A vocabulary led curriculum

17 January 2018

How do you plan a curriculum?

pie chart

As part of our ‘Building Confident Research-leads’ course we ask colleagues to consider different aspects that feed into curriculum planning such as: exam board Assessment Objectives; teacher subject knowledge; and core subject related skills.

I suspect if we added ‘vocabulary’ to the list it would receive little weighting in delegate’s final assessment pie chart (it is amazing the care, colour and dedication people spend creating these!), but I wonder whether it could be another way of approaching curriculum planning, particularly given the challenges provided by the new curriculum.

All subjects are now grappling with the sheer size and knowledge-heavy burden provided by the syllabus: 1000 years of history, scores of science concepts, and several A-level maths topics that now feature in exams for 16 year-olds. If it feels like there is too much to teach and too little time, that is probably true – it was, after all, designed to embody ‘rigour and high standards’.

The extent of the curriculum means pupils have to do more problem solving as they are constantly encountering new ideas, and need to try and attach existing knowledge to the new knowledge, a mental process that is likely to favour the more able. However, isolating key vocabulary to explicitly teach can be useful for teachers to identify core concepts (a rewarding activity in a department meeting perhaps), and thus to streamline the learning for all pupils.

This can also bring us nearer to Tim Oates’ idea of ‘fewer things in greater depth’, and of course once a pupil has a fuller understanding of a certain word they are far more likely to be able to attach new vocabulary and knowledge on top (‘What Reading Does for the Mind’ is always worth a read with regards to this).

English and Maths teachers are now into a second round of teaching and of course this brings increased teacher knowledge and the ability to tweak the curriculum. If I were teaching Jekyll and Hyde again this year I would hone in on the following words:

– repression

– animalistic

– duality (I think if you properly, properly understand this one word, you are pretty sorted)

In terms of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ I’d argue that a fulsome teaching of miserly, callous, consequences, transformation and the universal power of Christmas (all aligned with key extracts) would enable a pupil to be very well prepared for any exam question.

These lists are intentionally brief, the choices can definitely be debated, and inevitably other words and concepts will get taught along the way. The difference with the fulcrum vocabulary would be the repeated interactions with those words in different contexts, building up a web of understanding so that when certain words get activated the brain can quickly access a wider range of related concepts [Willingham: The Reading Mind].

Some key questions to consider:

  • How many words do we pick? The temptation is to keep adding words. As a rule of thumb, a proper teaching of, on average, any more than one new word every couple of lessons is going to prove unsustainable (this does not include providing brief definitions and explanations to enable pupils to access the content of a lesson)
  • How do we pick the words? The first time round don’t spend a ridiculous amount of time on the selections. Yes you might miss one or two key ones, but all choices, if properly taught will certainly put you in the credit rather than debtor column
  • When to introduce them: all at the start of a SoW, or fed in throughout? Considering the benefits of ‘Making it stick’, the latter option seems preferable
  • How to teach them? Certainly avoid just giving pupils a stick-in glossary. The strategies you use may depend on the word: morphology and etymology can be powerful, especially for words in Science and Geography; timeline tools for History and Psychology perhaps; visual maps (these can be done electronically at Membean), supporting images or tools such as the Frayer Model can be great for finding greater depth in words for English and Drama.

Then there is the moral question: if I intentionally do not teach some words from the vast new curriculum, and those words come up in the exam, what then?

There is always going to be this tension for teachers: however we may teach a course we are never going to cover every single option, from every single angle. While it may create some butterflies, doing less in more detail will give students a far more robust toolkit of knowledge and strategies with which to tackle the unknown.

So when grappling with the assessment rubrics for the new curriculum, don’t forget to consider the role vocabulary can play in giving you some pegs to hang your curriculum content on.

Marcus Jones, Literacy lead, Huntington Research School

Posted on 17 January 2018
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