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.

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


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!

Raising Kids Who Read – a review


It is hard not to really like Daniel Willingham. Here is an academic and psychologist who has helped a great many educators, including this one, to understand a range of complex cognitive processes and given practical advice about how to apply insights from the field for the benefit of student learning. His 2011 book Why Don’t Students Like School? is regularly cited by enthusiastic teachers in their blogs who value the explanations and examples he has provided, particularly around dispelling some of the myths about the way people learn and the importance of knowledge acquisition in the learning process. He is not the only name in town, but he is certainly a leading figure who I suspect has made a significant impression on a great many classrooms up and down the country.

One of the reasons why I think Willingham has become so popular is due to the clarity of his writing: it is engaging, warm and so obviously on the side of the teacher. His latest publication Raising Kids Who Read continues in the same vein. The book is not primarily aimed at teachers, though there is much that I think most teachers can take from it, particularly if they have children of their own. Raising Kids Who Read is aimed more at parents, specifically parents who want to help their children to develop a love of reading and create a home environment where reading is part of their son or daughter’s ‘self-conception’ – something that they do, see as part of who they are and, crucially, something they enjoy.

Establishing the self-concept of the child as reader is the central thesis of the book and there is a great deal of practical and actionable guidance on how to make this possible. For Willingham, ‘reading motivation is fragile and difficult to bring back once its gone’. As such, any parent eager to help his or her child to improve their reading, whether through developing their ability to hear different sounds, to make sense of the marks on the page or to understand the significance of what they are reading, must not lose sight of the enjoyment first principle. Whilst by hook or by crook teachers are responsible for ensuring every student learns to read, mothers and fathers who want to support their child’s journey to fluency and understanding have to resist the urge to create classrooms at home.

Raising Kids Who Read is organised in a clear and methodical way, beginning with a brief overview of the science of reading before moving on to the tripartite structure that underpins the rest of the book. These three sections broadly cohere to the different phases a child goes through as they learn to read: the preschool years of preparing to decode by learning speech sounds and the relationship between sounds and letters; the early years focus on learning to decode and acquiring necessary background knowledge; the move towards increased fluency and enhanced comprehension. At each turn there is a short research overview followed by helpful practical steps on what this actually means for a parent looking to support their child’s reading development.

There is much food for thought, even for the most knowledgeable of parents. Those unfamiliar with the technicalities of learning to read will likely learn a lot, such as the idiosyncrasies of the English alphabetic code, the role that background knowledge plays (particularly how it enables the drawing of inferences from texts), the arguments for and against phonics teaching, and the ineffectiveness of teaching general reading strategies. Willingham remains clear and accessible throughout and places emphasis as and when required, such as stressing how ‘you need knowledge to read, and reading gives you knowledge’.

Throughout Willingham’s preferred style is to present evidence about what is most likely to lead to successful reading in a clear and reasoned way, one that allows readers to draw the conclusions he has reached but without ever feeling that they have been made to do so. Willingham acknowledges where evidence is inconclusive and is big enough to concede ground to views he does not seem to share, such as the arguments put forward by supporters of whole word learning. He points out that evidence can be presented to support either camp and that ‘the advantage conferred by using phonics instead of whole-word learning is moderate, not huge.’ Rather than assessing who is right, Willingham focuses instead on the consequences of following each method. This way the conclusion that ‘systematic phonics instruction maximises the odds that everyone in the class will learn to read’ appears obvious and necessary.

Despite Raising Kids Who Read being largely an advice manual for proactive parents, I found it impossible not to read it from the dual perspective of both parent and teacher. I nodded along at the parts that sang to me as a father, such as the sections where Willingham emphasises the importance of being able to distinguish between the different sounds in words when learning to read. As with many other children, my eldest daughter suffered from glue ear when she was in her reception year and her inability to hear sounds properly had a marked effect on her early reading progress. She could not hear the sounds, so found it hard to discern them in print or say them out loud.

At other times, the teacher in me came more to the fore. For instance, my week day persona fully understood the importance of Willingham’s explanation of the distinction between given information and new information, and the way that meaning is built across sentences that assume a certain level of reader knowledge. Whilst this is essentially a recasting of E.D. Hirsch’s contention that reading is more about teaching background knowledge than pushing redundant comprehension strategies, it was useful to see the point expressed here in a very clear and concise way. I am sure many readers will find it incredibly helpful to see the problem of comprehension as boiling down to the distance between ‘stuff you have already been told in the text’ and ‘stuff you haven’t’ yet learned about which the text relies upon to make its meaning.

This is a good book with a laudable aim. But there is a problem, or rather a cruel irony – one that Willingham himself recognises and that anyone with even a basic understanding of issues in education will hone in on. The irony is, of course, that the parents who will buy Raising Kids Who Read are not really the ones who need to read it. If you are going to go to the trouble of buying a book about helping your child to improve their reading, you are likely to be the type of parent who already reads regularly to your children, encourages them through library visits and talks to them in a rich and engaging way that models effective speech and builds their vocabulary. Most parents I know already limit their children’s online activity and provide them with the kinds of experience that develop the background knowledge required to be a successful reader.

As much as I enjoyed Raising Kids Who Read – and believe me I really did – I couldn’t shake this thought out of my mind. If we acknowledge that parents play a pivotal role in the development of their children’s reading, whether directly or indirectly, how do we ensure that all parents are suitably equipped to do so? How do we ensure that the excellent ideas and approaches in this book get to where there are really needed? Reading this book will make me a slightly better teacher; it will definitely make me a much better, more aware father. The trouble is I already knew the importance of building a positive reading environment at home, as do all of the people I know who also have children.

If Willingham is right that attitudes towards reading are extremely important and that these are rooted in our early emotional responses, our job as parents is to do what we can to ensure that we foster the right kind of environment that creates the right kind of emotional response. Helping our children see themselves as readers is vital: it is a virtuous circle that starts with the ability to read well and leads to an enjoyment of reading which in turn increases the attitude and means that we read more. This is the Matthew Effect by another name. I just hope that those that read this book can find a way to close the gap between the word and rich and the word poor – between those that enjoy reading and are good at it and those that don’t and cant’.

I’ve taken some good ideas from Raising Kids Who Read, but (touch wood) my children are not likely to be the ones that struggle most to read.