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.

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10 thoughts on “A master plan for vocabulary teaching in the English curriculum

  1. This is so interesting. I think it would work particularly well with Doug Lemov’s vocabulary scripts as explained in Reading Reconsidered?

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  7. Hi Andy, I’m a teacher in Hants at an SEN school (and have authored a couple of books for Pearsons). I’m currently reading Making Every Lesson Count and wondered if it were possible to ask you a couple of Qs via email. No probs if not… Thank you.

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