A master plan for vocabulary teaching in the English curriculum

A while back I stumbled across this awesome critical vocabulary document on the website of Yokohama International School. It was created by an English teacher called Liz Davies. I suggest you have a glance at it before reading the rest of this post.

It is, I hope you will agree, an extraordinary piece of work. Under categories such as ‘verbs for literary analysis’ or ‘adjectives to describe imagery’ or ‘adjectives to describe the moral qualities of characters’, it provides an exhaustive lexical map of the academic domain of English literature. For instance, in the category of ‘mental qualities of characters’ we have such beauties as precocious, wily, shrewd, imbecilic, erudite and, my favourite, thick-skulled.

The problem with the document, however, is what to do with it. It would be foolish – or should I say imbecilic – to hand it to students as it is. There is far too much to process here – far too much, even, for one academic year. It was all too difficult for me – so I filed away the document and did not think about it for a while.

Earlier today, however, I had a eureka moment. I finally worked out how I could unleash its potential. In other words, how I could teach my students to know and use these words accurately and in relevant contexts.

It is best to think of a document such as this as a grand knowledge organiser – a 5-year rather than a half-term plan. Because the words it lists are not presented in a context-specific way, it can be superimposed upon any existing English curriculum. The process – which could be undertaken as an individual teacher or as a department – might look like this:

Decide which words are useful and which are not. I would cut down the first list (‘verbs for literary analysis’) and include more literary and poetic terminology in its place. Significant time should be spent on this part of the process. In essence, you are mapping out the vocabulary you will see in all students’ essays in 5 years’ time.

The next stage is to map it against your 5 year curriculum. When and where, for instance, should you introduce the term ‘euphemistic’? In your Y10 lessons on An Inspector Calls or at some point before? This, again, is a time consuming but vital part of the process. If you are working alone, you might find it easier to map it out as you go; this may lack the coherence of a pre-planned approach, but it is still likely to bear fruit. If you use knowledge organisers, you can adapt them to incorporate the words.

Now start teaching the words. If they are mapped into the curriculum coherently, then you will find yourself teaching the words in context –  a vital component of effective vocabulary instruction. Your Y7 unit on narrative poetry, for instance, might allow you to teach the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘sentimental’ to describe a writer. Spend time teaching the words and have students record their meanings. Explain the words in detail and how they operate in other contexts too – e.g. Give an example of a ‘sentimental’ movie you have seen? Give students time to practice saying and writing the words. Discuss the morphology and etymology of the words too.

Make sure students have multiple exposure to the words. Use them in model written pieces and include them as part of daily and weekly review and retrieval practice sessions. If you use spelling tests, be sure to include the words too.

Create a vocabulary test for the end of each half-term. This should be a cumulative test so that it includes words from this half-term alongside words from previous half-terms too. By Y11, students should be expected to use and be tested on every word they have been taught over 5 years. If you do this as a department, every teacher and every student will be using the same list of words. This is an incredibly powerful position to be in.

And that’s it. I think such a scheme can work for two reasons. One, because it does not involve ripping up schemes of work and starting again – it enhances but does not replace. Two, because it makes use of what we know about effective vocabulary teaching as well as the key principles of learning science – retrieval practice, distributed practice, overlearning and interleaving.

Your thoughts, as always, are much appreciated.

Further reading:

On explicit vocabulary teaching – Beck, Isabel L., Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (New York: Guilford Press).

On evidence-informed learning strategies – Dunlosky, John, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham (2013). Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1): 4–58. Available at: http://www.indiana.edu/~pcl/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovinglearning.pdf.

On academic vocabulary teaching – Marzano, Robert J. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development).

On the value of daily and weekly review:

Rosenshine, Barak (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know, American Educator (spring): 12–19. Available at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf.

My post on Memory platforms.

See Joe Kirby’s super podcast on how to use knowledge organisers effectively.


‘Making every lesson count’ development programme

In 2015, Shaun Allison and I wrote Making every lesson count, an evidence-informed book of practical advice for busy teachers. Since then, three more books in the series have been published: Making every English lesson count, Making every science lesson count and Making every primary lesson count.

In September, our school – Durrington High School in Worthing, West Sussex – was designated a Research School, one of 22 nationally. The aim of a Research School is to lead the way in the use of evidence-informed practice by sharing approaches to putting research evidence into practice and supporting schools to make better use of the evidence.

To that end, we will be running a development programme based on the six teaching principles – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – we shared in the original Making every lesson count book. The programme will run for three days across the year (12th December 2017; 23rd March 2018; 20th June 2018) and is open to teachers, subject leaders and school leaders from schools inside and outside our immediate network. The programme will seek to answer the following questions:

  • What does the evidence suggest are the key features of effective teaching?
  • How can teachers use this evidence to inform their day to day teaching and learning in the classroom?
  • How can we mobilise this evidence into a cohesive teaching and learning/CPD strategy across a whole school or department?

The course will draw on a number of evidence sources, including The Sutton Trust report What Makes Great Teaching?, The EEF Toolkit and Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. From our own experiences we understand that knowing and understanding the evidence is one thing, but putting it into practice – as teachers or leaders – is quite another! The course is designed to cater for participants from all phases and with different levels of experience. Shaun and I will facilitate the secondary side of the programme.

If you would like to read more or book on to the course, please click here.

If you would like more information, then please email Lisa Edwards: ledwards4@durring.com

We are also running two further development programmes (follow the links for more information and booking):

And finally, we will also be hosting a ResearchEd conference on 28th April 2018. The theme of the day will be ‘effective evidence informed strategies that can be taken straight back to the classroom’. Confirmed speakers so far include Professor Daniel Muijs, Dr Becky Allen, Tom Sherrington and Peps Mcrea … Click here to find out more or to book a ticket.

We really hope to see you at Durrington in the next few months.