Lessons learned from a year of explicit vocabulary teaching

Keep the bigger picture in view

The image of the Reading Rope is a powerful one. As a primary school teacher for 20 years, I worked to twist together the fibres to build and strengthen the rope with the aim of sending pupils to secondary school fully able to access the curriculum. Now, working at Lawn Manor Academy (a secondary school with a large cohort from areas of high deprivation), tasked with improving reading and vocabulary across the school, I see this rope as a lifeline to learning for our most disadvantaged learners, a means by which their attainment can match the high aspirations we encourage them to have.

Our September 2020 NGRT results showed that more than 25% of incoming year 7 pupils had a reading age of lower than 9 years. The GL Assessment Report Read All About It: Why reading is key to GCSE success evidences the correlation between reading ability and achievement in all GCSE subjects. Whilst interventions help pupils develop some precise reading skills, the argument for a coherent whole school approach is convincing. Teachers embedding reading skills seamlessly alongside their curriculum content in a precise and nuanced way is the vision but, as Alex Quigley points out, secondary school teachers often need ‘the requisite time and expertise’ to learn about the teaching of reading themselves. Where best to start was the question.

Involve departments from the outset

One priority on our action plan was Recommendation 2 of The EEF report, Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: ‘Provide targeted vocabulary instruction in every subject’. Key terms were already taught in most subjects so there was good practice to build on, but greater impact could be achieved with consistent coverage and a consistent approach. We broke this down into the following stages, drawing on the SEEC model detailed by Alex Quigley:

  • Heads of Departments selected 30 words to be taught explicitly in each year group in each subject across the year;
  • Department teams agreed accurate definitions of appropriate complexity;
  • The explicit teaching of these words was planned to form a discrete part of the lesson;
  • Learning was to be consolidated through ‘Do Nows’, low-stakes quizzes and regular use of the explicit vocabulary both by teachers and pupils in explanations and questioning;
  • Vocabulary review was also built into the tutor program.

This explicit vocabulary teaching would not be the only vocabulary teaching that would take place (teachers would continue to quickly define words as classes read) but it was a commitment to dedicate lesson time to learning about words in a systematic way. Training in explicit vocabulary teaching was rolled out and models provided at the start of the new school year and the baton was handed to departments.

Enjoy early success

An October review showed some success: most departments were teaching vocabulary to Key Stage 3 classes and in the October half-term, roughly a third of Key Stage 3 pupils chose to complete optional homework created with words and definitions supplied by departments. Both teachers and pupils seemed to be accepting explicit vocabulary teaching as an integral part of learning in every subject.

Respect the competition

At this point, the effects of Covid started to bite. Case rates rocketed, lockdown followed and delivering effective remote lessons became everyone’s top priority. Inevitably, the teaching of explicit vocabulary slipped. It was accepted that this hiatus would largely continue until pupils were back in school.

However, the return to normality was not quite as normal as might have been hoped: the pressures of year 11 and the allocation of TAGs precluded an emphatic kick-start to the initiative. With a whole-school endeavor, whole school pressures have to be accommodated and fighting to get explicit vocabulary teaching to the top of the agenda seemed tone-deaf at best.

Use pupil power

A survey of pupil perceptions of explicit vocabulary teaching was created to shape the direction of the initiative before relaunching it. Responses such as, ‘It’s fantastic to learn new words and use them in our daily life’, ‘Really good and fun thing to do’ and ‘i am very confidant with the words that I learn it makes me feel smart’ (sic) sat alongside thoughtful recommendations, such as collating vocabulary learning in one book and having further opportunities to practise and revisit their words.

Pupils clearly saw the value in vocabulary learning. The results of the survey were presented to staff to pique interest and a slow, but discernible, return to vocabulary teaching got underway.

Keep moving forward

We are all set for September: words are on subject curriculum overviews, year 7 pupil booklets of words and definitions are printed and blank flashcards are ready in classrooms to display words as they are taught.

It takes time to build new practices, especially at the granular level of lesson content. Despite this year’s setbacks, pupils, teachers and SLT remain committed to explicit vocabulary teaching. Much like pupils’ lexicons, the rope grows gradually and this strand is strengthening, one word and one lesson at a time.

Jo Lister, Lawn Manor Academy