Vocabulary Teaching: Giving Students a Voice

Students completing an activity from Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1

‘Cultured…Engaged…Informed’. This vision strapline underpins everything we do in my English Department. Vocabulary teaching, naturally, plays an important role in fulfilling this vision. When we spoke to students about the disadvantages that poor vocabulary acquisition brings, the one that came up repeatedly was that of frustration – the inability to communicate that which is in the mind. Lodge (2020) argues that ‘Aside from the frustration that a lack of vocabulary can bring, having a word gap can negatively impact not only academic achievement but also children’s life chances.’ What emerges from this is that the vocabulary gap, if not addressed, leads to poorer attainment across all subjects and the aforementioned frustration students spoke of does not simply affect a child in their school years but beyond into their adult life. We had to act and do all we could in our power to break this negative cycle.

The research that underpinned our approach

In her paper on the ‘Importance of Research in Education’ (2020), Basu argues that an evidence-informed approach can ‘suggest possible remedial measures and effective solutions to various problems and challenges’ in education. We have certainly found that this approach gives us the leverage to implement strategies that are likely to have the greatest impact and found Butler et al (2010), ‘A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction’ to have been an incredibly powerful document in addressing vocabulary weakness in our school. The findings of that report outline the following pedagogical methods (paraphrased for clarity) that lead to ‘rich, multifaceted vocabulary instruction’:

  • direct instruction
  • repetition and multiple exposures to words
  • vocabulary that is useful in many contexts
  • vocabulary tasks should be re-structured as necessary
  • computer technology can be used to effectively teach new vocabulary
  • vocabulary can be learnt through incidental learning
  • multiple instruction methods are needed to optimise learning.

How does research and the vocabulary workbook coalesce?

In my experience, many – but not all – of the textbooks or workbooks produced to help aid pupil learning are of poor quality, boring and, very often, poorly researched. This trend is, thankfully, decreasing and Helen Prince’s ‘Boost Your Vocabulary’ series is of high quality, interesting and, most importantly, clearly aligned to the wider science around vocabulary acquisition.

It is a series that:

  • Puts direct instruction at its heart: Engelmann defines direct instruction as a ‘model for teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks.’ The workbooks do exactly that. Definitions, worked examples and structured activities (teacher-led, paired work and individual work) help to build student understanding, confidence and memory retention.
  • Places much emphasis on morphology and etymology: When it comes to vocabulary teaching, Alex Quigley (2014) opines that an understanding of etymology is a ‘goldmine of an opportunity’ when teaching vocabulary. Additionally, Reiss (2019) argues that the knowledge ‘of morphology helps students require meaning of derived and inflected words, which in turn promotes reading comprehension… and consistent spellings in word families.’ Prince places much emphasis on these two areas, which are not the sole preserve of linguists, but one that allows students to develop their word consciousness. It also helps to strengthen the subject knowledge of less confident teachers – and the unintentional CPD is always a plus!
  • Values the role oracy plays in strengthening vocabulary schema: If utilised in the classroom as intended, the workbook can generate much discussion. Helen Prince describes herself as an ‘oracy activist’ and this certainly shines through in her workbook. In my experience, dialogic talk enables students to reinforce their vocabulary schema and develop deeper connections with the words they encounter. Whilst research remains limited, there is a growing body of evidence that discussion plays an important role in the ability to read competently, write and communicate effectively and succeed in adult life.
  • Is challenging: This, then, leads to the final point. It is challenging. Prince deliberately selected aspirational tier 2 vocabulary drawn from the Oxford Children’s Corpus. Mary Myatt is a great advocate of ‘high challenge and low threat’ as it enables learning to stick. This series of workbooks does just that. Whilst the vocabulary is demanding, there is plenty of support available for our students requiring additional help; this same support is available for students who need their learning reinforced. No child, regardless of ability, is left behind. It’s a win-win situation!

An example in practice:

Context: It is unsurprising that our intake of students is able; however, our position as a grammar school is a unique one. Firstly, many of our students are from a disadvantaged background, almost 50% speak English as an additional language and spoken English is transactional rather than academic. The ‘Get It Right: Boost Your Vocabulary’ workbooks are, therefore, useful in addressing the needs of our students. However, we make intentional choices and we consequently focus on higher leverage words – words pupils need to boost their academic vocabulary from year 7 and beyond. In this year 7 lesson, students were looking at the term ‘foreboding’ – a word they’ll encounter throughout their English experience at secondary school and a word that allows us to explore the role of the suffix ‘fore’.

Word Knowledge:

Foreboding - an example word from the Get It Right: Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1
An example word from Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1

In the 2021 Oxford Language report: How Schools are Closing the Word Gap, OUP found the following from several case studies of schools: equipping pupils with ‘word building knowledge – working out key meanings behind prefixes and suffixes – ensures pupils are ahead of the game when working out the meaning of new words.’ The workbook prioritises the word knowledge of morphology, the role of the prefix, and etymology, subsequently giving students the currency to develop vocabulary consciousness.

Let Them Talk:

'Have Your Say' example activity from the Get It Right: Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1
A ‘Have Your Say’ example from Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1

We wholeheartedly agree with Helen Prince (2021) who argues that it is ‘important to value the talk’ of our pupils and ‘encourage them to value the voice of others.’ Oracy plays an integral role in vocabulary development (and learning in general) and unlike many textbooks, this workbook places much emphasis on good quality talk. For the novice teacher, the ‘Have your say’ section of the workbook helps build discussion and awareness of words; and those who are older – like myself – are able to support debate and build word consciousness.

From novice to expert:

A student completing an 'Understanding the Meaning' activity from the Get It Right: Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1
A student completing an ‘Understanding the Meaning’ activity from Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1
Students completing an 'Exploring the Meaning' activity from the Get It Right: Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1
Two students working together on an ‘Exploring the Meaning’ activity from Boost Your Vocabulary workbook 1

The activities within the workbook are effectively designed in enabling students to have an expert understanding of each word studied. We place much emphasis on lesson design from supported to independent practice; students transition from supported, whole-class work, to paired work, to individual practice and independent editing and redrafting.

Writing:

https://educationblog.oup.com/secondary/english/vocabulary-teaching-giving-students-a-voice(opens in a new tab)

A student's sample response to a writing task
A student’s sample response having used the workbook and expressed an interest in ‘writing more’

‘Success breeds success’ – a common expression in English – certainly holds true in the workbooks. Students progress sequentially and are, therefore, more likely to be successful. In a recent survey, our most reluctant writers commented on the desire to ‘write more’, because they ‘enjoyed the writing process more.’ This is, in part, a result of the workbook which leads to success as shown in the student’s sample response above.

But a caveat…

You will have noticed that I avoided giving superficial examples of how we apply the workbooks to classroom practice. The reasoning behind this is a simple one: how the workbook is used needs to support the students in your context. Whether the workbooks bolster vocabulary development in your curriculum – as we do – or are used as standalone lessons or homework tasks is dependent upon your context and the requirements of your students. What I would say, however, is that the workbook works best when it supports generative, co-constructed learning.

If you’d like to see us using this workbook in action, please do get in touch.

Bibliography

  • Basu, M (2020). ‘Importance of Research in Education’. NCERT: Bhubaneswar, India.
  • Butler, S (2010). ‘A Research Synthesis: A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction’. NRTAC.
  • Lodge, L (2020). ‘Mind the Gap: Why Prioritising Vocabulary Matters’.
  • NFDI. ‘Basic Philosophy of Direct Instruction (DI)’. Online: https://www.nifdi.org/15/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52&Itemid=27
  • OUP (2021). ‘How Schools are Closing the Word Gap’
  • Quigley, A (2014). ‘What is in a Word: Etymology for Every Teacher’.
  • Reiss, E (2019). ‘Why Teach Morphology?’

Written by Gaurav Dubay.

Gaurav is Head of English at an inner-city grammar school in Birmingham. In addition to this role, he is an Evidence Lead in Education for St Matthew’s Research School and Subject Network Lead for the King Edward VI Foundation of schools.

If you’d like to see the workbooks in action or visit, you can get in touch with Gaurav via Twitter:

@gauravdubay3 (personal account)

@english_hgs (school account)

Email: [email protected]sch.uk