Sunday, 17 January 2016

Vocabulary: Oleaginous is the word that you heard. It’s got groove. It’s got meaning.

Sir, I would say that Piggy is a masochistic character, who, in a way, contrasts with the sadistic Jack.

That one comment signalled a shift in understanding for a student in the class this week. In fact, it was a massive shift in terms of understanding. Without the words ‘masochistic’ and ‘sadistic’, the student would probably be saying the following sentence:   

Sir, I would say that Piggy is a weak character, who, in a way, contrasts with the cruel Jack.

One comment shows a complex understanding of the characters and the other shows a superficial grasp of the characters. I’d like to say it took hours of complex teaching: it didn’t. The sheet below helped the individual make the comment. It then was followed by examples of the student telling me how Piggy provided opportunities for people to be cruel to him and examples of how Jack let slip his enjoyment at being cruel to other characters.


A brutal or inhuman contact


A violently cruel or as a wild beast, person or aspect



A desire to inflict injury, harm or suffering on another because of meanness or an impulse



Bad tempered or violent

A Av

To take enjoyment from being cruel


To act without pity or compassion



To take enjoyment from being cruel to oneself through own actions or another’s actions.



Hardened or unsympathetic

A V 

To make morally bad or evil



To describe a cruel, inhuman, savage aspect


Not human or lacking  human feelings such as sympathy, warmth or compassion


Showing no mercy or compassion



Eager to shed blood


Wanting to kill a person


A desire to harm, annoy, frustrate or humiliate another person


Natural, blunt or underdeveloped


Having the characteristics of a wild animal



To be educated, refined and enlightened.


To not be educated or cultured

V A 

Showing a lack of social breeding; unmannerly; rude

Previously, I described this idea of teaching vocabulary through synonyms and groups of associated words. For the past two weeks, I have been trying it out in classes, and thoroughly enjoying it. It has, if I am honest, ‘raised my game’ in the classroom. By that, I mean it has developed the way I talk in the class. It has given me a script to work from. It has given me new elements to put in a lesson that I usually wouldn’t use. It has become a cohesive device.

The format for using these vocabulary sheet is quite simple:

1: Give student the sheet.

2: Student tries to draw the definitions of all twenty words in a simple, Pictionary style sketch.

3: The whole class play a game of Pictionary.

4: The class play a game of Blockbusters to recall the definitions. What C is an adjective to describe something natural, blunt or underdeveloped?

5: Students learn the words for homework.

6: Next lesson, students complete a multiple choice test on definitions.

7: Next lesson, students complete a test on definitions. What C is an adjective to describe something natural, blunt or underdeveloped?

8: Next lesson, students write a paragraph with as many of the words as possible.

I might change and vary the format of the lessons, but there is a lot of repetition and all the time I am asking students to give me a definition. I keep going back to the new words. I use them to drive lessons, discussions and work. Who is the most feral character in ‘The Lord of the Flies’? Remind me again, what does feral mean?   

What I like about having this group of words, is that I now have developed a kind of sociolect. A way of speaking that only the class and I share. There have been numerous times when another teacher has entered the room and we have spoken in the equivalent of parseltongue. At the core of what I have done, is repetition and different contexts. The drawing context has helped students to visualise the idea and convert the idea from a concrete to abstract notion. The meaning context helps students to attach the word to the right meaning and identify how the word differs to other words. The talking context helps students to secure the pronunciation of the word and to see how the can fit it into a phrase or sentence. The writing context helps students to secure the words use in writing and helps them to use the words for meaning.

In the past, I’d say that my vocabulary as a teacher has always concentrated on clarity. I might punctuate what I say with some high level vocabulary, but for the most my vocabulary was Standard English and not that varied and complex. Occasionally, I’d sprinkle an advanced word in a lesson, but that would depend heavily on the context. I, however, was too concerned with the notion that I make everyone understand me. Having this bank of twenty words, I have felt empowered and felt that actually the speed at which I get to complex and challenging ideas is far quicker than before.  

 Imagine giving a person directions to their nearest city centre but you can only use the words ‘right’ and ‘left’. It would take a long time and there would be lots of vague bits and there is a strong chance that the person would not get to the city centre. Add words like ‘roundabout’, ‘junction’, ‘traffic lights’ and you’ll stand a better chance of getting there. Then, add words like specific street names and you’ll get the person there, precisely. I think we are like this with vocabulary in the classroom. We often use ‘left’ or ‘right’ when actually we need precise words or phrases like street names such as ‘Bridge Street’.

When I think of how vocabulary is taught, I worry. Look at how we phrase it. Word of the Week. Wow Words. We concentrate on individual meanings of words or a bank of randomly selected words. We rarely look at the context for using the words and we rarely look at the sociolect. We make endless lists of words. Lists for analysis. Lists for talking about poems. Lists for talking about photosynthesis. Maybe, we need to look at the language. Maybe each aspect has its own form of parseltongue and we have to actively look at how we get students to understand and use this form of parseltongue instead of common tongue.   

Of course, words are only one part of the language we use in the classroom and it is the easiest to pick up on. There is also the grammar and syntax of the language used. Also, how often do we look at the language in a lesson and it is focused on clarity and all students making progress? Perhaps we are being counterproductive with language. Start with the basics first isn’t always the best principle to work with. To learn a language, it is best to get a few basics and then immerse yourself in the language. Surely, we should be immersing students in rich worlds of vocabulary rather than trickling brook of the odd word here and there.

Complex and precise vocabulary should be used all the time and that starts and ends with the teacher. We should be working harder to get students to speak in our own form of parseltongue, but first we must be clear what it is first. Sadly, we have a common tongue that is standard, generic and imprecise for the job we need it to do. The common tongue is helpful at times but it will not lift up their souls with the beauty of words nor raise their academic success through understanding.  

Thanks for reading,



  1. Came to this via your vocabulary list tweet and blog. Not read it before, but glad to have done so now. It makes so much sense. Thank you.

  2. As soon as I read your post I understood what one of my problems with teaching vocabulary was and now I know how I'm going to tackle it this year. Thanks!!!


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