Mapping Vocabulary across the Curriculum – part three

This is the final part in a trilogy of blogs about vocabulary across the curriculum. This final blog is slightly different as it’s about how we might add scaffold and challenge into vocabulary teaching, rather than mapping the words themselves.

I wanted to try and combine the idea of sentence crafting with vocabulary practice and created this table combining questions from ‘Bringing Words to Life’ and sentence structures from ‘The Writing Revolution’:

https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/61pyczso2m89armwmudw4/Vocabulary-Writing-Template.pptx?dl=0&rlkey=wljc9abkbfgh6usz2w268bphd

The idea is students will answer the vocabulary comprehension questions using specific sentence constructions, making them aware of and giving them practice with constructs like noun appositives and participles. For example, they insert the student-friendly definition into the sentence using a noun appositive:

Question: Is hubris a quality you would want in a friend?

Use this structure to write your answer: Hubris, [student-friendly definition as noun appositive], is/is not a desirable quality in a friend because…..

Possible answer from students: Hubris, a great or foolish amount of pride, is not a desirable quality in a friend because they may be self-centred and make reckless or selfish decisions.

The idea is that students practise these constructs orally in pairs after having had a chance to write an individual answer first. After whole-class feedback, students can then go back to their original answer and redraft it:

1. Teacher poses question & gives a structure for students to write their answer: is hubris a quality you would want in a friend? Use this structure to write your answer: Hubris, [definition as noun appositive], is/is not a desirable quality in a friend because….
2. Students write individual answers
3. Students share answers in a timed-pair-share*
4. Teacher leads feedback
5. Students return to their answers, adding extra detail & improving their original responses

In the above example, students have had multiple opportunities to rehearse & discuss answers which is important as this combination of writing and vocabulary practice is quite challenging. Because of the level of challenge, lots of teacher modelling is also important.

There are lots of possible variations on the above. For example, students could be encouraged to use a conjunction such as: Whereas hubris [suggest how it may be a positive quality], it is not a desirable quality in a friend because….

Alternatively, students could use because/but/so to build a range of sentences exploring hubris.

Because this is challenging, it may be a good idea to brainstorm some answers as a class first. For example, let’s list some positive and negative sides of hubris. Why might we stay loyal to a hubristic friend? Students might come up with something like this:

Hubris is not a desirable quality in a friend because they may be self-centred and make reckless decisions.

Hubris is not a desirable quality in a friend but good friends accept each others’ flaws.

Hubris is not a desirable quality in a friend so I would try to positively influence that person to become less hubristic.

You could even combine two or three of these constructs using teacher questioning:

T: How could we combine these ideas? What is another word for “but” that we could use to start a new sentence? Can we use a tentative adverb here to show this is a viewpoint rather than factual? What alternative punctuation could we use around the noun appositive?

Hubris – a great or foolish amount of pride – is not a desirable quality in a friend because they may be self-centred and make reckless decisions. However, good friends accept each others’ flaws therefore perhaps I would try to be a positive influence rather than rejecting this person as a friend.

I have also included a resource with questions on the target word hubris that vary in difficulty. Again, most are taken from Bringing Words to Life:

https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/fppkrmygmyxu7jwwpow0p/Vocabulary-Questions-by-Difficulty.pptx?dl=0&rlkey=ax33zh5tstceo66q2lofoikqu

Of course, the next stage is to link this to the learning with questions like: Why does Patroclus stay loyal to the hubristic, stubborn and petulant Achilles? 

As usual, I am open to feedback and thoughts!

Thanks for reading and stay safe 🙂

* Timed-Pair-Share is a Kagan structure I use regularly in my lessons:
1. Teacher poses question
2. Teacher gives think time
3. Teacher numbers students and states who will talk first for an allocated amount of time (I usually allow 30 seconds)
4. Partner A gives their answer while partner B listens and questions
5. Swap roles

I do find students need quite a bit of training to ensure they only swap after 30 seconds and ask relevant questions to keep each other talking but the idea is neither student dominates or is able to opt out. It also improves student relationships as they effectively coach each other and are often asked to paraphrase their partner’s ideas.

Vocabulary: Mapping Words across the Curriculum – part two

In the previous blog, I wrote about how and why I might map words across a five-year curriculum. This last post concerned tier two words (words common to text but not speech and that span across different domains) but what about those tier three words that are part of our subject’s academic metalanguage which is alien to most students at first?

With this in mind, I’ve begun to map academic verbs across KS3. This is very much a work in progress but here is my rationale for the mapping of verbs so far:

  1. Verbs should match the skill being taught (for example, in year 7 I want students to master academic topic sentences therefore verbs like ‘depict, characterise, emphasise’ are important here whereas when they move onto author’s craft, verbs like ’employ, juxtapose, personify’ are relevant and when discussing author’s intentions, more sophisticated verbs like ‘contradict, reinforce, subvert’ are added. This follows Tom Needham’s advice via Direct Instruction that we should start with the simplest skills and build up to the more complex ones.
  2. The teaching and learning of verbs is cumulative which is why there are a lot to begin with (in the first term of year 7) but progressively less as students move through the curriculum, adding to their academic vocabulary

In the dropbox document, there is a main verb for students to learn and a list of synonyms underneath which are optional. In other words, teachers can choose just to focus on the head verb or to encourage students to use some or all of the synonyms listed beneath it:

https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/ox1vbn0vsqtm5n4ar0kd2/Academic-Verbs-across-KS3.pptx?dl=0&rlkey=9ndgllgjcptkry788zmsarvrt

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on this documents and constructive criticism – it’s very much a working document!

In ‘part three’, I will discuss oral activities for the explicit teaching of vocabulary using ideas from The Writing Revolution and Bringing Words to Life and how we might add extra layers of scaffold and challenge.

Thanks for reading and stay safe 🙂

 

Vocabulary: Mapping Words across the Curriculum

Being in lockdown and watching how my 3 year-old son learns vocabulary has taught me a lot. I’ve realised the importance of curiosity and encouraging his interests (he is dinosaur-obsessed so his tier two vocabulary in this field is quite impressive!); the importance of his oral interactions with me and the impact of mirroring.

Any parents of young children will recognise the ‘what’s that, mummy?’ phase and the opportunity for learning is his repetition my answer. it has made me very aware of the quality of our interactions. If I’m distracted and give him a half-hearted response, this is what he’ll repeat and essentially learn. If I reply in a full sentence with high-quality vocabulary, his response will mirror that quality. Not an easy feat when you’re a busy parent but it has made me mindful of my responses if nothing else!

So what does this have to do with mapping words across the curriculum? It got me thinking about which words I might want to repeatedly teach across a five-year curriculum and I came up with the following criteria:

  1. Complex enough to be worth continually revisiting across a five-year curriculum
  2. Encapsulates other ideas and helps students comprehend them
  3. Spans different schemes

 

Let’s take the example of hubris. Firstly, this is a complex word because it incorporates ideas about pride, invincibility, transcending human boundaries, sense of superiority and foolish arrogance. It spans several different schemes in our curriculum:

Year 7: the hubris of Achilles and Odysseus as they challenge the Gods or make foolish decisions as a result of pride

Year 8: the hubristic ambition of Victor Frankenstein who literally ‘plays God’, aspiring to create a new species

Year 9: we study 20th century war writing which can be linked to the hubris of Hitler who believed he could rule the world and populate it with a master race

Year 10-11: Macbeth’s defiance of Divine rights, the Titanic’s claim it was ‘unsinkable’ and irresponsible failure to include enough lifeboat space and the hubris running through the Birling family causing them to ‘play God’ with a young girl’s life and Sherlock Holmes’ arrogant attitude towards his detective work (arguably his hubris is portrayed positively though which is an interesting point of comparison to the other examples).

So how might I teach this word? Perhaps through the metaphor of ‘flying too close to the sun’ by telling students the story of The Fall of Icarus

By explaining how Icarus defied his father’s advice about flying too near to the sun, experiencing that over-confidence (and feeling of youthful invincibility) and sense of superiority as he literally soars over mankind and showing the deathly consequences of this, I am illustrating his arrogance  but also the foolish nature of this, therefore, capturing the essence of the word and how it is different to arrogance. Many words are multi-layered such as pride (an important part of hubris) which can mean a feeling of superiority and that you are deserving of respect from others. It can be easier to illustrate this with an image, story and/or concrete example than a possibly quite wordy definition.

The etymology of ‘hubris’ is also fascinating and a great teaching tool: Originally, it related specifically to ‘defying the Gods’ from Greek mythology and is where we get the concept of ‘playing God’ from but that definition has become much broader to mean defiance of authority in general and a disregard for the limits of human capability: all perfectly encapsulated in the story of Icarus where his disregard for the ‘superhuman’ nature of flying led to Icarus’ downfall.

At this point, I can introduce the definition ‘a great or foolish amount of pride’ and students should be able to relate this to the concrete example they have just heard.

Once students have a deep understanding of this concept, they can also recognise when this idea is parodied as in the Disney film Moana where the demi-God character Mawi is comically hubristic (watch the song ‘Thank you’ on youtube if you are unfamiliar with this film!)

Considering this criteria, then, here are the words I have come up with to teach across our English curriculum but I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts and whether this might work in other subject areas:

  • Hubris incorporating ideas of pride, ambition, arrogance, superiority, ‘playing God’
  • Hierarchy incorporating ideas of power, status, wealth, poverty, gender, class, exploitation
  • Benevolence and malevolence incorporating ideas of religion, faith, humanity, reverence
  • Manipulation
  • Conflict: internal and external

I am also working on mapping academic words across the curriculum linked to the skill we are working on (e.g. verbs for topic sentences in year 7) and oral activities for practising vocabulary from The Writing Revolution and will share these in a future post when they are ready!

Thanks for reading and stay safe

The Vocabulary Deficit: A whole-school model to address word povery

I was very happy to be part of South Shore Academy’s first Teach Meet, presenting on vocabulary. Please see below for my presentation and the link to the PowerPoint!

I work in a large secondary school in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. For those of you who don’t know Manchester, it is an area of significant disadvantage and, as such, word-poverty is definitely an issue for us and is something at the heart of our achievement gap. This presentation aims to talk you through our journey over the last academic year, trying to put measures in place to begin to tackle this.

In this presentation, I am going to address the why and the how of vocabulary, starting with reasons why we should explicitly teach vocabulary across the curriculum and then moving onto two ‘hows’: how best to teach it successfully and how you might implement vocabulary teaching across your school. I am going to make reference to Beck’s ‘Bringing Words to Life’ and Alex Quigley’s ‘Vocabulary Gap’ when exploring different aspects of vocabulary teaching.

I’ve stolen this powerful analogy from Alex Quigley, who writes in one of his blogs about Alan Turing’s code breaking and how it helped win the war by unlocking German secrets. Students need to become code-breakers of a different sort. Particularly in secondary school where texts become more academic and they are trying to crack different codes from one lesson to the next. We need to be making the language of our subject areas explicit and accessible for students to succeed. Ultimately we want to empower students to speak, read and write like historians, mathematicians, artists etc…

Another Quigleyism: Giving a weak reader a dictionary is like giving them an umbrella to fend off a hurricane – it’s a tool that simply isn’t useful on many levels and that the weakest readers will struggle to use the most because of the complex definitions & terminology, the reliance on a confident grasp of the alphabet, the multiple different definitions. Generating student-friendly definitions is of utmost importance and arguably our starting point when teaching vocabulary but it’s surprisingly difficult – I will talk more about how to do this successfully later in the presentation.

All learning depends largely on reading and vocabulary knowledge plays a huge part in ensuring that reading is understood. What’s more, if students are distracted with attempting to decipher the meanings of words, they are less likely to have the mental capacity to consider the ideas being explored in the text.

Our non-readers, therefore, are subject to a Matthew Effect where the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer so by the time they reach secondary school, the gap is huge. Incidentally, this is why the weakest or least literate students desperately need exposure to challenging, vocabulary-rich texts. If they study Boy in the Striped Pyjamas while their peers read Dickens, we are only compounding this Matthew Effect.

We are faced with a problem as teachers: students need a wealth of vocabulary to read and write successfully in our subject areas but they also need to know words deeply. Beck argues that ‘to miss the nuances of words is to miss the nuances of texts.’ Our aim needs to be teaching words to mastery but if this means teaching fewer words explicitly, how do we ensure breadth of vocabulary?

The answer I think is ensuring all students (regardless of ability) are subjected to a challenging curriculum underpinned with highly-academic language and reading at its heart. The more high-quality texts students are exposed to, the greater breadth of vocabulary they will encounter.

Beck splits vocabulary into tiers. Tier one words occur often in speech and tier three words are specific technical terms unique to our subject areas therefore tier two words are classed as ‘high-utility’ because they are common in texts so key to reading comprehension and also span across different subject areas and contexts making them useful for ‘cracking the academic code’ but also subject to misconceptions when used differently in different subject areas. They are therefore very worthy of our attention to avoid misconceptions, improve students’ reading comprehension and help students to develop a useful and transferable repertoire of words.

One of my toddler’s favourite books is ‘Ten Little Superheroes’ which has a wealth of tier two words, some of which I know our KS4 students will not know and may not even have ever encountered. This is why when we read to our children, we expose them to tier two words that they are not exposed to through television or speech. It is also why I feel guilty about the amount of TV my two-year-old has currently due to the new baby in the house!

Another example of how tiers work is my conversations with my husband. We recently moved house and needed to have our stairs done. My tier two vocabulary is relatively good as an English teacher however my tier three vocabulary in the sphere if building work is very poor so when my factory worker husband refers to newels, bolsters and spindles, I am none the wiser. He always jokes that when we first started texting, I used the word ‘eclectic’ to describe my taste in music and he had to look it up before texting back so you can imagine how confusing some of our conversations are!

One of the GCSE set-texts, Jekyll and Hyde has this challenging and likely unfamiliar even archaic tier two vocabulary in the opening paragraph alone.

So considering the mammoth task we have before us, where do we begin? Well this was our school’s long-term goal.

The emphasis here is on long-term because this is a very ambitious goal. This year, we focused on every subject-area explicitly teaching tier two and three vocabulary in one scheme of work, developing consistency in our approach and ensuring the methods used in every classroom are effective, research-based strategies. Ultimately, we want to get students to notice words and become excited by them and the world of communication and academic success they open up for them.

Our whole-school training focused on developing effective student-friendly definitions (which is more challenging than you may think!) and developing consistency with a teaching sequence.

This is best practice for teaching vocabulary according to Beck. Firstly dictionary definitions are problematic: they often include other words students don’t know or fail to capture the true essence of the word. Also words can have multiple meanings and students can easily select the incorrect one. For this reason, the first step needs to be student-friendly definitions. Secondly, providing multiple contexts for usage is important so that students don’t cling onto the one context or example you’ve given them, being unable to use the word in any other way. To bring all of this to life, immediate practice with the word is advisable to deepen understanding. This could be a simple question like ‘Is there more likely to be a commotion in the library or the on the field’? Unique examples that go beyond the obvious domain of the classroom are also important in helping students remember the word. We know about the importance of repetition for long-term learning and this is true of vocab too: frequency of encounter is one component of successful vocab teaching.

The websites listed have helped me in creating student-friendly definitions: the first because it is a dictionary designed for non-native speakers of English therefore the definitions are simpler and use more basic language, words in a sentence is great for example sentences (if you are anything like me, you will need to pre-plan your ‘unique’ examples) and the etymology dictionary will explain the origin of any word so that we can create stories around words, making them more memorable and enticing.

In order to achieve our goal, I wanted to focus initially on three strategies and getting to a stage where all staff are using these strategies effectively and consistently. I would argue that, although there are many more methods you could use to teach vocabulary, it is possible to teach any single word effectively using one of these three methods:

  1. Etymology: this is the study of word’s origins and how their meanings have changed over time. The reason it is an effective strategy is because our brains privilege stories therefore by telling stories around words and how they have gained their meanings, we make them more memorable for students.
  2. Morphology: this is breaking words down into their constituent parts and looking at how the prefix, root and suffix work together to make meaning. It is a great strategy for building word consciousness in students as they begin to recognise patterns through common prefixes, roots or suffixes which empowers them to build a repertoire of words. This is a particularly effective strategy for science and maths: subjects with many word families with Greek & Latin roots such as photo meaning ‘light’ and ‘exo’ meaning ‘out of, away, from, external or outside’ in science and ‘poly’ meaning many in maths. Imagine the power of students relating their knowledge of ‘poly’ in maths and ‘polyphonic’ in music or ‘bi’ to ‘bilingual’ in languages or ‘bicycle’ in PE.
  3. Visuals: images to represent a word can be very effective in supporting explanations and giving students an additional way of remembering. Studies show that students creating their own image to go with a word is also effective in learning new vocabulary.

There is real value, I think, in spending time selecting the words for explicit instruction and there are two main considerations I suggest for this. I’ve already mentioned the importance of tier two words. Firstly, I would ask what the big picture of the scheme of learning is. For example, we teach ‘Rhetoric’ in year 7 which centres around the idea of using language to persuade so it would make sense to look at some of the synonyms for ‘persuade’ and to explore the subtle nuances between these words. I want students to recognise the difference between an ‘imploring’ charity appeal and a rousing war speech. The Aristotelian Triad is also an integral part of this scheme therefore the terms ethos, logos & pathos need to be explored in detail. Secondly, we want to encourage pattern-seeking so that one word opens up a whole bank of vocabulary. I like to call these ‘ripple words’. For example, by recognising that the prefix ‘cred’ means ‘believe’, we can apply this to a whole family of words linked to rhetoric. The same applies to ‘path’ and feeling. The most persuasive speaker and writers need to be effective manipulators of language and the interesting etymology of this word helps students remember the meaning – from ‘manos’ (hands) & the skilful handling of ore to the skilful handling of language, people & emotions. In rhetoric, there is almost always an opponent involved and when looking at its origins from ‘oppenere’ meaning ‘set against’, this again opens up a repertoire of words such as opposition, oppose etc… It also links to the classical structure of rhetorical speeches and the inclusion of a refutation or counter-argument.

Studies by Beck show that word-poor students tend to link words to one particular meaning such as ‘surveillance’ as something police do rather than word-rich students who would recognise it links to the idea of watching. By connecting our words to the key ideas of the scheme of learning, we are encouraging deeper, more flexible understanding of the target words.

The starting point for our first year moving towards becoming a ‘vocabulary school’ was for each faculty to think about the first scheme they teach in September of year 7 and choose the important words to explicitly teach as part of this scheme. Ideally, by the following September, we would have done this for all year 7 schemes, gradually developing the same for years 8, 9, 10 and 11.

So now you have selected your words, the next step is creating the student-friendly definitions but this was more problematic than I anticipated!

These are all real examples of ‘student-friendly’ definitions written by staff and are all problematic for different reasons: the first is clearly copied and pasted and is not only far too complicated but also much too long – a paragraph rather than a concisely-written sentence. The second is arguably a synonym but it definitely does not capture the essence of the word and if students don’t know how to define ‘study’, they are even less likely to be confident understanding and using ‘examine’. The third is very subject-specific, leaving students unable to use this word in any other context so that deep and flexible understanding we’re aiming for is lost so at best they have a surface-level understanding of the word within one domain but at worse learn misconceptions about the word’s definition and use. There is also some tier two/three confusion here: the word has been defined as if it belongs in tier three and is specific PE terminology but it’s actually a word which spans across different subjects and defining it in a more general way will help students to use the word flexibly and deeply. The final example is a concise sentence but the language within that sentence is very complex and again at worse makes this word even more confusing for students to decipher than before a definition was given.

It was important to give staff clear criteria for student-friendly definitions to ensure they were helpful for students i.e. not one-word synonyms or overly-complex dictionary-style paragraphs! Firstly, the definition needs to use only words that students already know with examples, capturing the essence of every word is difficult which is why I suggest spending a good amount of time just on creating the best possible definitions, using websites to help where necessary. Finally, non-English and language teachers don’t necessarily have the grammatical knowledge to ensure they are not defining an adjective using an adverb or defining a present-tense word using past-tense. We encountered all these problems with student-friendly definitions at first which is why we came up with this criteria and then modelled a teaching sequence.

This is an example of what each faculty was asked to produce for their first year 7 scheme of work. This particular scheme explores the characterisation of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad therefore all words link to Achilles’ motivation and are key in driving the plot forward. Each word has a student-friendly definition, followed by one of the three strategies to teach that word. In the example of ‘hubris’, I use the image of Icarus flying too near to the sun therefore adding to students’ cultural capital with an important Greek myth and combining a visual with a story that really illustrates the quite complex idea of too much pride coming before a fall which is a very common trait of literary characters. The example sentences include one context-free example about the well-known tortoise and hare story and one using the word in context to explore Achilles’ character. Finally, there are one or two comprehension questions so that students engage with the word immediately.

This planning becomes a sequence for teaching vocabulary across the school. This first example is from drama. They have selected the word monologue, begun with their simple and concise definition followed by a couple of example sentences. This word definitely lends itself to morphology as explaining that mono- means ‘one’ opens up that word consciousness by making students are of an entire word family and making the meaning more memorable. Finally, a comprehension question gives students immediate practice where they can show their understanding of the word.

So just to finish, here are ten ideas for building a ‘vocabulary-rich’ school.

  1. Which words are important in your subject area? What ripple words could you include? What words link to the big picture of your subject and what words would enable students to use the academic register of a professional in your subject-area? Surround them with these words: on handouts, displays, PPTs, in lessons, for homework which brings me onto point two…
  2. Many of you will be familiar with Knowledge Organisers: a sheet containing all the most important information to be learned for a scheme of work. Including key words on here for students to memorise as self-quizzing homework is a great opportunity to build vocabulary which is accessible for all. You could also use some of the comprehension questions in the handout for students to self-quiz on too so they are not only memorising but testing their understanding of the words too.

3-5. I’ve talked about the power of etymology, morphology and visuals as vocabulary-teaching strategies.

6. This presentation has been all about encouraging students to think deeply about words. In order to teach a breadth of vocabulary, consider including high-quality texts in your curriculum. For example, we set fortnightly reading challenges using a range of fiction and non-fiction texts linked to the scheme so that students are exposed to challenging vocabulary beyond words we explicitly teach.

7. We sadly don’t have forms but there is a wealth of great practice on Twitter utilising this time to teach ‘words of the week’, set competitions and celebrate words.

8 & 9. Modelling the academic register of your subject and expecting this from students is powerful and empowering. In my experience, students of all abilities absolutely love being granted entry into this world of sophisticated language!

10. Words are seductive, powerful, beautiful, tantalising and empowering and they should be the possession of all not just those lucky enough to have been encouraged to read or who can afford a wide collection of books – we need to share our love of words and celebrate them, making students exciting by language and the opportunities it opens up for them!

Our next steps in including explicit vocabulary instruction in every scheme across the school is to develop cumulative vocabulary tests so that the learning from year 7 to year 11 is not lost. Ultimately, they should be becoming more word-rich each year but for this we need to prevent forgetting from one scheme, term & year to the next.

https://t.co/feGOuU30oo

My ResearchEd Rugby Presentation: The Vocabulary Deficit

My first Researched experience did not disappoint: terrifying to present for the first time but overwhelming and inspiring to see all the enthusiasm and the relentless drive from fellow professionals to continually improve standards for the students in our care.

Thank you to everyone who attended my talk. The transcript is below and I’m happy to answer any further questions.

I’m very happy to have been asked to present on a topic close to my heart and that I’m slightly obsessed with: taking steps to tackle word-poverty and inspire students of all abilities to enjoy the power and potential of words.

Just to set the scene for our context: I work in a large secondary school in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. For those of you who don’t know Manchester, it is an area of significant disadvantage and, as such, word-poverty is definitely an issue for us and is something at the heart of our achievement gap. This presentation aims to talk you through our journey over the last academic year, trying to put measures in place to begin to tackle this.

I thought a good place to begin might be framing the issue & explaining why I am so passionate about enriching the word-poor through our teaching.

I’ve shamelessly stolen this powerful analogy from Alex Quigley, who writes in one of his blogs about Alan Turing’s code breaking and how it helped win the war by unlocking German secrets. Students need to become code-breakers of a different sort. Particularly in secondary school where texts become more academic and they are trying to crack different codes from one lesson to the next. We need to be making the language of our subject areas explicit and accessible for students to succeed. Ultimately we want to empower students to speak, read and write like historians, mathematicians, artists etc…

Humpty Dumpty’s famous claim (through the writing of Lewis Carroll) that words can be manipulated to fit the user’s chosen meaning presents us with another problem. I have taught word-poor students who are affected by Humpty-Dumptyism. One in particular sticks in my mind who loved the word ‘despicable’: he knew it was an impressive word so he used it in every context, it meant just what he chose it to mean – it was a high-level word therefore it didn’t matter to him whether it actually made sense or not.

So, cracking the academic code and using vocabulary precisely are two huge challenges facing students but challenges that I believe we can empower them to overcome.

Another Quigleyism: Giving a weak reader a dictionary is like giving them an umbrella to fend off a hurricane – it’s a tool that simply isn’t useful on many levels and that the weakest readers will struggle to use the most because of the complex definitions & terminology, the reliance on a confident grasp of the alphabet, the multiple different definitions.

There are a couple of studies that suggest the percentage of words students need to know in order to comprehend a text is incredibly high. Laufer placing it at 95% with up to 5000 word families (set of words with a common root – number of individual words therefore much higher) but more recently Hu & Nation put it even higher – at 98%. This is daunting when we consider that all learning depends largely on reading which depends upon vocabulary (in addition to background knowledge etc.). What’s more, if students are distracted with attempting to decipher the meanings of words, they are less likely to have the mental capacity to consider the ideas being explored in the text.

Our non-readers, therefore, are subject to a Matthew Effect where the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer so by the time they reach secondary school, the gap is huge. Incidentally, this is why the weakest or least literate students desperately need exposure to challenging, vocabulary-rich texts. If they study Boy in the Striped Pyjamas while their peers read Dickens, we are only compounding this Matthew Effect.

I don’t think it’s possible to effectively address the vocabulary deficit without ensuring all students (regardless of ability) are subjected to a challenging curriculum underpinned with highly-academic language that is explained and therefore we are using our expertise as word-rich teachers to scaffold their understanding of unfamiliar words.

More challenging GCSEs are compounding the vocabulary issue across the board but if we look at English specifically and what all students are required to do, the presence of 19th century vocabulary in literature and language (with the extra difficulty of the language text being unseen therefore we can’t pre-teach those words), closed-book nature of the exams, whole-text Shakespeare, closed-book & unseen poems all put vocabulary at the centre of our problems with students expected to comprehend & use more vocab than ever.

So considering this mammoth task we have before us, where do we begin? Well this was our school’s long-term goal.

The emphasis here is on long-term because this is a very ambitious goal. This year, we focused on every subject-area explicitly teaching tier two and three vocabulary in one scheme of work of their choice, developing consistency in our approach and ensuring the methods used in every classroom are effective, research-based strategies. Ultimately, we want to get students to notice words and become excited by them and the world of communication and academic success they open up for them.

The first thing I did after completing my own reading on vocabulary was to trial activities with year 7 and to test this year group for an idea of their current approximate vocabulary sizes.

Page 2 of session booklet. For testing, I read Katie Ashford’s blog which explained how they used MCQs tests, the results of which they found to be broadly in line with reading ages. I contacted Katie and she said they had used word-lists from ‘test your word power’, a book which categorises vocabulary into six different levels. I designed my own test based on this (which Katie was kind enough to look over for me) using a mixture of words from different levels – about 10 from levels 2-5 and 8 from level 1 & 6 to allow most students to fall somewhere in the middle. The idea is that if you multiply the raw score by 600, it will generate an approximate vocabulary size. We would use this as a pre- and post-test to measure the effectiveness of our vocabulary teaching.  The results of the baseline tests showed, as expected, a big vocabulary gap and my class were a good target group in the sense that their vocabulary sizes came out as particularly small.

You can see examples of the activities I used with my year 7 class in the session booklet (pages 3-9). They are mainly taken from these books with the addition of matching vocabulary to reading and writing challenges running through the scheme. If you’re interested in how this worked, I’m happy to explain in more detail…

The next step was to share what I was doing with the faculty and run some training on the principles behind it.

I introduced the faculty to Beck’s word tiers and why we need a greater focus on tier two words. Tier one words occur often in speech and tier three words are specific technical terms unique to our subject areas therefore tier two words are classed as ‘high-utility’ because they are common in texts so key to reading comprehension and also span across different subject areas and contexts making them useful for ‘cracking the academic code’ but also subject to misconceptions when used differently in different subject areas. They are therefore very worthy of our attention to avoid misconceptions, improve students’ reading comprehension and help students to develop a useful and transferable repertoire of words.

We then looked at best practice for teaching vocabulary according to Beck. Firstly dictionary definitions are problematic: they often include other words students don’t know or fail to capture the true essence of the word. Also words can have multiple meanings and students can easily select the incorrect one. For this reason, the first step needs to be student-friendly definitions. Secondly, providing multiple contexts for usage is important so that students don’t cling onto the one context or example you’ve given them, being unable to use the word in any other way. To bring all of this to life, immediate practice with the word is advisable to deepen understanding. This could be a simple question like ‘Is there more likely to be a commotion in the library or the on the field’? We know about the importance of repetition for long-term learning and this is true of vocab too: frequency of encounter is one component of successful vocab teaching.

The websites listed have helped me in creating student-friendly definitions: the first because it is a dictionary designed for non-native speakers of English therefore the definitions are simpler and use more basic language, words in a sentence is great for example sentences (if you are anything like me, you will need to pre-plan your ‘unique’ examples) and the etymology dictionary will explain the origin of any word so that we can create stories around words, making them more memorable and enticing.

The rest of the training session was spent looking at our schemes of work and the words we felt needed to be explicitly taught for students to fully understand each scheme.

There is real value, I think, in spending time selecting the words for explicit instruction and there are two main considerations I suggest for this. I’ve already mentioned the importance of tier two words. Firstly, I would ask what the big picture of the scheme of learning is. For example, we teach ‘Rhetoric’ in year 7 which centres around the idea of using language to persuade so it would make sense to look at some of the synonyms for ‘persuade’ and to explore the subtle nuances between these words. I want students to recognise the difference between an ‘imploring’ charity appeal and a rousing war speech. The Aristotelian Triad is also an integral part of this scheme therefore the terms ethos, logos & pathos need to be explored in detail. Secondly, we want to encourage pattern-seeking so that one word opens up a whole bank of vocabulary. I like to call these ‘ripple words’. For example, by recognising that the prefix ‘cred’ means ‘believe’, we can apply this to a whole family of words linked to rhetoric. The same applies to ‘path’ and feeling. The most persuasive speaker and writers need to be effective manipulators of language and the interesting etymology of this word helps students remember the meaning – from ‘manos’ (hands) & the skilful handling of ore to the skilful handling of language, people & emotions. In rhetoric, there is almost always an opponent involved and when looking at its origins from ‘oppenere’ meaning ‘set against’, this again opens up a repertoire of words such as opposition, oppose etc… It also links to the classical structure of rhetorical speeches and the inclusion of a refutation or counter-argument.

I showed the faculty an example where I had selected tier two words, developed student-friendly definitions and chosen appropriate strategies for explicit teaching based on our year 8 Dystopian Fiction scheme. Again, there are some ‘ripple’ words aimed to open up a bank of vocabulary for students by looking at word families such as community, communal, communication by explicit teaching of the prefix ‘comm’ meaning ‘together’ and surveillance as linked to one of the key characteristics of a dystopian society: constant watching and the idea of freedom vs control. We would of course explore the prefix ‘omni’ meaning ‘all’ too as in omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent etc. linked to the key idea of power in dystopian regimes.

Studies by Beck show that word-poor students tend to link words to one particular meaning such as ‘surveillance’ as something police do rather than word-rich students who would recognise it links to the idea of watching. By connecting our words to the key ideas of the scheme of learning, we are encouraging deeper, more flexible understanding of the target words.

We then worked in groups to develop the same for the schemes shown. There was only time to select the words and begin to develop definitions so this is definitely a project we need to go back to particularly because once we’ve decided on strategies for teaching, we need to develop the resources to teach and assess.

I feel the need to place a big ‘thumbs up’ at this point to reflect the enthusiasm of the English faculty which lured me into an absolute false sense of security on attempting this same process whole-school. I neglected to consider that as English teachers, we love words and language but it is wrong to assume this love is shared by all! I will talk more about possible challenges and solutions later in the presentation.

I assigned each member of the English faculty a subject-area to support as they had now had some training and, along with the often overlooked MFL teachers, have expertise in vocabulary teaching. We then ran whole-school training with the same intended outcome as the faculty session.

As preparation for the training, we asked each faculty to bring along a text that they would use as part of their teaching and ten or more words that they would want students to understand in order to engage with their subject.

The whole-school training was split into three parts: looking at the issues behind vocabulary and therefore establishing our rationale – what is the problem and what research is there to show how severe the issue is? This was made concrete for different subjects by asking them to look at the text they had chosen to bring and highlighting words they expected students to struggle with then linking this to research on the 95% words for comprehension. We then cherry-picked some strategies which were categorised into morphology/etymology, visuals and comprehension questions (this part was supported with a strategies booklet that contained lots more strategies than the ones modelled in the training).

The example strategy on here uses dual-coding by combining a visual of Banquo’s ghost usurping Macbeth’s position at the banquet along with a student-friendly definition of the word and comprehension questions that students must answer in full sentences using the key word. In English lessons, we would also talk through the different forms of the word but I wouldn’t expect other subject-areas to do this at this stage.

Faculties were given time after each set of examples to look at the list of words from their subject area and attach appropriate strategies to them. Finally, we set an intended outcome for each faculty which was the same as our faculty outcome: choose one scheme and highlight between 10-30 words to explicitly teach through student-friendly definitions and appropriate strategies. They were able to begin working on this in the first training session but we also had a follow-up session in January to complete their scheme of work vocabulary plans with the support of Literacy Liaisons.

When I received the SoL plans back after the follow-up session, I realised we needed to go back to basics with some faculties. This example from D&T shows how their student-friendly definitions were anything but!

On the other hand- art’s definitions were very useable for students but many of the strategies for teaching/assessing they had chosen were not from the training!

So this stage required some sensitivity – how do I keep staff on board whilst also making sure what we are doing is purposeful and right for our students? So I covered the issues briefly in a faculty meeting and gave each liaison their faculty’s sheet with issues highlighted. I began by outlining the aims for the next training session, making liaisons aware that the main aim would be getting our chosen words & student-friendly definitions right.

The next training session would end with three steps for faculties to complete. The yellow box at the bottom was only shared with liaisons so they knew where their respective faculties were up to.

I began the follow-up training with a quiz on the last training and a prize to set a positive tone to recap important aspects of vocabulary teaching. We then shared objectives with a thank you for the hard work on vocab so far.

In order to emphasise the importance of student-friendly definitions, I then did a short activity where staff were asked to define the word ‘teach’. The point of this was to show the wide variety of definitions we (and likewise students) can come up with and the issues with looking to the dictionary for consistency. By offering a concise, bespoke definition in everyday language, students share the same meaning with us and we can move straight onto exploring the word and testing comprehension.

I also offered a visual to show what the issues are when a student does not fully understand the vocabulary we are using and how it delays learning – at its worst, widening the achievement gap.

In order to highlight the issues with some of our definitions, I made up my own for each subject-area

We discussed how they were either just synonyms, were over-complicated (featuring words students would not know) or were not concise enough and we then looked at them alongside better alternatives.

Next, we looked at some good practice from across different subject-areas and why these definitions were much more useful for students. These were all real, internal examples!

Essentially, what we were coming up with was a clear criteria for student-friendly definitions for us all to follow: full sentences, concise, simple language.

Faculties then worked with their liaisons to refine definitions where needed. The option was given to write example sentences during this time if they felt their definitions were already ‘student-friendly’.

I then introduced a sequence for teaching vocabulary that all faculties should follow in the interests of consistency and according to research on best-practice for vocab teaching. If all we achieve in the first year on our vocabulary journey, is every faculty following this sequence, I see this as a big positive because students are being made aware of words in a way that is consistent across the school.

Finally, we went through some strategies (p.16-22 in your handout) for teaching vocabulary and I modelled which of the words selected by different subject areas might lend themselves to which strategies.

For example, one of drama’s chosen words was ‘monologue’ (a ripple word) which lends itself to morphology with mono meaning one and logue meaning spoken and from there you can develop a very visual word-map for students, opening up a bank of words as mentioned earlier and encouraging students to be pattern-seekers.

Our SEN department had chosen to develop an emotional vocabulary as they teach lots of different subjects so this was a generic yet useful vocabulary bank they could teach. I suggested word gradients would work well for them as they explore the different usages of words like ‘irritated’ and ‘irate’.

Science had chosen the word ‘decrease’ so I used this to model prefix teaching where they would explain the meaning of the prefix (de=reverse/change), attach it to four words, use it in a sentence and define the word.

D&T had chosen ‘durable’ which I used to develop a simple comprehension task looking at which materials could be described as durable.

The aim at this stage was to give concrete and subject-specific examples that are all research-based.

The final stage was to introduce the three steps which faculties could make a start on but we again had a follow-up session in the diary for them to continue work on this.

Year 7 meet in tutor groups each Monday morning. I saw this as an opportunity to include some vocabulary teaching and launch a ‘word of the week’ competition. Looking at different subject’s chosen words, there were some commonalities (analysis, evaluate, motif, genre…) so it made sense to include these and to make staff aware that we are doing this to help create understanding of important tier two words.

The words are grouped into ‘families’ so for this half-term it’s benevolent, malevolent, philanthropist, misanthrope and anthropology. The session consists of an introduction to the word followed by some simple activities. They are designed so that any staff member can deliver them even with little knowledge of vocabulary and all the answers are included in the notes section.

At the end of each half-term, there is a vocabulary recap followed by a competition. We hold half-termly reading assemblies for year 7 & 8 so the prizes for the vocabulary challenge will become part of these assemblies. We are still thinking about how to have the biggest impact with this initiative e.g. should there be a staff challenge too? How can we get words into lessons or get students to use the words around school/outside of lessons?

Now we are approaching the end of our first year on the journey to becoming a ‘vocabulary school’, it’s possible to reflect of some of the barriers to our admittedly ambitious goal.

The main issues raised were taking away from curriculum time to teach vocabulary (particularly for subjects such as art who don’t see the students at KS3 very often at all) and time to develop vocabulary resources. Although we were only asking staff to concentrate on one scheme of work where they would commit to explicitly teaching vocabulary, some faculties were worried at the thought of doing this in every scheme (which is of course our long-term aim).

My Literacy Liaisons became invaluable in supporting faculties to refine their work, quality-controlling and offering further explanation or examples where needed.

Not using dictionaries in lessons or asking students for a definition of a word required a culture shift as for a long time subject have perceived using dictionaries in lessons as ‘doing literacy’ and some were hooked on tier three words, again, because this is what they would normally focus on. Essentially, it is inevitable that a big change like this takes time, practice and perseverance but it’s about showing staff clear benefits of their hard work, linking back to the visual of the student struggling to understand – we will eventually save time and narrow the learning gap by explicitly teaching vocabulary even though it might seem like an extra part of lessons to begin with.

In terms of prompting a culture change, the follow-up faculty-based sessions opened up a dialogue about vocabulary that has shifted us towards a more word-conscious school culture I think. For example, the history department taught me about ‘portmanteaus’ which is a French word meaning case made up of two equal parts but has now come to means a word where words are combined into a new word e.g. ‘smog’, ‘Romcom’, ‘bromance’. This led to an interesting discussion about how ‘Gestapo’ is a portmanteau of Geheime Staatspolizei meaning ‘secret state police’ & how they might use portmanteaus in lessons. SEN developed an emotional vocabulary to not only help their students understand and verbalise their feelings but to widen their vocabulary including words like ‘irate’ and ‘elated’. This resource asks them to describe a time when they might feel ‘joyful’ as supposed to ‘elated’ and a range of other emotions. Science developed a bank of command words found in their exam papers with examples, tasks and key criteria such as including the connective ‘because’ in their response. All of these I felt were great practice in terms of empowering students to ‘crack the academic code’ in their respective subject areas.

Some factors I feel were important in the success we have had so far have been the testing of year 7 (although this still needs refining) so that we could look at the vocabulary gap within the context of our school and not just as a fairly abstract national issue.

I happen to teach bottom set year 7 so they were a perfect target group for trialling vocabulary strategies which I could then support other faculties to implement. My plan going forward is to use the bottom-set year 7 class on the other half of the year as a control group – they are not identical classes but this would help measure the effectiveness of the vocabulary teaching. They were also a good target class as it meant I could say to staff that all students, regardless of ability, can access the challenging academic vocabulary needed to succeed if we scaffold it with effective strategies.

Training up the English faculty first meant they had the insight to support other faculties and we could say we had started our vocabulary journey when we delivered the whole-school training.

The more whole-staff training you can get, the better! It was clear to me afterwards that I really needed to spend more time on getting the basics right and consistent as a school.

If you want to implement something similar in your school, just a few of my reflections if I could turn back time Cher style! I don’t think you can overestimate the amount of time needed to select words and also offering a very clear criteria for this is invaluable so that non-subject specialists can feel confident about selecting ‘ripple’ words that will open up repertoires and code-breaking skills.

The student-friendly definitions are arguably the most important element to develop that common language enabling students to access the high-level thinking we want them to utilise in order to speak, write and read like academics so again, more time on this with clear criteria is essential.

I think rather than keeping it so open with all faculties choosing a random scheme for explicit vocabulary instruction, we should, as a school, have developed it for the first term of our new year 7, giving us all a shared vision which we could gradually continue as this year group progresses through school.

In terms of strategies, I think the consistency of every faculty using morphology and etymology (strategies that enable students to be pattern-seekers and become excited by the stories behind words) in year one would be a big enough goal as a starting point.

I just wanted to finish by thanking my critical friend Marcus Jones. It was Huntington’s 3-day literacy course alongside my personal reading that provoked this vocabulary endeavour and everything I’ve produced from resources to training sessions has been checked by Marcus as I harassed him with emails!

Our next steps in including explicit vocabulary instruction in every scheme across the school is to develop cumulative vocabulary tests so that the learning from year 7 to year 11 is not lost. Ultimately, they should be becoming more word-rich each year but for this we need to prevent forgetting from one scheme, term & year to the next.

Well done if you’ve made it to the end of this transcript! The resources are available on dropbox: https://www.dropbox.com/s/7gocidv6b1o8v5q/ResearchED%20vocab%20handout.pptx?dl=0

https://www.dropbox.com/s/2qnh9bhb8usor9d/Research%20Ed%20presentation%20vocabulary%20V6.pptx?dl=0

Using Knowledge Organisers and Call & Response to Challenge Bottom Set or Stealing Ideas Part Two!

Last year I had the pleasure of teaching ‘bottom set’ year 7. These students are so keen to learn and work hard yet, the curriculum is often watered down for them to match their capabilities leaving them even more behind. I made the decision to tackle The Iliad with them just like the rest of year 7.

They needed lots of thorough, precise modelling to rise to this challenge but rise to it they did showing the power of high expectations and careful scaffolding.

  1. Knowledge Organiser: this is a powerful idea, revision tool and homework resource I stole from Michaela Community School and the class took it so seriously! They were told to self-quiz and memorise the information, concentrating on one section at a time for a starter test next lesson and for their final assessment.
  2. Call & Response: one of the TLaC techniques. I used this every lesson until students could confidently recite the definitions of metaphor, simile, personification and alliteration.We then moved on to reciting important quotes about Achilles that use these devices. I also introduced synonyms for academic verbs such as describe and suggest and modelled how we would use these verbs in sentences, paragraphs and essays.
  3. Poetry by Heart: students were given extracts from The Iliad to learn and recite for a year 7 competition. We practised how we might add emotion to certain lines (see Lemov’s ‘Show some spunk!’)
  4. Model the kitchen sink: empowered by their knowledge of the above, we spent a lot of time constructing class topic sentences which were slowly built into analytical paragraphs analysing the character of Achilles. This was followed by paired work coaching each other with criteria to develop their own paragraphs and finally individual analytical writing.

The final assessments were not perfect but these were students who had never been asked to write an essay before and, with time and a lot more practice, they will write confidently about classic texts. I am very proud of their achievements!

The Iliad: Homer
Context: ancient Greece Plot
Kleos (glory): Kleos is the fame which a hero wins when he accomplishes some great deed, like the killing of a powerful enemy or the successful destruction of a city. It is the closest to immortality mortals could get. Book One: Achilles and Agamemnon claim war prizes in the form of women from a town they have defeated in the Trojan war. Chryseis’s father, a man named Chryses who serves as a priest of the god Apollo, begs Agamemnon to return his daughter and offers to pay an enormous ransom. When Agamemnon refuses, Chryses prays to Apollo for help. Apollo sends a plague upon the Greek camp, causing the death of many soldiers. Agamemnon flies into a rage and says that he will return Chryseis only if Achilles gives him Briseis as compensation. Agamemnon’s demand humiliates and infuriates the proud Achilles. The men argue, and Achilles threatens to withdraw from battle.
Menis (anger/wrath): Achilles’ rage and wounded pride leads to the main events of the story: the Greeks’ losing many lives in battle, the slaying of Patroclus and Hector, and the fall of Troy.
Arete (worth): This means being the best you can be or more simply, worth. Arete is shown not only on the battlefield but by the decisions men made and the way they behaved. Ancient Greeks believed you should never be unnecessarily cruel. Book Sixteen: Patroclus goes to Achilles’ tent and begs to be allowed to wear Achilles’ armour if Achilles still refuses to rejoin the battle himself. Achilles declines to fight but agrees to the exchange of armor. Achilles sends his Myrmidon soldiers, who have not been fighting during their commander’s absence, out to accompany Patroclus. Patroclus is initially successful but, with the God Apollo’s help, is killed by Hector. With his dying words, Patroclus foretells Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles.
Gods: A family of gods and goddesses lived in a cloud-palace above Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece The gods looked down to watch what people were doing, and from time to time, interfered with what went on. If the Gods said something was destined to happen, this was fate and no mortal could stop it. People believed if they died, they would go to the Underworld. Book Eighteen: On hearing the news of Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector, Achilles leaves his tent and lets loose an enormous cry that sends the Trojans fleeing. Hephaestus forges a breastplate, a helmet, and an extraordinary shield for Achilles embossed with the images of constellations, pastures, dancing children, and cities of men.
Book Nineteen & Twenty-One: Agamemnon and Achilles reconcile with each other, and Agamemnon returns Briseis. Achilles prepares to enter battle and kill Hector, knowing this will seal his own death. Achilles goes on a merciless killing spree, murdering many Trojans in revenge for Patroclus’ death.
Vocabulary

Anti-hero: a main character who lacks the traditional qualities of a hero.

Book Twenty Two: Hector confronts Achilles and is killed. Hector begs for his body t be returned to Troy for burial but Achilles refuses, tying Hector’s body to his chariot and dragging it through the dirt. After attempting to mutilate Hector’s body, Achilles eventually agrees to give it back to his family so that they can have a funeral. He is moved by the appeals of Hector’s father, Priam.
Stubborn: determined not to change your mind despite good reasons to. Avenge: to inflict harm as revenge for an injury or harm done to yourself or another.
Glory: fame won through achievements. Mutilation: inflicting serious damage on something.
Honour: high respect. Protagonist: main character Foil: a character that serves as a contrast to another.
Immortal: can never die/be killed. Wrath/fury/rage: anger Destiny/fate: events outside a person’s control that will happen often controlled by a higher power.
Tragic hero: someone of high birth with a flaw that causes their downfall. Dishonour: shame or disgrace Petulant: childish, sulky and bad-tempered
Warrior: brave or experienced soldier. Antagonist: villain Savage: fierce, violent, uncontrolled.
Invulnerable/indestructible: impossible to harm. Virtue: goodness Pride (hubris): pleasure in own achievements or qualities that are widely admired
Characters
Achilles: son of Thetis (sea God) and Peleus (mortal) therefore a demi-God. Thetis dipped him in the River Styx as a child by his heel which is his only vulnerable (weak) spot. He is the greatest Greek warrior: fast and strong.
Agamemnon: leader of the Achaeans (Greeks).
Hector: prince of Troy. A great warrior who kills Patroclus and is killed by Achilles as a result who attempts to mutilate his body but eventually returns the corpse to his father, King Priam.
Patroclus: Achilles’ best friend (could be considered his foil) who fights in his armour because he is so affected by all the Greek deaths but is defeated and killed by Hector, devastating Achilles.

Call & Response:

A metaphor is……….

A simile is……

Personification is………

Alliteration is……..

A synonym for describe is…

A synonym for suggest is…

A verb that means adding extra strength is….

Quiz:

1.What two events cause Achilles’ rage in The Iliad?

2.What does the word ‘petulant’ mean?

3.What does the word ‘savage’ mean?

4.Replace the word in bold: Achilles’ goodness is portrayed when he hands back Hector’s body.

5.What technique is used in this quote: ‘The river darkened to the heart with rage’.

Using Ideas from Lemov’s TLaC, Michaela School and Tharby’s Memory Platform to Improve Vocabulary

Teaching Victorian texts with students for whom the language, style and genre is alien yet they have to write eloquently about in exam conditions, is a challenge. One of the biggest challenges is the amount of unfamiliar vocabulary peppered throughout.

I steal most if not all of my teaching ideas hence I used a combination of self-quizzing (Michaela School), cold-calling (TLaC) and memory platform tasks (Tharby) to build confidence both defining and using the vocabulary from Sign of Four.

  1. Students were given homework to self-test on the vocabulary from the chapter we had just read. Although (following The Michaela approach) this was an unmarked homework, students knew they would be tested on this therefore I would know if they hadn’t done it!
  2. The following lesson there would be a starter activity where I cold-called on students to test their knowledge of the vocabulary set for homework.
  3. We would then do a memory platform activity where students could use their learned vocabulary to answer comprehension and memory questions. This had a double benefit: firstly, students were modelling their understanding of the 19th century vocabulary; secondly, they were learning and using micro-quotes. For example, one student described Watson’s fervent admiration for Mary and another wrote about Holmes’ dogmatic use of questions that are rhetorical in nature. We would continue trying to use the vocabulary learned throughout the lesson.

I follow Lemov’s blog and, having watched a clip of one teacher cold-calling to test vocabulary, I think I could improve my approach to this by not just testing definitions but pushing students to use the words in a sentence or question them further. For example, why might Holmes’ dogmatic personality cause him to have few friends?

In a lesson on the character Tonga, students were given homework to learn all vocabulary related to him and the following lesson we looked at how we could group these words into a semantic field and what this showed about Victorian attitudes towards foreigners.

All ideas welcome on how the develop this further!

Word Definition
Bestial (adjective) Savagely cruel and depraved (wicked); like an animal.
Morose (adjective) Ill-tempered.
Intractable (adjective) Hard to control, stubborn, difficult.
Venomous (adjective) Of an animal: secreting venom. Of a human: full of malice and spite.
Writhed (verb) To make twisting/squirming movements or contortions of the body.
Gnashing (verb) To grind your teeth in anger.
Unhallowed (adjective) Unholy; wicked.
Menacing (adjective) Suggesting the presence of danger; threatening.
Savage (noun) Fierce, violent and uncontrolled.
Massacre (noun) Brutal slaughter of many people.
Cannibal (noun) A person who eats the flesh of another human being.
Hideous (adjective) Extremely ugly or unpleasant.
Misshapen (adjective) Not having the normal shape or form.
Distorted (adjective) Pulled or twisted out of shape; contorted.
Cruelty (noun) Behaviour which causes physical or mental harm to others.
Fury (noun) Wild or violent anger.

The Beautiful Game of Grading Lessons

I’m going to start this blog with a disclaimer: I am not a football expert. Unlike my husband, who has purchased a brand new television on which to watch Euro 2016, I am both bored and bewildered by football fever. However, I did get drawn into England’s opening match against Russia and even I can recognise that they were the better team  (at least for the majority) and that the 1-1 score line seemed an unfair reflection of England’s efforts.

My husband gets Sky Sports updates when a match finishes and, had he not watched the England game, his reaction to that score line would be along the lines of “England, you’re s**t” but, in this case, he had the insight of watching the match and recognised this result as only telling half a story.

I cannot help but think this is one of the problems with grading lessons. In a single lesson, we can be labelled anything from outstanding to inadequate and, often, our reputation in school (and sometimes pay progression too) will depend on this. The problem is learning in one lesson only tells half a story.

After reading NATE and Debra Myhill’s inspirational work on Grammar for Writing and becoming borderline obsessed with David Didau, I completely changed my approach to teaching a couple of years ago. All my classes now have a language focus. Bottom set year 8 are encouraged to verbalise their ideas using complex sentences to add detail to their thinking while developing writing skills. With this class, repetition is key. My middle ability year 10 class are encouraged to use academic language at every possible opportunity. My top set year 9 are currently experimenting with developed topic sentences using conjunctive adverbs. None of these are quick-wins. They will make mistakes and they will fail but the challenge is consistently high.

Because there is no way that my students will master skills like this in the space of a neat and tidy one hour session, lessons like this are unlikely to be graded outstanding. Despite this, I know my students are learning to struggle, aim higher and achieve more in the long-term. The higher the bar is set, the more students will do to reach it.

With this in mind, I think I’ll continue to play the long game.

Drama into Literacy

Hands up if you’re afraid of drama in the English classroom? I’m going to put it out there: I am. I love drama and it’s clear most students love it too. They’re suddenly encouraged to get out of their seats, work in groups, perform and watch others perform; it’s clear why drama is popular.

It’s also undoubtably part of English. A huge part of our subject is speaking and listening and a big part of that is role-play so we have a responsibility to teach it. But it is also risky. Students are moving around, working in groups often in a small space. Two things come to mind: behaviour issues (especially for a control freak like me) and those two dreaded words Health and Safety.

However, my point in writing this blog is that I have happily always forced myself to take risks in the classroom and do things which make me uncomfortable. With this particular Drama into Literacy scheme (stolen from Rotherham teachers: thank you very much!) it certainly paid off.

I decided to read “Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” with my very low ability year 8 students and the majority of our explorations of the book were through drama. The students not only enjoyed the lessons, behaved well and were on task (because they were enjoying the activities) but they started to make exciting discoveries. The writing they did after the drama activities showed enhanced understanding because they had the opportunity to explore the text in detail before writing about it.

This experience has taught me the importance not just of drama as a way into literacy but also oral activities in general. I would be really interested to hear about anyone else’s experiences with Drama into Literacy as I certainly intend to continue embedding it into lessons and can even say although the fear of drama isn’t gone, it has at least subsided!

Using Music as Inspiration

I’ve just finished reading Nina Jackson’s Little Book of Music for the Classroom and thought I’d give music for visualisation a try. I used it as a starter for a first lesson on a creative team project. Students listened to two contrasting tracks (it was going to be three but time meant I had to cut the third piece of music). After listening with eyes closed, they had one minute think time. Then, with the music playing again, they wrote down or drew pictures of thoughts, feelings, pictures they imagined.

This seemed to work very well and really get the creative juices flowing. Students came up with very different ideas for the two pieces of music and began to formulate the beginnings of a story: fantastic! What I found hard, however, was the one minute thinking time. Since students don’t have cartoon-style thought bubbles above their heads telling me they are thinking about the images they had imagined rather than who they fancied or what they were having for tea that night, I had no way of knowing that this think time was actually useful.

On reflection, I feel this think time needs to be more structured. They were only given one minute but sixty seconds can feel like a long time if noone is really sure what they should be doing or how they should be doing it. For me, it was sixty seconds of awkward, uncomfortable silence which I was desperate to fill with teacher-talk (see my previous post on being a control freak!) My thoughts on structuring this time so far are to display some questions like “What can you remember seeing as you listened to the music? How did you feel? What other senses did you experience? Smells? Noises? Tastes? Were there people in your imagination? Who were they? etc…”

Hopefully this will help prompt students to think constructively, imaginatively and “on task”. Without the power of telepathy I will never know if this small tweak to think time actually works or not but I think that the quality of work says a lot about the success of a lesson or activity as does student voice.

So, I’m going to continue trying to use music for inspiration and forcing myself not to interrupt think time even if sixty seconds of silence in which students appear to be doing nothing seems like forever to a control freak like me!