Teaching vocabulary – a whole school approach

In my last post, I queried whether schools should focus their vocabulary programmes on teaching tier two words, or if they would be better served directing their limited resources on improving the teaching of tier one words, particularly in the first instance. My reasoning was that, whilst there are undoubtedly clear benefits for students of having a wide general vocabulary, perhaps even greater impact on academic achievement might be achieved if students better understood the concepts embedded within subject-specific terminology. The correlation between achievement and background knowledge is well established, so getting the teaching of tier three words correct might be the best course of initial whole school action.

In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Robert Marzano offers a six-step guide to the teaching of academic background knowledge through vocabulary instruction. The first three steps are part of the process of fast-mapping, which entails introducing students to new terms and increasing their initial familiarity with their meanings and their various constituent parts. The next three steps, termed extended mapping, are concerned more with deeply embedding the learning of new vocabulary in the long-term memory through different activities that deepen understanding by linking to existing knowledge and elaborating to new contexts.

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At our school, together with my colleague Josie Mingay, we have devised a plan for systematic whole school vocabulary teaching. Initially to be run as a controlled trial at year seven, the plan involves departments teaching subject-specific vocabulary alongside some topic-related tier two word, alongside a another taught programme of roots, prefixes and suffixes during tutor time. Josie has written about our tutor approach last year, with an updated outline to follow shortly in the coming weeks. She will be exploring these issues at length next week in her workshop session at ResearchEd Literacy, which as long as it doesn’t clash with my session on assessment, you should definitely attend!

At the heart of our approach is the vocabulary journal. The journal is important as it draws together Marzao’s six steps into a common framework that students and teachers can use to record new vocabulary, as well as a place to develop that understanding through fast and extended mapping activities. I trialled the use of the vocabulary journal and activities that link in with the 6 steps advocated by Marzano with my set three year 10 class in the second half of the summer term. Whilst this was probably not the best class to experiment with, I learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t and, although admittedly anecdotal, I could see how teaching vocabulary in such depth increased students’ understanding of key concepts, which as I suggested in my last post may not always be the case

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The unit was a drama text for the AQA modern literature exam. The text was Kindertransport, a play written by Diane Samuels about the experience of several hundred German Jewish children sent to the safety of England in the build up the to the Second World War. I selected 10 largely tier three words that I not only wanted students to understand by the end of the term, but also to be able to remember for the exam in twelve months time. I intended to refer to these concepts a lot and build upon them with practical examples within the play. Deep understanding of their meaning was therefore of paramount importance, as well as the added benefit of some having clear links to other areas of literary study.

The words were:

  1. Kindertransport
  2. Duologue
  3. Monologue
  4. Proxemics
  5. Dialogue
  6. Stichomythia
  7. Juxtaposition
  8. Parallel
  9. Symbolism
  10. Holocaust

Step one – Introduce the new term through description

The first step in Marzano’s guide to vocabulary instruction involves introducing new terms through description. This approach is much more detailed and I think more helpful than using dictionary definitions alone, which are often limited by their formal listing conventions and further confined by a lack of space. As I explained previously, Marzano organises words into different categories, which require different types of description to address the core semantic features. My example below, Kindertransport, comes under the category of man-made event and therefore requires information in the description about the people involved, the specific processes or actions, any equipment used, the setting and any related causes or consequences.

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Step two – Students restate the term linguistically

After the term has been introduced, the next step is for students to begin the process of understanding meaning for themselves. Marzano advocates that students should engage in restating the term linguistically as a means of increasing familiarity with meaning. I did this in several ways, including getting students to talk in pairs and targeting individuals to explore their understanding in larger group discussion. I did not spend too long on this before getting students to write up their definitions in their journals. The common format of each page made it easy to check understanding and address misconceptions.

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Step three – Students create a non-linguistic representation

This step draws upon the idea of dual coding theory (Sadoski and Paivo, 1994). In short, student understanding of key vocabulary is helped by making visual representations of new words as well as linguistic ones. I found this process extremely useful in helping to unlock aspects of meaning. Making a simple sketch of a concept sometimes allowed for greater clarification. These visual representations are not purely image-base, though. A key part is helping students to see how words are broken down into smaller units, such as roots, prefixes and suffixes. The brace format illustrated below is a great way for students to see how the word kindertransport is made out of other roots, with learnable and transferable meanings. In the year 7 tutor time trial we are hoping that as a result of students learning about morphology they will be able to make connections to tier three terminology in their subjects, particularly geography and the sciences which heavily feature common roots, prefixes and suffixes.

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Step four – planning for multiple exposures

As we know from the work carried out by Graham Nuthall in The Hidden lives of Learners, students tend to require a minimum of three different interactions with new material to help make it stick. Vocabulary learning is no different, and so the trick is to plan for multiple exposures to the new terminology introduced, ideally in different formats that encourage students to think hard about meaning. Marzano offers several practical suggestions here, including looking at the similarities and differences between words, classifying them, using them to form metaphors and using them as analogies. Beck’s Robust Vocabulary Instruction also provides good examples of activities that can be used to deepen student understanding of words

Step five – Students should discuss new terms

Again, a key part of vocabulary learning is for students to take ownership of new words and use them for themselves, such as by discussing meanings, making associations and talking about word formation. I found this the trickiest step to complete with my set three year 10 class, who were perhaps not as well versed in this kind of open-ended discursive task. I certainly have more work to do here in developing a clearer more structured set of opportunities for students to practice word meanings. As a side note, I briefly chatted with Joe Kirby at TLT15, who voiced what I would imagine is a similar experience for many other teachers, where a child learns a new word (say, the noun hubris) but then proceeds to use it incorrectly in its adjectival form (i.e. hubristic). Properly handled, I think this step provides a wonderful opportunity to negotiate some of these issues.

Step six – play with new terms

The final step involves students playing with the new terms they have learned, trying out their meaning in different contexts and building confidence with using words accurately and with real purpose. Marzano describes these activities as sponge activities, since they provide the means through which students soak up the underpinning concepts that lie beneath the word. Some of these activities include charades, Pictionary,
multiple choice quizzes and other word association tasks. I tended to avoid some of the more game-orientated sponge activities, partly because of my own doubts about their efficacy, but moreover because of a lack of time. Short, sharp quizzes worked best as a means to check for misconceptions but also to deepen understanding for retrieval.

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The future

Our year 7 vocabulary trial will last for the year – a decent amount of time to see whether the dual-pronged approach of subject-specific vocabulary teaching in lessons and morphology instruction in tutor period works. Because we set in English, we have been able to isolate three classes across the ability range who can receive both these forms of teaching, with one of the two other sets of three classes acting as a control group. Assessment will include looking at baseline data compared with an end of year position, in addition to evaluating relative student performance in end of unit tests. We will also use more qualitative measures such as student and teacher interviews.

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I will blog about how all this goes in due course, regardless of whether we see any material gains or not.

Thanks for reading.


7 thoughts on “Teaching vocabulary – a whole school approach

  1. Your posts and discussion are very interesting. I think you are well ahead of most teachers in thinking about the role of vocabulary in learing and understanding – and in discussing the merits of the pedagogic approaches that enable students to become more confident and articulate users of vocabluary….so thank you for sharing your experiences and the debate.
    I have also thought about the role of vocabulary – though in the context of my subject, geography.
    Subject-specific vocabulary is an interesting challenge, especially when there are similar vernacular words and/or the are used in a general sense.
    Asking teachers to consider why and when vocabulary in their subject becomes subject-specific (or Tier 3) is a useful step – as it makes them think more deeply about the function of the vocabulary.
    I have developed an approach to help students understand the power of ‘technical’ vocabulary – how technical words summarise a range of geographical attributes – I call this ‘word power’. In a way that is similar to Mazarno’s detail headers, I give students a structure to help explore and develop their understanding of attributes and ‘word power’ of geo-words encountered when studying a topic. The objective is for students to devise their own definition. Students complete a table with the following column headers:
    1. Geog Word 2. Where is this found? 3.What is it like? (Describe its size, shape and what it is made of) 4. Situation and surroundings (What is it next to or linked to?) 5. Why? (What is its origin or cause?) 5. My definition
    A few examples examples selected can be found at https://photos.google.com/photo/AF1QipNS-qAXNkATmT7Py-iqtJFQKOEGtk9PCCTtMNDF
    This approach seems to work effectively – and can also be used for formative assessment – students can change their entries as thet develop more sophistication and it is possible to see what understanding thay have.
    It is used alongside other strategies such as drawing/annotating diagrams and images and writing tasks with opportunity to use the words.
    The challenge is for teachers of different subjects to draw up a table or something similar with headers that suitable.

    Duncan Hawley

    1. Hello Duncan.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment and share your experiences. It is much appreciated. For some reason, I can’t access the link, but the rest of your approach seems to incorporate much of what I think works, albeit in a slightly different sequence. I think that if you systematically and continually adopt this approach, your students are more likely to engage more deeply with the underlying concepts.

      I would be interested to learn more if you get round to writing anything up.


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