Vocabulary Report 2016/17: Part 2


This week’s blog dives headfirst into the aspects of vocabulary development that didn’t go well, or happen, in my classroom last year. It’s been a lot harder to write this one than last week’s, as it’s so easy to show off the positives. This is a vital step to improving teaching and learning next year, which, fundamentally, is what it’s all about.

Did I hit the children who struggle to learn new words enough?

Please don’t take that question literally.

Honestly, no. I don’t think I did. This is something I’d barely even given thought until I started really researching into vocabulary development. One of the most hard-hitting realisations so far has been that children don’t have the same life experiences, and, in truth, the difference between certain children in your class in terms of life experience will be utterly shocking. Therefore, it is unreasonable to expect some children to have even remotely similar vocabularies to their peers. It is these children who I desperately want to impact the most in 2017/18.

How do I plan to do this? 

I recently tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 21.17.36

The book on the left, first recommended to me by the incredible, fellow verbivore @mrlockyer, has dramatically radicalised my thinking on the whole subject of vocabulary development; it gave me a truckload of logs for which to begin building the fire. The book on the right became the petrol (@WordAware).

Word Aware outlines an excellent way of using small group sessions to teach new vocabulary, specifically words that will be targeted in the next session. Three to five children in each group, and careful planning of activities is key. The book gives lots of examples of how it could look like, structure, activities etc. Towards the end of the summer holidays, I’ll share what my planning will look like for these small groups.

I honestly can’t recommend either book enough. It might be worth asking your school to purchase a copy, as it is around £40 (a steal, if you ask me, considering what you get for it). I’d like to point out that I’m not on commission! I genuinely believe the Word Aware approach could transform schools and their children’s vocabulary.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on targeting those children with considerably smaller vocabularies, and best ways to expose new vocabulary and activate that deeper learning, so the words are actually learned, contextualised, and memorised.

Scattergun reflections

Without doubt, I’ve definitely ploughed into a ‘scattergun’ approach to vocabulary development this year. This has been great in some ways, but the more reading and research I do, the more questions it opens up.

Yes, it’s exposed the kids to a gigantic range of vocabulary. And to good effect. It’s had a massive impact on their reading, writing, as well as their oracy. Yes, they love words. They are enthused by the simple discovery of them, by using them in their speech and writing. These two things are great things to do, and definitely important.

But is there a better way? In the positively-intentioned attempt to immerse children in an exponential linguistic universe, is it possible to overload? Is there enough deep learning of words going on? My current thinking leans towards a more direct/structured teaching approach so that words are learned and retained across the class. Apologies for the repetition, but there will be an entire blog devoted to @WordAware’s STAR approach. Which leads me nicely onto action points for next year … From here on out, I’ll be purely thinking out loud.

Three actions for 2017/18

1. Focus on etymology / morphology of words.

etymology: origin of words

morphology: shape/formation of words (word building)

I want a daily Word Workshop (idea from Word Aware: teaching vocabulary across the curriculum) which focuses on either a root word, then how it contributes to the morphology of other words i.e. help > helped, helping, unhelpful etc, or on a specific prefix/suffix and its meaning and effect. It’d involve lots of games to maintain the enjoyment aspect of word learning

2.Key vocabulary in lessons other than English.

Goldilocks words (from Word Aware: teaching vocabulary across the curriculum) are tier two words (usually, but can also be specific topic-related words) which are not too hard, not too easy, but just right. Quick outline of tiers if you’re unfamiliar:

Tier 1: basic vocabulary e.g. house, cat, car, happy, angry.

Tier 2: useful words, words that appear frequently in books and adult conversation e.g. ferocious, malevolent, swirling.

Tier 3: subject related, content specific vocabulary e.g. evaporation, stamen, permeable.

I want to have a Goldilocks word as a vocabulary focus every lesson. That word will be paramount to the lesson, and the children will have opportunity to use it in their writing and speech.

Further thought: kids who find word learning easy will still benefit from this, as you could provide a list of other words around the subject. They will also learn target words (Goldilocks) at a deeper level. Kids who struggle to learn words, I’m hoping and will be evaluating, will learn words quicker and deeper.

3. Deeper planning of vocabulary.

Here, I’m advocating that word learning in the classroom should be planned like any other subject. I’m going to spend some time mapping out what this could look like, so keep an eye out for future blogs.

In essence, target words will be chosen in advance. All adults in the classroom will be aware of them, and will attempt to use whenever possible – thus increasing the amount of exposures to each word the children get. The vocabulary opportunities that arise from read-alouds should be planned. Five or six words is sufficient. Again, I want to look carefully at my own planning already for this, and change it (I will share!).

Questions and considerations (these are deliberately the same as last week’s):

  • Choose one thing that you feel has had the greatest impact on the vocabulary of your children this year.
  • Choose one thing that you really, really want to implement in terms of vocabulary development in 2017/18.

If you feel comfortable, share your thoughts and responses either on the comments section that follows this blog, or on Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Vocabulary Report 2016/17: Part 2

  1. Interested to see how you develop the planning.
    For those children who have weaker vocabularies pre tutoring of target words can be very effective. When the words are then introduced in the whole class session they have a valuable headstart.
    Revisiting previously taught vocabulary on multiple occassions ensures words are embedded.
    Time spent focusing on the syllable and sound structure, not just the semantic features, is especially useful for future recall. I always think its like creating multiple hooks to then retrieve the word the child is fishing for.
    I wholeheartedly agree with you on the importance of vocabulary. All children do not start equally. With vocabulary instruction underpinning teaching these inequalities can be challenged.

    1. “I always think its like creating multiple hooks to then retrieve the word the child is fishing for.’ – what a brilliant analogy! We should connect more about vocabulary, Carol; it sounds like we’re very much on the same page.

      These inequalities can be challenged, and actually changed!

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