Empire blogpost 3: the thorny issue of literacy when teaching the British Empire

Thanks to Richard Kennett for continuing his series of blogposts about teaching the British Empire…

The difficulty of literacy and the teaching of the British Empire

Teaching any historical topic is hard as it requires a lot of disciplinary vocabulary. Those pesky words that enlighten a subject, bring it to life and really allow you to get your teeth in. Revolution, peasant, autocratic, industrial, agricultural, colonial are the sorts of words that spring to mind. The sorts of words that Sarah Jackson wrote about so brilliantly in October. There are also really topic specific words that you might need. For enslavement for example, words like slaveholder, chattel, reparation and abolition would be needed.

These are the sorts of words that the high prior attaining students in your class probably use with ease. They highly likely use them verbally or in their written work. But often other students struggle with them. They are the sorts of words that can lock students out from understanding the past. Our job is to unpack them so they can open this linguistic door.

Opening this door when teaching the British Empire is particularly difficult for two reasons:

  • Firstly, lots of the language is contentious and we need to be careful about the words we use.
  • Secondly, as Ed Durbin (who is always more savvy than me) pointed out, this is particularly hard with Empire as each location has its own lexicon that your students need to use.  We were both co-authors on a book about Transtatlantic Slavery last year and we worked hard to provide a comprehensive glossary of technical vocabulary that a student would need. Ed rightly pointed out that for Empire you really need one of these glossaries for each location you study.

Getting the language you use right

The language of the British Empire is difficult. Terms that people might have commonly used in textbooks only a short while ago are now deemed inappropriate. The simplest example of this is the word slaves. Most historians now do not use this as they feel it dehumanises these people and instead they use the term enslaved as it shows the process that happened. 

Many of the terms we use to describe the British Empire are similar. Historians now do not refer to an age of exploration but instead an age of European expansion or colonisation. Historians do not use the term natives which comes with its baggage of superiority but instead often use indigenous people or better name groups how they called themselves, for example Maori.

As a teacher with a busy timetable this can seem a minefield. It is. But it is important. Language matters. We should be problematising these terms in our classroom. We should take time to learn what is the best term to use. Luckily people like the good folk at Nottingham Museums have made an excellent glossary around slavery and race that is very comprehensive. We need to talk to historians to ask them what to use.

The wide range of vocabulary you need to understand the British Empire

Once you move through the contention about colonial terms the second issue is that very simply to understand the British Empire your lexicon needs to be vast. 

Take the British Empire in India as a first example. To really engage with the topic you need to know and be able to use the following: sepoy, nawab (or nabob?), Mughal, Hindu, loot, Raj, saltpetre, company rule, diwani.

I could easily have kept going (and you will notice that a lot of these are only for the early period as that’s what I’ve been reading about). This is hard. Not only are some of them conceptually hard but many are literally in another language. 

If you look at other locations where the British Empire existed you need a completely different set of words. 

  • Studying the Empire in North America you probably need: Native American (and obviously there is debate whether you should use this at all or something else), Algonquian, werowance, tomahawk, plantation, Puritan, settler, Nonconformists, charter, liberty.
  • Studying the Empire in West Africa (in particular Nigeria)  you probably need: Fulani, Hausa, sultan, maxim gun, protectorate, Sokoto Caliphate, emir, residents

Some of these terms are easier than others, for example maxim gun. Let’s call these terms vocabulary for access. Words that give you simple access to the period. But others in these lists are vocabulary for conceptual understanding. Words like resident in the West Africa list or Company Rule in the India list. They are complex.

And to make it even more complicated, some of these words mean very different things in different locations. Take plantation for example. That word means a drastically different thing when you look at Empire in Ireland, the Caribbean and North America.

This is a really thorny issue. 

Some solutions to the Empire lexicon issue

This is not an impossible task though. Some simple pedagogical choices can help to reduce this issue.

Solution 1 – Limit your locations

In the first blog I recommended limiting the locations of Empire you look at in your schemes of learning. I did this because I thought it would help you get deeper understanding of two places rather than surface level of many locations. But it would also hugely help with literacy struggles. Learning the keywords from two locations is a darn sight easier than four or five.

Solution 2 – Set the keywords as pre-learning

Before you get to your Empire unit/s why not set some pre-learning to introduce these keywords to your students. This would make a very simple and effective homework. It could be a simple match the word to the right definition task or a quiz or just plain old reading.

Solution 3 – Provide glossaries

Glossaries are glorious things. Why not give out hard copy glossaries that sit on the kids desks when you study these topics in class. This is great scaffolding for all your students.

Solution 4 – Spotlight the keywords and be explicit about the challenge

When you inevitably use these words in class make sure you spotlight them in your pedagogy. “Year 8, here is a new word we won’t have used before sepoy. Everyone say sepoy together”. Chanting helps. Then define it. Making a big deal of it will mean it is more likely going to stick.

Thanks to Ed Durbin who highlighted this literacy nightmare to me and both Ed and Tom Allen who helped me out with the words they think you need for Empire in West Africa and North America respectively. 

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