Much has been written recently about the importance of a student having a wide range of vocabulary at their disposal. It’s something that I have considered very important for some time, mostly because of a small research project I undertook in 2016, in the last year of the outgoing English GCSE, which proved to me beyond all doubt the effect that words can have on a student’s ability to express themselves clearly, and the ultimate effect that can have on their GCSE results. It’s something that I’ve meant to blog about for some time, because I like to see hard evidence that something does make a difference, and hopefully this might help others to see the impact that it may have.
A bit of background…
I work at a school of just under 2000 in Peterborough. About 54% of our cohort has English as an Additional Language, with over 80 languages being spoken and our number of disadvantaged students is above average. As part of our appraisal process we set ourselves a target for the year, which can be any number of things, but we are encouraged to conduct research within the classroom.
In the academic year 2015-16 we were about to sit the last session of the outgoing GCSEs. I had a year 11 class which had, through exclusions and other issues, managed to become a class of just 15 students. The students were targeted C-E grades. They were a difficult class, some had very difficult backgrounds and issues that the school were supporting with and some were behaviour issues. In fact, in the end 52 hours of English teaching were lost due to fixed term exclusions across the class. They were hard work.
The students were sitting the English Language IGCSE and the Edexcel Cert for Literature, which apart from the poetry anthology was a closed book exam. Despite their difficult nature, they actually really enjoyed the texts that we studied, Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet and knew the plots and characters really well. We had many heated debated about the texts in the classroom, but when it came to writing about them, they really struggled to put into words what they were trying to say. At the beginning of year 11, all students were working at between D and U grades. I had seen Caroline Spalding @MrsSpalding talk at TLT15 about the importance of Word Wealth and the effect that knowing and using a wide range of vocabulary could have on our students, and decided that as my appraisal research project, I would see if focusing on teaching vocabulary could help push them to the C grades that they needed to get them into college or sixth form.
The first place to start was a bit of research, just why was vocabulary so damned important? I won’t go into lots of detail, but there are many places to go to for ideas and information. Daniel Rigney in his book The Matthew Effect provides some interesting insights, the argument here being that those who are word rich will continue to be word rich and those who are word poor will struggle to compete.
The comment in orange reminded me very much of my year 11 class, and I’m sure many of you have seen that frustration within the classroom.
David Didau also wrote an interesting blog that looks at some of these ideas. The statistics in particular, I found shocking.
No research project would be complete without reading Isabel Beck et al’s book Bringing Words to Life in which the 3 tiers of vocabulary are explained, something I now see in many resources and blogs on Twitter. Having this understanding really influenced the way that I considered the vocabulary I would teach.
Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov et al, is also a fantastic resource in understanding the practicalities of teaching vocabulary through implicit and explicit instruction. It also allows access to videos so you can see what vocabulary teaching can look like in practice.
Since I carried out this research, much has been written on vocabulary and Alex Quigley’s book Closing The Vocabulary Gap is a really good place to start when considering how to teach vocabulary.
How did it work in practice?
The biggest thing that I decided to do was make them revision guides for the 2 texts, Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet, and give them new vocabulary. They were given vocabulary for character…
and for theme…
But they weren’t just given the words, we talked about the words, we used the words in sentences, they defined the words in ways that they would remember and they were tested on the words. They were also encouraged to use the words verbally in responses and to think constantly about what was ‘a better way to say.’
So what was the effect on their writing?
Slowly, but surely, I noticed them starting to slip the learned vocabulary into their writing. They were also encouraged to go back and re-write pieces that they had written earlier, using what they had learned to improve. I also noticed a difference in their demeanour, they were proud of what they knew and were able to express themselves in a new way. There was less of that frustrated behaviour and they were much more eager to try. Learning the new vocabulary had an enormous impact in particular on my 2 most recently arrived EAL students, one of whom grew in confidence hugely by the time they sat their exam that summer.
Hopefully, you can see that the vocabulary started to make their answers sound that bit more sophisticated. These were not academic students, they were students who had barriers that were very difficult to overcome, but in a small way, they had started to change the way that they expressed their ideas. Alongside the texts, we also looked in particular at language for expressing emotion for the Language papers.
What was the impact on grades?
So, the all important question, did it impact on grades and progress? Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself. This is a difficult question to answer, there could be any number of variables, but the only thing that I focused on that year was vocabulary. So the results…
- For all students in the class, English Language and/or Literature was in their top 2 grades across all subjects.
- All but 2 students met or exceeded their targets.
- Of the 2 students that entered secondary below a level 1 from Primary, one achieved C/D (Lang/Lit) and the other D/D
- One student whose target was a C, achieved a B in Language and an A* in Literature
- One student whose target was a C achieved B grades in both Language and Literature
- One student whose target was a D achieved C grades in both Language and Literature
As Literature had been my main focus…
64.29% of students made 4 levels of progress
14.29% of students made 5 levels of progress
7.14% of students made 6 levels of progress
So, I was pleased. It was never going to be perfect, I lost 2 students to exclusion permanently right near the end, but I was really proud of what they had achieved in the end and I can’t help but think that a lot of this was done to the time that we had spent learning vocabulary.
How has this changed my practice?
I now have a clear focus on vocabulary in my lessons. At GCSE students create word banks for characters as we go through texts an they are asked to use these continuously to describe a character’s development, in both written and verbal responses. We also use word banks for each poem.
I try to drop in new vocabulary definitions into lessons, where we can discuss words and how they relate to the topic or theme of the lesson.
I ask them to choose relevant vocabulary and ask them to explain their ideas.
I try to always remember to never assume, particularity with such a large EAL cohort, that students know and understand what words mean and provide definitions when we are reading texts.
As a department we ensure that students have access to vocabulary for each of our units.
Whole School Strategies
As a school, we decided to buy into the Bedrock vocabulary learning programme and all students across KS3 have a designated Bedrock lesson that is separate to their English lessons. All students across the school have access. The online lessons teach students root words all the way up to GCSE specific words and tests them pre- and post learning. Although we are only in our second full year of use, we are starting to see a positive impact on student’s writing and understanding.
Spear-headed by my Deputy Head, Kate Simpson-Holley, the school has a focus on Academic Writing which we teach in form times. We are a vertical-tutored school and in one form lesson a week we have a focus on an aspect of academic language, for example, passive voice, noun phrases, nominalisation or writing in the third person. Students are taught to rewrite using higher tier vocabulary and have an understanding of what they should do to make their writing sound more academic.
I’ve written this blog in the hope that it might give a little insight into the impact that a vocabulary focus can have. I never wish to tell others what to do, but give ideas of what you could do or try, if like me, you are always looking for ideas. For me, vocabulary teaching is something that I am working on and is constantly evolving. But knowing a great word always makes you feel good, and using it makes you feel proper clever.
Thanks to year 11 from 2016, who happily consented to their work being repeatedly used as part of the project, ‘ cos it’s proper Science.’ I miss them.
“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down.” -Friedrich Nietzsche