Vocabulary matters – ensuring that our students are equipped to comprehend the task/questions asked of them and effectively respond to these is vital for student success, and is strongly founded on students own vocabulary bank. It is a simple concept on the face of it – students with stronger vocabulary knowledge should perform better, while those with “stunted” vocabularies are likely to be held back academically and socially.
Worryingly. as reported last year in Oxford University Press’ “Why closing the word gap matters”, a survey of 1,300 primary and secondary school teachers across the UK found that more than 60% saw increasing incidents of underdeveloped vocabulary among pupils”. Therefore addressing this seemingly growing vocabulary deficit is of paramount importance, yet the very nature and scale of the beast, makes such a task imposing. To give a bit of perspective Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimated that in printed school English there may be up to 88,533 word families, which could potentially result in nearly 500,000 graphically distinct word types, including proper names. In addition to this roughly half of these 500,000 words occur once or less in a billion words of text (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). These findings indicate that even the most ruthlessly systematic vocabulary instruction could not cover more than modest proportion of the words students will encounter.
This is not to say that we should simply avoid the issue, Assistant Research School Director – Fran Haynes, has developed a stringent school wide strategy for supporting vocabulary instruction at Durrington (you can read more about this here) but has importantly made the task manageable by allowing departments to identify the vocabulary they feel is important to their subject.
Curriculum leaders have therefore been given the autonomy to address the vocabulary deficit in ways that will beneficial for their department, focusing either on tier 3/disciplinary vocabulary or in many cases tier 2 vocabulary that commonly appears within their discipline. The theoretical basis behind taking a more disciplinary approach to vocabulary instruction is explored by Fran Haynes in greater detail here.
Despite this more manageable approach, the vast array of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary means that departments need to be selective in the vocabulary they choose to teach, subsequently determining what vocabulary to teach is of paramount importance. The approach for identifying this vocabulary is dependent on the subject, department and need of the students. English departments are perhaps faced with the most significant task in tackling vocabulary. The reality is that teachers simply cannot teach students every piece of vocabulary they will encounter. While each text may have important vocabulary specific to that piece, to support long term vocabulary instruction the English department at Durrington have focus much of their effort on what may be termed as “portable concepts” that may transcend texts. These include terms such as foreshadowing and protagonist which are likely to be relevant to the majority of texts students study. The English department use illustration to support students understanding of this, asking students to think of a way of drawing the meaning of these words. The thinking involved in this task, aids memorisation of the vocabulary.
Meanwhile in Geography student tier 3 vocabulary seemed strong with students regularly such vocabulary (such as hydraulic action and mechanisation) however their ability to answer exam questions seemed to be regularly limited by a lack of understanding of tier 2 vocabulary included in exam questions. The issue with tier 2 vocabulary is not only the vast number of words that may be used by exam boards, but also the number of derivatives of words that can be used and also the transient nature of these words from subject to subject. For example, while “factor” has a certain meaning in Geography, it has very different meaning and therefore use in maths.
The geography departments approach to this is being led by Chris Woodcock, who initially asked students to identify the words they struggled to understand across the last 2 years of GCSE papers. From this a list of tier 2 and 3 vocabulary was identified. As a department the team then took the tier 2 words identified and linked these to appropriate lessons/units of work from the GCSE specification so that the vocabulary could be taught in context, as encouraged in Fran’s blog. This year when teaching these lesson or schemes of work the Geography department will be using a slightly revised version of the Frayer Model of instruction, in which the students will be given a clear definition of the word, followed by derivatives of the word, and then be asked to give examples and non-examples of the word being used in context. The definition will be consistent across the department and agreed prior to teaching in subject pedagogy meetings, with the meetings also focusing on opportunities for the word to be used in teaching and student writing, to maximise student exposure to the vocabulary.
The prospect of tackling the vocabulary deficit can, rightly, see daunting, however approaching this challenge from a disciplinary stance, enables departments to have the autonomy to identify and teach the vocabulary they believe students require. As such staff and student agency is likely to be higher and subsequently, despite an acceptance that we can never cover all the vocabulary students will face, we are likely to make more significant inroads into the vocabulary deficit and as such improve student outcomes.