Explicit Vocabulary Instruction in PE

Back in November Fran Haynes wrote a blog detailing how and why explicit vocabulary instruction had become the new focus for our whole-school literacy policy (you can read it here).  From the myriad of literacy strategies this was the one we decided to pick up and run with.  In the marathon that has followed our PE department has jostled through the pack and is among those departments leading us towards our ultimate finish line of seeing the strategy embedded across the school.

tier 1 2 3

In this week’s teaching forum, PE teacher Louise Wallis-Tayler explains how the department have developed an approach that builds fluency and competency with tier two and three vocabulary.   The work actually pre-empted the whole-school strategy and started roughly 18 months ago.  The impetus was a recognition that with the new GCSE specification for PE moving to a 60% weighting on a theory exam, the need for students to know and understand complex vocabulary had dramatically increased.

Louise has led the department through unpicking this problem and in doing so arrived at the conclusion that for students to be fluent in this vocabulary the work needed to start in year 7 and become a coordinated 5-year plan.  In this way a rushed KS4 intervention to plug gaps that would be difficult to fill could be avoided.  First came identification of the tier three vocabulary the department wanted to focus on.  The GCSE specification formed a basis for this process with the department ultimately discussing and deciding on the list at Subject Planning and Development Sessions (SPDS).

At these sessions PE staff were asked to think about how they could embed the vocabulary into their already-existing practice, rather than make it a bolt-on that would work against good PE teaching.  This fits with our general approach at Durrington.  Any strategy we introduce has to be tailored to the subject.  The last thing we would want is for a literacy strategy to force PE teachers to stop a practical element for students to complete a tick-box piece of writing.  However, there is a tension in that KS3 PE is wholly taught through practical lessons while the KS4 GCSE element has moved far more into the classroom.

One strategy to overcome this tension was to subtly alter the way PE staff questioned at KS3.  Instead of asking students questions such as ‘what is an axis?’, Louise encouraged teachers to incorporate the vocabulary into the discussion.  For example in a lesson a teacher might ask ‘what axis is the dancer rotating around in this movement’? This is important for two reasons: a) It puts the vocabulary in context, which is what creates meaning and therefore understanding, and b) it does not add to the workload of the teacher but rather enhances what they would have been doing anyway. Louise says it is important that teachers and students use the vocabulary to talk about what is already happening, so that is becomes a natural way of thinking in PE. Louise has also encouraged staff to model this kind of talk at practical points in the lesson. For example, in the winter months it is easier to do this in the changing room than outside on a cold netball court.

A further strategy in this move to explicit vocabulary teaching has been through modelling the strategies herself to the rest of the team at SPDS, and then filming head of department Tom Pickford to develop the discussion further.

More recently, Louise has worked with geography and science to help develop a layered homework programme for year 7. This entails year 7 practising vocabulary at home by using explanations of key words and matching these to images. The year 7 students are then tested on their vocabulary knowledge at school, including the spellings, and then the teachers endeavour to use the same vocabulary in the lessons.  Further to this work, Louise is currently working on an idea that came from colleague Ryan De Gruchy to identify a bank of words for year 7 students to learn over a six-week half-term, so that there is greater consistency across the department.

The initial results of this work show promise with some year 7 students now able to answer an AO1 GCSE question and achieve full marks.  However, the true effect will not be felt for some time as the students move up through the school.

Louise gave the following tips for any staff planning to implement something similar:

  • Plan by looking at all KS3 units of work to identify the vocabulary that students will need to know and compare to GCSE specifications.
  • Try to avoid making the vocabulary work onerous for teachers: show colleagues how to embed it into already-existing practice
  • Although it is embedded, it also has to be explicit, e.g. rephrasing talk carefully and thinking of opportunities to model the language ahead of time.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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