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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Teaching knowledge through vocabulary: or why tier two words may not be enough!

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There are many great posts on how to teach vocabulary, including this one by Katie Ashford and this one by David Didau. Doug Lemov’s forthcoming book promises to add even more practical advice to our understanding of the best ways to improve students’ language fidelity. Whilst I commend these wonderful ideas and very much look forward to reading Doug’s new book, I wonder if these approaches fully exploit the potential for student academic achievement, particularly in schools where levels of academic attainment are low.

The relationship between academic achievement and high vocabulary levels is sadly all too noticeable in the classroom, particularly the further up the school you get where the language differential between the word-rich and the word-poor is often stark. It should surely come as no surprise to anyone who has taught in a school with any kind of broad intake that this correlation is well established in the research field. It is patently clear on a day-by-day basis.

At our school we certainly have a language discrepancy between our highest and lowest achievers. This gap strikes me every year I teach the GCSE language exam. Whilst I do my best to help students approach their interpretations and analysis as effectively and efficiently as they can, there is always the same elephant in the room: it is invariably students’ levels of background knowledge that determines how well they will do, and not how much they stick to the tight procedures I put in place for how they annotate their texts or structure their written responses. It is so frustrating (and upsetting) to get students really good at understanding one passage, only to go back to square one when the topic changes to something else.

Most of the superb ideas I mentioned above about how you can go about bridging this gap between the language haves and have-nots seem to concentrate on teaching tier two words. As you are probably know, the term tier two comes from Isabella Beck’s fantastic book Robust Vocabulary Instruction. In it Beck identifies three main word family groupings. Tier one refers to words children encounter on a regular basis and which are therefore common to most students’ vocabularies. Tier three are specialist subject terms, whilst tier two refers to high frequency words that occur across a variety of domains, but are unlikely to be experienced by children in the normal course of events. It is these tier two words that most advocate to leverage in an effort to counter the Matthew effect.

I am not entirely sure about this line of thinking; rather, I think that maybe tier two words should not be the main priority for those interested in addressing the underlying issue of student underachievement: low levels of academic background knowledge. If the propositions below are true, then following Beck’s advice to use precious teaching time on improving the breadth of students’ tier two vocabulary may not be the most efficient use of scarce resources, particularly in the short term. It might be better to focus on improving students’ learning of subject-specific tier three words and phrases – the very thing that Beck dismisses because she believes such terms are learned during everyday teaching.

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From my experience this is not always the case. A lot of the time students do not adequately learn the meanings of words that are integral to their different subjects. Every year, without exception, I have to teach my incoming exam class pretty much all the poetic terminology they need to be successful at GCSE level. You would have thought that for the past 11 years they had never heard of a metaphor, or were missing the lessons where monologue, imagery and sonnet were discussed. Maybe this reflects badly on my school, but since this is third school in which I have taught and in each a similar issue has occurred, I suspect not. If this is a more widely experienced phenomenon, perhaps it would be more sensible to focus on getting the teaching of subject vocabulary right first time before we tried to broaden our efforts on teaching wider academic language, which if we are honest is unlikely to make a big difference unless the full weight of the schools’ effort is directed towards making such an approach work.

If our main intention is to raise student attainment and we accept that increased levels of academic background knowledge are vital to achieving this end, then designing a programme of direct vocabulary instruction that focuses on teaching academic background knowledge through vocabulary instruction is probably the way to go. Robert Marzano certainly seems to think so, and in his excellent book Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, he not only offers a thorough unpicking of the rationale behind such an approach, but also provides a step-by-step guide on how to make it work in your school.

Marzano explains how knowledge is organised in propositional networks. Drawing upon the framework outlined in Clark and Clark’s (1977) ‘Psychology and Language’ paper, he offers 8 different types of propositional statement. Below is what these statements look like for an imaginary child’s first trip to Iceland to go trekking across the countryside:

  1. I trekked. (subject performs an action)
  2. I was overwhelmed. (subject possess a characteristic)
  3. I ate from a smörgåsbord. (subject performs an action on something)
  4. I bathed in a hot spring. (subject performs an action in a specific location)
  5. I gave my crampons to the instructor. (subject transfers something)
  6. Night time came quickly. (action is performed or occurs in specific manner)
  7. Someone gave me some gaitors. (someone transfers something to subject)
  8. The Northern Lights impressed me. (Something has an effect on subject)

Below is a representation of the propositional network for this experience.

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Marzano explains how ‘our background knowledge is initially linguistic descriptions of what we have experienced’ and that over time these ‘linguistic descriptions shed their connections to a particular event and describe general forms of the event.’ This means that as the fictional child who went trekking in Iceland gets older, her specific one-off experiences of trekking become increasingly abstract until – with enough opportunities for deep processing and encoding – they take on the characteristic of more generalised forms of background knowledge. Such a decontextualized propositional network for the knowledge of trekking in Iceland might looks like this:

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What Marzano describes is essentially the process through which we gain background knowledge, and the excellent news is that this does not necessarily have to be experienced directly i.e. our imaginary child does not actually have to trekking in Iceland, but can rather still gain the knowledge of an authentic experience by reading about it in a book and learn the same things about the climate and the culture, though indirectly. This is one of the powerful effects of reading: it’s ability to build background knowledge and generate the kind of schema a student needs to read as successfully about global warming, as about the rainforests of Ecuador or trekking in Alaska during the gold rush.

Perhaps the most powerful point that Marzano goes on to make is that this kind of academic background knowledge manifests itself through vocabulary. The best way to illustrate this idea is through an example. If you take the term ‘port city’, a typical dictionary based definition may look something like this.

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For Marzano, different words require different definitions according to their role and function. Port city comes under the category of general man-made object or place, and as such any good description of the term requires details of its typical setting, specific physical characteristics, how it is developed or built and its typical uses. A description of port city might then look something like this:

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For me, thinking about words in this way was a bit of an epiphany. As you can see there is a considerable amount of knowledge and interrelated understanding that underpins just this one term: port city. This example helped me appreciate the extent to which individual words and phrases are the site through which vast networks of knowledge converge. I also see more clearly why students so often forget the meanings of subject specific vocabulary like ‘monologue’ or ‘genre’; it was probably never explained to them in this much detail or systematically returned to enough times for it to stick. Maybe we make far too many assumptions about what we think students have covered or already know.

It is for these reasons that we have decided to build a vocabulary programme across the school with subject-specific, or tier three words and phrases, at the heart. We will also teach some tier two words, as well as a concurrent root word programme in tutor time, which my wonderful colleague Josie Mingay has written about here. The focus, though, is more on teaching tier one words properly so that the interrelated networks of knowledge can develop and link over time. In my next post I will explain Marzano’s guide to the effective steps in a vocabulary programme and exemplify what this might look like using some of the materials I developed over the summer term with my year 10 class.

For now, I thought it best to avoid making a long post even longer and falling foul to the kind of abuse handed out to Kev Bartle by Stephen Lockyer in his keynote at the Teaching and Learning Takeover.

Thanks for reading and thanks to David Fawcett and Jen Ludgate for giving me the opportunity to present on this topic at TLT15!