March 19, 2021

Putting vocabulary at the heart of your curriculum – Part 2

In part 1, we considered the need for a whole school vocabulary spine, in this edition, we will consider how best to teach the vocabulary that you have chosen to teach.
Consider for the moment, what the teaching of vocabulary looks like in your school?

In my mind these are the features of effective vocabulary instruction: words are revisited frequently, experiences with these words are varied and active, the learning of vocabulary is ‘robust’; this means going beyond seeking out definitions in dictionaries, relationships between known and new words are explored and words are highlighted across subject areas.

When I think of the effective teaching of vocabulary, I use the terms ‘robust’ and ‘rigorous’, in order to ensure that learnt words are stored in the long-term memory.

There is a distinct difference between performance of learning and deep learning. Often with performance learning, pupils can recall what they have been taught immediately after it has been taught. Using our knowledge of the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, our vocabulary teaching needs to anticipate that unless pupils can use a word in different contexts, then the memory of that word diminishes over time.

Regular reviews of previously taught vocabulary support the development of fluency and give pupils the opportunity to re-activate new learning. Without regular retrieval practice, connections will not occur.

I would like to suggest that teachers follow a teaching sequence which includes the following:

  • The new word is introduced.
  • Pupils repeat the word (my turn, your turn)
  • A child-friendly definition is generated using everyday language.
  • The word is explored in different contexts.
  • Over a series of days, activities are created for pupils to engage with the word and its meaning.
  • The Frayer model is used to look at examples and non-examples.
  • Pupils are challenged to use the word in the home.
  • Retrieval practice using the Leitner Model is used (3) The Leitner System – YouTube
  • Pupils are encouraged to use the word in their own writing.
  • Opportunities are built in for children to revisit word definitions from previous topics and year groups.

Let’s talk about dictionaries! Dictionaries are an integral part of supporting the meaning of unfamiliar words, but some dictionaries are more helpful to children than others. Dictionaries often use language that pupils do not understand. Often pupils copy the definition verbatim with no understanding of what they have recorded in their books. My go to dictionary is the ‘Collins Cobuild’. This particular dictionary can be accessed via school ipads and interactive whiteboards and is a great resource that pupils can access independently.

The explicit teaching of etymology is central to both the effective teaching of spelling and the teaching of vocabulary. When a pupil knows the meaning of a root, prefix and suffix it then opens a door to many other words that share that same root, prefix or suffix. When a child knows the root ‘tract’ in subtraction, they will be able to use that knowledge to understand the meaning of the following words: detract, intractable, extract, distract and attraction.

We know that many words have a history, and it is fascinating to investigate a word’s history. This is a great website Online Etymology Dictionary | Origin, history and meaning of English words ( Google Ngrams Google Ngram Viewer is also an interesting resource which enables pupils to trace the usage of words between 1500 and 2019. A great book that is a must for every classroom is ‘Once upon a word’ by Jez Zafarris. Another great resource to support the teaching of Vocabulary is ‘Word Aware’. There is a teaching resource for not only primary, but early years too!

What is your experience of teaching vocabulary in school, join the conversation with me on twitter @EmmaAdcock4

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