Monday, 28 December 2015

Vocabulary: The Knowledge Awakens

My family and I talk and talk. There are very few times in the day when we don’t talk. The conversation ranges from probing questions about the nature of fairies and their purpose in the delicate harmony of the universe to wondering if our house will be hit by lightning one day. Sometimes, there is a small conversation that gets me thinking. One such conversation was over fears. One of my daughters has a fear of her hair falling out – she doesn’t have to worry about that happening. The other daughter realised this was a bit of a crazy thing to worry about. In my attempt, to reassure my daughter, I introduced the idea of rational and irrational fears. They got the idea and then we explored this in more detail. Are there other types of fears, dad? By the end of the conversation, we had discussed rational and irrational fears, phobias, different types of phobia, stress, worry, anxiety. Oh, and she still worried about her hair falling out! My daughters, in the space of fifteen minutes, had learnt a new set of words to describe fear and worries.

The interesting thing for me was how we moved from one word to another rather than explore one word in great detail. My approach to vocabulary has always been, I think, traditional. If there is a word students don’t know in the text, I do the following things:

1: Ask if a student know what it means.

2: Ask students to see if they can work it out from the context of the extract.

3: Ask students to see if it looks like another word.

Then, I’d tell them what the word means. If I have a little bit of background knowledge of the word, I’d might dazzle students with the origin of the word, or how the meaning of the word changed due a historical event. I often repeat the pattern in my lessons. I find defining a word becomes my verbal digression in a lesson. Depending on the text we are usually studying, I might give students a glossary. And, this is the problem, I think it is limiting. The whole approach is based on learning one word at a time and on that basis we might be learning six or seven words a week in lessons. I get the principle: it is better to learn one thing really well than several things badly. However, is that really how we learn words best? Does the spending of twenty plus minutes really embed or enlarge a student’s vocabulary?

Take the word ‘gingerly’. It is the adverb / adjective (depending on context) that I often have students use in their writing. I think there is a whole primary school lesson devoted to it, but students tend to use it with aplomb, when it comes to creative writing. There is no doubt about the effective learning of the word and its use, but it isn’t a very useful word – just my opinion. The context for using it is fairly limited. I have read millions of students’ work and I see it crop up only when a character is nervously walking. The context taught has limited the student’s understanding of the vocabulary. They know that if they use the word ‘gingerly’ instead of ‘slowly’ it is better. They don’t see how the word could be used in different contexts. For example:

Character X gingerly accepts the friendship of Y in the novel.  

Therefore, I think the way we approach vocabulary can be limiting and hinder understanding. To fix this, we could explore the different ways to use the new word. However, again this could be limiting if you understand how we learn to speak in the first place.

Anybody who has taught child language acquisition or who has raised children will know the rate at which a child learns new vocabulary is phenomenal. Research shows us that children aged 6-8 learn between six and seven words a day and children aged 8-12 learn approximately twelve words a day. If we apply a bit of logic to this idea, a teenager (12-16) should be learning twenty four words a day. Now, they might be learning through reading and other stuff that happens during a school day, but do we support this and develop this. I don’t think I have; I have actually been working against this.  I have been teaching vocabulary like a snail or as if students were six or seven – one or two words a lesson. Maybe, I need to be quicker and faster. Or, perhaps, I need to think of vocabulary in a different way.

Take MFL departments. They love their vocabulary. They are experts at teaching new vocabulary to students and, I think, they have the right approach. I think any MFL department will be able to give you a good indication of how quickly students can retain new words. They compartmentalise words according to topics. They will teach students vocabulary associated with hobbies, shopping or parts of the body. But, what is interesting about the vocabulary choices, is that they are variations of the same theme. They all fit the same context. Students are learning the vocabulary for weather so they can describe the different types of weather. Students learn how to say it is raining and to say it is sunny. They are probably using the same phrase but they are subtly, or not subtly, changing the meaning of the phrase with their choice of words. That is how children learn language.  They learn the word and then the different meanings or possibilities of that word when they get it wrong.

What if we adopted the methodology used by MFL departments? What if we compartmentalise vocabulary and taught groups of words or words with similar meanings, but with slight differences? All too often, we tend to load students up with tier 2, 3 or higher words, if such a thing exists. Here are some ‘WOW’ words or words an A* will use so use them in your writing. What if we developed a student’s vocabulary through association and links with other words? When I select a word, when I am writing, I will think about all the possibilities and select the best one for the job. I might, for example, weigh up how one word creates a particular tone better than another.  In my head, I have linked words together or I have in a way compartmentalised them together. That’s why I can think of twenty words to describe the temperature of a room as being cold. Or, fifty words to describe a hangover.

At the moment, I am planning for next term and especially homework. I think revising and learning the meanings of words should be a regular pattern. Surprisingly, a weekly department wide spelling test has been very successful. Why? Because, it forms patterns of learning. The regular pattern of learning has helped us, as teachers, to be organised but it also has helped the students form regular habits in their learning. As a result of this approach, I want to expand what we do to learning vocabulary. Twice a term students are going to be given a set of words like this.  


Sheltered or hidden from view


Separated from other persons or things 



Deprived of inhabitants



Living alone


To shut up or keep in


A person who lives on their own, usually for religious reasons



Having no place in society



Being an outsider or the feeling of being an isolated by society


The act of retreating or removing a person from society


Isolation is enforced by the government


Being away from people or hidden from view



Detached or standing alone


Having different feelings to others or not sharing feelings with others

A Av


Withdrawing for safety or privacy


Separating one part of society from another


A way or place of hiding



A place of safety



The act of separating


Something that separates two things


To free a person  from something 


The groups of words are going to be linked by a theme or an aspect. The one above is for loneliness and it is for Year 10s as they study ‘A Christmas Carol’. I am also looking to doing the following:

·         Year 7 – Animal Farm – Power

·         Year 8 – Macbeth – Madness

·         Year 9 – Lord of the Flies – Savagery

The students will have a lesson on the words. In that lesson, we will explore the differences between each one. We might even draw a picture to represent what each word means. Then, the students have a week to learn the meanings of each one. During the week, we will have a quick test on them and relate to ongoing work in the lesson. Finally, students will have a test (multiple choice) on the meanings of each word. At each stage and interim lesson, students will be guided to use them in their own discussions and writing.  

The plan is to have an ongoing focus on vocabulary rather than an ‘odd word here or there’ approach. I do intend to keep helping students to learn words, but it is to be hoped that this approach will make a more logical and sensible approach. I am teaching new vocabulary but presenting it in a way that might help students better with retaining that information. We want students to regularly learn new words, but I have always struggled with the idea of word banks. This way students are looking at learning words in a meaningful way and not a random selection of words. It is to be hoped that we will have a bank of words at the end of the year so we can recycle them or repeat them in future years.  

The above example given helps to understand ‘A Christmas Carol’ better. The theme of loneliness is a regular theme in the novel, but often the problem students have is defining loneliness. By providing students with these banks to learn, I am making them build mental lists around a concept. But, this time around I am making them explicit. For the next set of words, I might look at greed. All too often in the past students have repeated the word loneliness when trying to explain the theme. Take some of the words and there meanings is clearer. Scrooge’s behaviour is a way for him to partition himself from others and increase his segregation from society. Teaching students to see that there are different meanings and words attached to one idea helps to open up a different level of understanding. Without the word or idea, students struggle to form meaningful points. The big difference between the most able students and other students is often their vocabulary, but how they use their vocabulary.

Going back to the conversation about fear with my daughters. What surprised me the most was the snowball (seasonal reference) effect of the vocabulary. Understanding that there were subtle differences between words helped them understand difficult or abstract ideas. For them, knowing what is a rational and an irrational helped them to categorise fears. Knowing the difference between a worry, fear and a phobia helped them to see how scared a person is of something. I have always though that teaching students new words was a case of chucking a load of new words and hoping that something will stick. This idea of exploring twenty alternatives or nuances of the same words actually makes more sense. Link from the start.

The great thing about resourcing this is that all you need is a one little book: a thesaurus.
Thanks for reading,


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