As a seasoned English teacher, with more than fifteen years’ experience in the secondary school setting, I have unfortunately witnessed countless students struggle with reading comprehension, writing essays, and even communicating effectively in everyday situations. While there are various factors that can contribute to these difficulties, one of the most common issues I have noticed is simply a lack of vocabulary. This straightforward observation leads to some equally obvious corollaries:
1. If students can develop a broad and rich lexical bank, this will help them to comprehend complex texts, express their thoughts clearly and concisely, and ultimately succeed in their academic and professional pursuits.
2. A child’s complex lexical bank is not something that manifests itself spontaneously; it’s my job (or rather our collective responsibility as teachers) to ensure that steps are taken to encourage students’ focused language acquisition.
Questions around vocabulary acquisition
Reflecting further on these two observational strands, obvious questions arise:
1. The problem of decision making: what specific vocabulary should I explicitly teach these children, and how can I ensure that the correct language is taught in a manner that coherently aligns with congruent units of work?
2. The problem of transmission: how do I ensure that the vocabulary being taught is retained, and how best can I inculcate students with a desire to properly use new language that they are exposed to?
Empowering vocabulary acquisition
Educational literature dictates that the teaching of vocabulary should go beyond rote-learning of new words and focus on exploring the concepts that lie behind them; equally the process of embedding new language should be founded upon the core philosophy of repeatedly exposing pupils to new words and manufacturing opportunities for them to use the learned vocabulary (both in written form and orally).
With all these ideas haphazardly circulating in my mind, I began to panic a bit. Fortunately for me, however, just as I entered the hyperventilation stage of this unsolicited fit of terror, I was informed that our school’s English department had just adopted the new Oxford Smart Quest Kerboodle. Within thirty minutes of reading the information included along with Kerboodle, some potential strategies began to evolve.
How Oxford Smart Quest Kerboodle made my life easier
The digital Kerboodle Book is a glorious resource, not only because it offers well-organised units of work aligned with the core skills necessary for students to advance their reading and writing capabilities, but because—helpfully—each subsection cleanly and colourful displays tier two and tier three vocabulary to intelligibly signpost the sorts of key words and phrases that will logically assist student progression.
“[The] key terms sections have been an invaluable timesaver.”
As a teacher concerned with the design and implementation of effective schemes of work, these ‘key terms’ sections have been an invaluable timesaver. Whereas the construction of previous years’ schemes often entailed many tedious hours tirelessly trawling through pages upon pages of texts in order to identify and select appropriate vocabulary to be taught on a lesson-by-lesson basis, the Oxford Smart Quest glossary system now allows us to much more rapidly locate pertinent complex language, freeing up precious planning time to actually consider how this vocabulary can be best delivered and embedded.
“The Oxford Smart Quest glossary system allows us to rapidly locate pertinent complex language, freeing up planning time to consider how this vocabulary can be best delivered and embedded.”
Key vocabulary strategy
After collaboration between our English department’s members, the following strategy emerged—one that we have been trialling for the past twelve weeks:
The slide contains the key vocabulary that we want to teach in any specific lesson. It also contains the definition of each key term and a retrieval task relating to learning that has previously transpired. The words in the ‘key vocabulary’ column align with the glossary terms attached to whatever unit of Quest is being currently taught. The slide has been purposefully designed to be minimalistic and straightforward, both to assist teachers who need to edit its content and, importantly, to ensure that it is completely intelligible for students of various abilities. At the start of each lesson, teachers in our English department display the above PowerPoint slide. Over the course of a typical school week (comprising of four lessons), the slide will be used as follows:
Teacher displays the slide at the start of the lesson, asking students to read the terms and definitions and then write down their own sentences containing each of the key words (to demonstrate that they can use the language in an appropriate context). Pupils who successfully complete this activity are then prompted to complete the retrieval task. After suitable time has passed, students are selected at random to read their sentences and demonstrate their understanding. Once this starter is complete, the lesson begins.
Once again, the slide is displayed at the start of the lesson, but the ‘meaning’ column is now obscured. Students write down the definitions of each term from memory on their white boards before embarking on a new retrieval task. Once complete, students feedback their responses and any misunderstanding is clarified.
Identical to lesson two, except now the ‘key vocabulary’ column is obscured and students are asked to write down the words aligning with each displayed definition.
In the final session of the week, both the ‘key vocabulary’ and ‘meaning’ columns are obscured. Students are asked to write down all the words and definitions that they can remember from that week’s learning, thus demonstrating whether they have actually learnt anything!
Why we teach vocabulary this way at our school
After the relatively short time in which our department has been trialing this method of teaching vocabulary, we have had some opportunity to feedback and discuss the perceived benefits of this approach:
1. It aligns with the concept that repetition aids retention; repeated exposure to the same complex vocabulary over multiple lessons encourages pupils to embed key words in their long-term memory.
2. It allows for vocabulary to be used in context. Rather than simply a list of words to memorise, students are encouraged to utilise language both prior to and after the specific language will appear in the digital Student Book.
3. It can be used as a prelude to any text–be that fiction, nonfiction, or poetry–and encourages the process of pre-reading and looking up unfamiliar words when engaging with a piece of writing.
4. It can be easily adapted to organically align with any unit of work being taught through the Oxford Smart Quest English Language and Literature Student Book.
5. It can be easily adapted to afford opportunities for vocabulary games and activities which can be placed in the ‘Retrieval Practice’ section and could include opportunities for pupils to use white boards / other forms of media.
6. It can be displayed during or prior to writing tasks, often leading to writing that is more engaging, persuasive, and memorable.
7. It is a brilliant way of drawing immediate focus to the power of language at the start of any lesson. It is easily intelligible. Students can immediately engage with the tasks conveyed on the PowerPoint without confusion.
8. It is an excellent behaviour management tool: it can be displayed on the interactive whiteboard and students can set to work on it upon immediate arrival to the lesson, freeing up the teacher to complete the register or target specific learners.
If you found any of these ideas useful or have any suggestions about how my tactics for teaching complex words could be improved, please feel free to get in touch via Twitter!
About the author
Thomas Hoole is a Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner for English at Fisher More High School in Colne, Lancashire. His interests include the development and implementation of reading interventions for struggling readers at KS3 and the ongoing battle to promote reading for pleasure amongst youngsters.
- KS3 Vocabulary Development with Oxford Smart Quest
- Inspiring awe and wonder at KS3 English and beyond
- Curriculum Implementation at KS3 English
- Classroom strategies to support struggling readers
- Building Coherence in the Oxford Smart Curriculum for English
- Delivering high expectations in KS3 English Curriculum