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