February 25, 2021

Putting vocabulary at the heart of your curriculum – Part 1

By the time a child is 13 years old, statistics have revealed that there is a 30-million-word gap between a pupil from a high socio-economic group and a pupil from the lowest socio-economic group. What can we do in our schools to address this gap?

We have learnt from the pioneering work of Isabel Beck that from birth to when a child is 48 months year old, that parents in professional families speak 32 million more words than parents in disadvantaged households. All schools will pay testament to the fact that vocabulary gaps begin early, and these gaps are proving to be a crucial factor in later success in primary and secondary education. By the time a child is 13 years old, statistics have revealed that there is a 30-million-word gap between a pupil from a high socio-economic group and a pupil from the lowest socio-economic group.

What can we do in our schools to address this gap?

The first and easiest thing we can do is to read to every pupil for 21 minutes every day! If we can all commit to this, all pupils will encounter 2 million words a day! There is of course a huge difference between hearing a word and learning the meaning the word and being able to retrieve that word and its meaning from the long-term memory.

Explicit, vocabulary instruction is key to addressing the vocabulary gap in our schools.  The million-dollar question is this: which words should we be teaching? In order to answer this question, we must take our lead again from the work of Isabel Beck who has categorised vocabulary into three tiers.  Our focus needs to be on Tier 2 (academic and literary words) and Tier 3 (subject-specific words) What do I mean by academic words? Academic vocabulary is typically characterised by complex and abstract words that are dense with information. (e.g larva, photosynthesis)

The words that schools choose to explicitly teach need to come from your school curriculum. Isabel Beck goes onto remind us that for the fluent comprehension of academic texts, pupils need to learn 400 (subject specific words a year).

Curriculum Spine

So what can be gained by having a curriculum spine? Firstly, and foremostly it means that every teacher in your school will know the words that were explicitly taught in the previous year group. This then enables every teacher to revisit those words and those definitions.

Often what happens with the teaching of vocabulary teaching is that pupils are able to recall the meaning of taught vocabulary through that extensive piece of teaching, but what about those words that were taught in a previous topic or in a previous year group? Pupils often find it difficult to retain these words. Much like our curriculum, we need to be building in the process of interleaving, where we are constantly revisiting previously taught vocabulary.

Through my experience of working with schools and conducting curriculum reviews, many schools are thinking carefully about vocabulary. On units of work/Topics, vocabulary and the corresponding definition is listed, but how do as I as a teacher revisit previously taught vocabulary from previous year groups? What enables me to know what was taught before so that I can make explicit links to that learning? If I am teaching about Plants in Year 3, which vocabulary did children learn about Plants when they met this topic in Year 1? Which words should I be expecting them to know and understand?

Without a whole school vocabulary spine, vocabulary learning cannot be effective as it might be! As a teacher I need to know the vocabulary, at a glance, which was taught in previous year groups, as well as the vocabulary that will be introduced in future year groups.

My suggestion is that for each year group, there is an agreed list of words which add up to the golden total of 400 words! As teachers, our bread and butter is the up levelling of language in our interactions with our pupils, so pupils will be exposed to a figure that is easily in excess of that figure. 

The 400 represents the words that all subject leaders have decided that they want pupils to know the definitions of. These are the words that are essential to the substantive and disciplinary knowledge in each National Curriculum subject.

It is my suggestion that subject leaders, and those who have overall responsibility for the curriculum, work alongside class teachers to select not only essential subject vocabulary for every subject, but also the necessary Tier 2 vocabulary and academic vocabulary for every year group. It is also vital that the spine covers every year group, from Reception to Year 6.

Look out for part 2, Vocabulary Instruction.


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