To an English teacher, words are everything. Put in the right order, they have immense power to move us, fascinate us, make us laugh and teach us. Words excite and entertain me, but as someone who has always loved to read and felt able to express myself with an ever expanding vocabulary, sometimes I am at risk of forgetting how words (or lack thereof) can create barriers and instil fear in some of my students. Revered journalist, William Raspberry said, “Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors than a college degree… Bad English will slam doors you never even knew existed.” While there are many things which contribute to overall “good English”, vocabulary is arguably one of the most vital components in your arsenal. A wide vocabulary can enable a speaker to be succinct, precise and sophisticated, while a narrow vocabulary can lead to vague expression, waffle and frustration.
I want my students to have vocabulary which enables them to:
- Express their emotions
- Articulate their ideas, including those which are abstract and philosophical
- Persuade, inform and advise with clarity
- Judge and use appropriate formality and tone for a range of different situations
- Disagree with someone whilst remaining reasonable, logical and intelligent
- Describe things which they can imagine, creating imagery, settings, atmosphere and characters
- Handle technical terminology needed to access my subject
- Access higher bands on GCSE and A Level mark schemes
- Understand questions they are asked, and academic presentations they hear
- Explain what they have learned, reflect on their progress, and plan for future learning
This sounds like a great deal, and shows very clearly how important a good vocabulary is; it is like a toolbox – students need to be able to find exactly the right sized spanner for the job at hand, otherwise it will be a botched job!
One key issue we must contend with in education is the huge vocabulary gulf between students when they arrive at primary school which, in general, continues to widen as they move through the key stages. Students who come to school with a large vocabulary develop faster, rapidly expanding their vocabulary, while students with a narrow range of words progress more slowly. By the end of their school careers, students who were ‘word poor’ on entering primary school are even further behind their more articulate peers, and therefore less likely to achieve their potential in examinations and later life.
The quality and focus on vocabulary teaching varies greatly around the country, and the best examples I have seen are where there are strategies which identify key vocabulary in all subject areas, and explicitly teach these words in a regular, methodical way. My current school is embarking on a project this year with the aim of embedding the explicit teaching of vocabulary across the entire school. We are an all through academy, teaching students from age 3-18. I am excited about the prospect of developing systems which will eventually be consistent throughout a child’s school career; imagine what we could do with a ‘word poor’ child if we had regular, methodical teaching of key vocabulary from age 3 all the way through to Post-16!
The ‘Dream Team’, made up of primary phase leaders and secondary reps from a range of subjects, had a day of training with vocabulary expert, Jane Dallas. Jane’s incredibly effective system is accessible and relevant throughout all key stages. For copyright reasons I cannot repeat the system here, but please contact Jane if you are interested. The key principles, however, are based around repetition and placing vocabulary in context for students.
Step 2: All primary staff were trained by Jane on the system to be used this term in all primary classrooms. Secondary team met to agree on adaptations for a range of subjects, and strategies to test for the next few weeks.
Future plans: Once strategies are embedded in test classrooms, secondary team will ‘buddy up’ and spread the practice across school. Whole staff training will be led by the ‘Dream Team’ in the Summer term 2015, and we will continue to monitor and support the teaching of vocabulary into the following year, school wide.
If you are interested, stay tuned for developments! – I will be treating this as a piece of action research and posting results and examples of student work as things progress…