story is very often at the end. Murder mysteries are the best example of this.

So – now you have an outline STRUCTURE of your story. It can be true, of course – based on something that’s actually happened, perhaps to you or in your family – or completely made up, or a mixture of both.

Good luck! If you really want to write a story – or if you really have to, for school, for example – keep trying. Don’t give up. Like everything, writing a story becomes easier with practice.

Remind me again: why are we doing this? (Idea No. 10)

Friday 24th April 2020 – Here in the UK, as in many countries across the world, we are in “lockdown” as we try to stop the coronavirus known as Covid19 spreading at an uncontrollable rate.

Never before has communication been so highly valued.

We can’t touch people outside our own homes – and many people are living on their own – but we CAN talk, listen, read and write to one another.

This morning on the radio I heard about a woman who used to visit her 91-year-old aunt regularly. Now, of course, she can’t do that; but they speak by phone every day, and when they realised that there’s a limit to what you can talk about if you’re staying in the house all day, they started playing word games over the phone. The one they chose is called “Just a Minute” and has been played for many, many years on a popular radio programme of the same name. I’ll tell you about it in a future blog, in case you haven’t heard of it.

When they tired of “Just a Minute”, the woman I heard about started to read stories to her aunt – whose eye-sight is very poor – over the phone. They are both enjoying this activity greatly, and find that the stories prompt them to have conversations about times and events that the 91-year-old aunt remembers.

Yesterday I phoned a friend who is having a tough time, because I couldn’t think what to put in an email reply to her. When at the end of our chat I apologised for not being able to think of anything to write to cheer her up, she said, “Not to worry: just hearing your voice has been great.”

So: talking and listening are life-lines at this testing time. The better you are at suiting your talking and listening to the different people in your life, the more you’ll be able to help them.

Post is still being delivered, too, by Royal Mail, and although there isn’t very much of it – in fact, probably BECAUSE there isn’t very much of it – people love getting cards and letters. Reading and writing are therefore very important, too.

Reading to ourselves (as well as to others) can also be a great escape from the real world. And when the everyday world is depressing, or frightening, or boring, escaping into a happier, more hopeful, more interesting one through reading a book can be both enjoyable and good for our mental health.

Fantasy stories are popular, as they can be a complete change from our own world. Stories about the past can also work as escapism, however, or make us think about how different times were also difficult, but possibly in different ways. Even books about other real people in the 21st or 20th century can help us to take time out from our own lives and think about what others have been through – for better or for worse.

Writing, even if you don’t think anyone else will read it – even if you don’t WANT anyone else to read it – is a very good way to let out some of your feelings. Once you’ve written down what it is that’s worrying or scaring you, it can seem easier to cope with. Just trying to describe how you feel – and why – is a helpful writing task, as it makes you slow down and gives you time to reflect on your situation. Then you might go and talk to someone about it – or you might not, and just feel better for having “got it out of your head”.

Talking, listening, reading and writing – our tools for survival as sane and compassionate human beings.

Look after yourself, and look after others.

Look how you speak! (Suggestion No. 9)

Today’s suggestion comes from Jordan Pfotenhauer, Programmes Director of the English-Speaking Union in Scotland. Its “Speak up Scotland” programme encourages debating activities in schools.

This suggestion is a development of my Post No. 3 – How do you sound? If you have carried out that task, you should be well on the way to getting rid of any verbal “tics” or fillers that you picked up when you listened to the recording you made of yourself. Now it’s time to see whether you like – or are impressed by – how you look when you speak.

How we look when we speak – how we “deliver a speech” – can have a very strong impression on our listeners. It can make them more likely to agree with us, or drive them to reject what we have to say.

Not all listeners respond to the same speaker in the same way. Some listeners like serious speakers. Some like entertaining speakers. Some are moved by passionate, emotional deliveries; others are more convinced by a sombre, measured approach.

What you’re talking about – your topic – will also influence the style you choose when you are talking about it. Some subjects – topics – suggest that a sad delivery would be most suitable. Some are light-hearted and lend themselves to a more joking approach.

Here is Jordan’s suggestion: Choose something that is currently irritating or angering you. This can be as serious (people losing jobs because of coronavirus shut-downs?) or as playful (having to share a bathroom with your brother or sister?) as you like. Write a one-minute speech and deliver it to yourself in the mirror (Try to find a full-length mirror, and also to look at all of yourself as you speak. You can do this several times, perhaps until you don’t need to read your speech but can deliver it without notes). Try to deliver your speech in such a way that you would convince a listening audience that you are RIGHT to be angry.

How did you feel about doing that exercise? Was it awkward? Did you enjoy it?

If you don’t want to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, why should anyone else want to do so?

Watching yourself, as well as listening to yourself, can be quite embarrassing to do at first. Carrying out these activities will help you to present yourself in a way that suits you.

Visit https://www.esuscotland.org.uk/speakupscotland for more of Jordan’s suggestions. You can influence people with both what you say AND how you say it.

Communication: It Takes Two (Suggestion 7)

Probably the most important thing we do in life, communication takes place in many different ways. Music, painting, sculpture, mime, facial expressions and our behaviour are all ways of communicating. For most of us, however, WORDS are the way in which we’ll communicate most often.

Talking/Speaking and Writing are ways of giving out information. Listening and Reading are ways of taking in information.

For communication to be successful, what is taken in by the listener or reader should be the same as what was sent out by the talker/speaker or writer. Often, however, this is not the case. For communication to be effective, both the transmitter (the talker, speaker or writer) and the receiver (the listener or reader) need to be working properly.

Sometimes you might be criticised for not expressing yourself clearly. This happens to people at all stages in their lives, from early days right through to when they are leaders of their organisations, or even of their countries. It might be justified criticism; I’ve mentioned before the importance of speaking English so that it can be understood as widely as possible. But sometimes the criticism is undeserved, and it is actually the listener or reader who needs to work harder to understand the message that’s being sent.

If you want your message to be clearly understood, try to put yourself in the position of the person who’s going to hear or read it. Then put it in words that they will understand. Try to make references to things that they are familiar with. It’s no good trying to explain what a piebald horse is like, for example, to someone who has never seen a horse, unless you make some reference to things that they HAVE seen – a cow, perhaps, or a dog or a fox.

Here’s a game to try with your communications partner. (Hint: It’s easier if you use squared paper. If you have a printer you can search online for “squared paper to print” and create your own; alternatively, most large supermarkets sell exercise books with squared paper.)

Each person takes a sheet of paper and a pencil.

The transmitter – the person who is going to send the message – starts by drawing something on his/her piece of paper, without letting the receiver – the person who is going to try to understand the message – see him/her doing it.

They sit where they cannot see each other’s piece of paper, and allow the receiver to rest his/her paper on a surface which makes drawing easy.

The aim of the task is that the receiver should end up with the same drawing on his/her sheet of paper as the transmitter has drawn originally. The only way to get that done is for the transmitter to tell the receiver what to do. Only words are allowed, and no gestures or – of course – looking at the other person’s piece of paper.

It is a better test of your communication skills as a speaker if you don’t allow the person listening to ask you questions.

Hint 2: start with a really easy shape, such as a square or rectangle. Think about where on the page it is drawn, and how large or small it is, and how you are going to convey those details to your partner.

Hint 3: it can be helpful if each of you has a ruler, to help you measure distances and to draw straight lines. The person receiving the instructions might also find an eraser useful, as (s)he sometimes realises from a later instruction that something (s)he drew earlier must be wrong. That’s why you’re doing this in pencil, not in ink.

As you get better and better at this – with practice, you’ll learn how to express yourself more clearly – you can try more complicated shapes, such as curves, and have more than one shape on a page. Explaining where they are in relation to one another is a useful challenge to face!

The evidence of how successful you have been will emerge when you compare the original drawing with the listener’s result. Swap places after one round and try again; it’s important to appreciate just how difficult the task is for both people, not just one of them.

This is mainly an exercise to improve the transmitter’s skills – the speaker’s skills. It makes you think what it is like to be in the receiver’s – the listener’s – situation; and that is always key to successful communication.