Addressing vocabulary needs

Most teachers will tell you that the longer you remain in education the more you feel: training, professional development dialogue and staff CPD goes in cycles. New variations of past ideas emerge and make you question two things: one how old you feel and two, why you didn’t pursue these ideas when they first emerged?

Vocabulary and the teaching of vocabulary has always been the lifeblood of excellent teaching and excellent progress. Likewise, vocabulary has always also been the insurmountable obstacle for many schools in terms of engagement, reading ages and progress. A double edge sword that often severs the thread of opportunity for many students, most tellingly, if they attend a school in an area of deprivation.

I work at a school that serves a community haunted by deprivation and as ever poverty and deprivation in education are pervasive and pernicious inhibitors of progress. Before I arrived at the school to oversee whole school literacy, the school had embarked on a gargantuan journey to evolve their view and implementation of curriculum and teaching and learning. Three years ago, the school made the somewhat radical and brave choice to create and follow a knowledge rich curriculum. Fundamentally the vision was that knowledge is explicitly planned for and taught in detail, that knowledge is taught to be remembered and not just encountered or referenced and that essentially such a redesign is used as a social driver; a hubristic tool that empowers both staff and students and allows us a team to reach higher standards in terms of ethos and tangible progress. Vocabulary had to be an explicit part of this.

Throughout this evolution the school had established itself as a ‘reading school’ meaning the act of reading was central to everything we did as a school and the relationship between reading and progress, both socially and academically, was made explicit to staff, students and stakeholders. If real and consistent progress for all students is to be made, any part of teaching and learning and staff training cannot operate in isolation, there must be complete synergy between the vision, the action and all elements of the teaching and learning engine and that is exactly how I saw the relationship between reading and the teaching of vocabulary.

At the heart of how we went about this was explicit teaching of vocabulary in every subject. That essential vocabulary for specific topics and content was explicitly and specifically planned for and was woven in to all stages of learning. The expectation from us as senior leaders was that in lessons the vocabulary listed in the knowledge book for every subject, would be heard, used and written in lessons. That in its simplest form, the learning climate would be rich and purposeful in its use of vocabulary and language.

As we now embark on our continued educational battle with Covid and the disruption it has caused. We have used this time, as have many other schools, to reflect and evaluate on what we are offering our students and what we need to offer students in order to bridge the vocabulary gap many of our students enter our school with, and a gap that has already been further deepened by the pandemic. We found that previous vocabulary lists in subject knowledge books often overwhelmed both staff and students and therefore impinged on their usefulness as staff found themselves wading through extensive vocabulary lists. Subsequently we have asked staff to refine these lists, to focus on our Top 20’ pieces of vocabulary for each half term. Crucially, there is no glass ceiling placed on vocabulary teaching. Fundamentally we all believe that every child should be consistently exposed to and empowered by rich and sophisticated vocabulary. It is also easy to assume that staff feel confident enough to teach vocabulary, it is an assumption that should not be made. Effective vocabulary teaching is nuanced and a skill that needs nurturing and needs to be aligned with the school vision and student needs. What is often referred to in the theatre industry as ‘building company’ techniques are crucial in negating staff and student fear of getting vocabulary ‘wrong,’ it wasn’t until looking at vocabulary as a wider school issue that I reflected on my own practice: why hadn’t I offered more chances for my students to do choral reading or choral pronunciation? Had I bought in to the myth that teenagers would see that as infantile and uncool? I had, and they didn’t. In fact, engagement with difficult texts rose dramatically. I have also learnt that when effectively teaching vocabulary editing text should not be the antithesis to good teaching and learning, to grasp new vocabulary and concepts. It is essential that we don’t just plough on, strategic editing can often maximise learning.

National and international research has shown that vocabulary at age five has been found to be the best predictor (from a range of measures at age five and ten) of whether children who experienced social deprivation in childhood were able to ‘buck the trend’ and escape poverty in later life. Language skills are a critical factor in social disadvantage and in the intergenerational cycles that perpetuate poverty. For all teachers, there is no bigger motivator or incentive to ‘buy in to’ the importance of vocabulary teaching in both primary and secondary settings than that. For my students, vocabulary has become the critical skill I can empower them with in order to widen and maximise their life opportunities and in years like this year, I find it reassuring to remind myself of that. Vocabulary can be a pathway for students to carve out their own future.

Katy Dagnall is Assistant Headteacher at Moreton School.