What’s in a word?

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Ever picked up a class, in say year 10 or year 11, and been surprised that they don’t seem to know some pretty fundamental terms relating to your subject? For an English teacher, those words might include ‘metaphor’, ‘simile’, ‘juxtaposition’ or perhaps even ‘fronted adverbial’ – the kinds of subject specific terminology you would hope, nay expect, students to have pretty much nailed down by the time they are 14, 15 or 16 years old. I have experienced this many times in different schools.

This is most definitely not about bashing KS3 or KS2 colleagues. I’m fairly sure that when I taught more year 7 and year 8 classes, I encountered the same thing, and I’m guessing that a year 5 or year 6 teacher probably experiences something similar too. Likewise, it wouldn’t surprise me if the teachers who inherit my classes find themselves having to explain the same core terminology again that I thought I had successfully taught the previous year. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

But why does this happen? Whilst the forgetting curve is inevitably partly to blame, I suspect a fuller explanation lies in the way most of us approach teaching vocabulary and some of the assumptions we routinely make about what our students know. This is possibly more prevalent in the secondary setting, where depending on the subject you teach, it can be very difficult to have an accurate grasp on your students’ vocabulary levels. Yet it is crucial that we do because it is those tier three words that carry the fundamental ideas and concepts upon which other knowledge and skills are then built.

It is not hard to understand why we often make assumptions about what students know in relation to vocabulary knowledge, or any other kind of knowledge for that matter. For a start, words like metaphor and simile are supposedly covered at KS1. My 7-year-old daughter, for instance, can provide an example of a simile and a rudimentary definition because she has recently been doing poetry in class. But I think there’s a big difference between covering a word in a unit that is then subsequently assessed, and really knowing that word more fully, including its intricate web of conceptual links and associations. Coverage is quite clearly very different from learning, but it can be too easily conflated.

The other probable reason why we teachers assume too much about our students’ knowledge base is because we are usually so reliant on very unreliable proxies to make our inferences. Too often, assessments of students’ linguistic fidelity are bound up in rubrics designed to assess more generic skills. As a result we can fall into the trap of assuming that a level 4 in this, or 85% in that, corresponds to a certain level of understanding of the subject more generally, including all its attendant terminology. The result is that we can end up building on sand if we assume that our students are secure with core subject concepts (and the words that encapsulate them) when they are not.

If a teacher realises that her class doesn’t really know what an image or imagery is – as I have found every year of teaching question two of the iGCSE! – she will decide to teach that concept and how to apply it correctly in context. The problem is that by the time the next year rolls around that understanding often disappears and a new teacher comes along and finds herself in the same position. What I think is needed is a clearly-defined vocabulary programme, detailing exactly what subject-specific terminology students are expected to have learnt and by what stage. Without such a system, and a reliable form of assessment to underpin it, we run the risk of continuing to make unfounded assumptions about what students know and therefore continually waste our time re-teaching the same thing.

As part of our school’s initial attempt to construct such a coherent, school-wide vocabulary sequence, I have been carrying out some exploratory work with our current year 7. I have designed some core knowledge quizzes aimed at getting a more accurate picture of what specifically our students do and do not know across a range of subjects, including history, art, geography, music and religion. A key component of these quizzes is vocabulary, so there are questions asking for definitions of foundational terms like ‘primary colour’ or ‘portrait’ in art, ‘monarch’ or ‘civilisation’ for history and ‘island’ and ‘hemisphere’ for geography.

It is early stages at the moment, and I may blog in more detail in the future, but for now I want to share with you one small insight gleaned from the process so far, which in many respects perfectly illustrates some of issues I have touched upon above. The definition in question is ‘island’, a word I’m sure most would expect the majority of 11 and 12 year olds to be able to define. Everyone knows what an island is, right? So you might think, yet the students’ responses seen to suggest otherwise. As you can see from the definitions supplied by one year 7 tutor group, we might need to seriously challenge our assumptions about our students and their levels of understanding, and think more carefully about what it means to truly know a word.

Correct responses:

  • ‘Land surrounded by water’
  • ‘Land that is surrounded by sea on all four sides’
  • ‘It is a bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A bit of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘An area surrounded by a sea of ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’
  • ‘A piece of land surrounded by water’

Mostly correct responses:

  • ‘A large or small part of land not connected to anything’
  • ‘A broken piece of land’
  • ‘A small place where, people or animals may live, but is surrounded by the ocean’
  • ‘A part of land away from a country’
  • ‘A big or small place covered with sand and surrounded by the ocean’

Not really correct responses:

  • ‘Land, flat land’
  • ‘An abandoned land’
  • ‘Some small land on the sea’
  • ‘A small place in the ocean’
  • ‘A piece of land covered by water’
  • ‘Is a place in a country near / on a beach’
  • ‘A tiny bit of land’
  • ‘Surface’
  • ‘An island is a cut off region of land that has little civilisation’
  • ‘A piece of land’
  • ‘A place’
  • ‘A big bit of rock formed after volcanic eruption under water’

For me, the crucial aspect of understanding an island is that it is a piece of land surrounded by water on all sides. Whilst we may quibble about other aspects of a successful definition, these strike me as being the defining features of what make an island an island, particularly for children at this age. Based on this admittedly loose definition, 9 students out of 30 got the correct answer, 5 get the benefit of the doubt, whilst 12 don’t really manage to define an island successfully. 4 students did not provide an answer at all. What this means is that, even if we say that 2 of the students who failed to answer could define the word island correctly if asked more directly, then there would still be around 50% of the class who either cannot articulate their understanding of what an island is, or that harbour some pretty serious misconceptions about it. Neither of these situations is desirable.

Now, you could argue that this doesn’t really matter, or that were I to probe the students more thoroughly with more specific questions than simply, ‘define the term island’, the results would be different. Maybe; maybe not. If, however, we park that for the moment and look at some of the student responses in more detail we begin to see a couple of important, and I would argue potentially damaging, misconceptions about the nature of islands. The first of these seems to be that islands are ‘abandoned’ places that are ‘cut off’ from civilisation. Perhaps adventure stories in films and books lead to this particular misunderstanding. Then there is the suggestion that islands are ‘tiny bits of land’ or ‘small places’. Again, popular depictions of island settings may create this association.

Whilst in many cases islands are indeed small and remote places cut off from people and more recognisable signs of society, there are also plenty of very good examples of islands that are not, such as the very place in which we live. If you stop and think about the implications of this for a minute, you realise they are potentially quite significant. For instance, if you don’t understand that islands are surrounded by water, you might not fully appreciate the challenges and opportunities this might pose for a group of people who live on one. Likewise, without a foundational grasp of the nature of islands, you may not fully understand the importance of Britain’s island status, in relation to both its history and its present, such as its ongoing relationship with the rest of the European continent.

It is for these reasons and those that I have written about before that I think the priority for developing student vocabulary, particularly in our school context, is improving the quality of teaching in relation to tier three, not tier two, words, at least in the initial stages of building a school-wide approach. When you consider what it really means to know a word you see how important it is to teach subject-specific vocabulary as well as you possibly can at the first time of asking, so as to try and avoid having to repeat the process every year ad nauseam. Obviously, improving students’ wider academic vocabularies is extremely important too, and it may well be possible to do this simultaneously given the time and support necessary to do it justice. Perhaps, though, it is better to leverage the effects of solid, consistent tier three terminology teaching first and then scale up to address the wider language gap later on.

After all, ‘no man is an island’.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a word?

  1. I am looking at doing something similar in school- was wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing the core knowledge quizzes you used please? I would be really grateful.

  2. Pingback: Why not try doing too many things and not enough things, both at the same time? | English Remnant World

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