The Literacy Look-arounds: Part 2 – choosing the right words

13 March 2018

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30 million – the potential word gap by the time a child starts school, according to Hart and Risley

15,000 – the potential vocabulary difference when starting school for pupils from a high socio-economic background compared to those from a low socio economic background

These are huge numbers. Numbers that feel insurmountable. We see these numbers and we wonder where to start.

We hold a new syllabus in our hand, rammed full of challenging vocabulary, and the temptation is to produce a double sided helpsheet of key terms that students can have in their books as a comfort blanket. We even print an A3 version to stick on the classroom wall – a laminated comfort blanket (though I suspect it is more of a comfort blanket for the teacher than the students).

Part 1 of this blog series looked at a range of strategies staff might start using to teach explicit vocabulary. But how do you select the words in the first place? Here are some considerations:

  1. Use a pre-test to help guide you. Gather all the words for a unit, or even a whole year of study, and find out the top 10 most troublesome words for the pupils. Focus your teaching around them
  2. On average, one new word explicitly taught each lesson will be ample
  3. Conceptual vocabulary is often crucial. Any Shakespeare play is going to be full of obtuse nouns and verbs, which can be briefly explained as the text is read. Explicit vocabulary instruction is going to be more useful around key concepts e.g. hierarchy, honour
  4. Use other resources to help such as Averil Cox’s Academic Word List or Beck’s Tiers of vocabulary to help guide planning
  5. Involve the department (this will provoke some healthy debate!)
  6. Plan in revisits – quizzes, extended learning etc. The more exposures to the new vocabulary in different settings, the better
  7. Know that any selection is never going to be perfect, but that explicitly teaching any vocabulary is going to be better than not doing anything

During the course of an academic year, a pupil is going to attend somewhere between 900-1000 hours of lessons. If they are being taught one carefully selected word in even just every third lesson, each of those in depth and detail, then it does feel that genuine inroads can be made into those seemingly insurmountable word gaps. One word at a time.

Marcus Jones, Literacy-lead, Huntington School


Posted on 13 March 2018
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