What’s in a word?


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’.


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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.34.00

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

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.36.39

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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.37.21

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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.08

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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.42 Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.38.35

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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.40.42

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.

Screenshot 2015-11-01 12.40.12

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.

Screenshot 2015-10-22 20.43.00

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.

Screenshot 2015-10-19 18.32.08

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:

Screenshot 2015-10-19 18.39.51

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.

Screenshot 2015-10-19 19.16.37

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:

Screenshot 2015-10-19 19.20.43

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!