Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 3: Because, But, So

Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 3: Because, But, So

In my last post, I looked at how we present our approach to explicit vocabulary teaching. When we first began codifying the vocabulary that we wanted to teach, we had no real plan for getting students to practice using it, instead using vocabulary tables as a supporting resource and asking students to use the words in their written responses. Since reading The Writing Revolution I have begun to use one of the book’s better known techniques-Because, But, So.

Essentially, this approach asks students to complete sentences and requires them to engage in far more specific and focused thinking than just asking them to respond to an open-ended question (p.40). Here is an example from the book:

1) Seeds need light to grow because…..

2) Seeds need light to grow, but…..

3) Seeds need light to grow, so….

Each of these sentences ends with a conjunction and, due to the specific function of each term, forces students to think in precise and defined ways when completing the sentence: sentence 1 requires a student to give a reason; sentence 2 requires a contradictory idea and sentence three requires an effect or consequence. Not only does this allow students to practice using important conjunctions and create compound or complex sentences (areas where the weakest students at secondary still struggle), but it also encourages students to think more deeply about the content contained within the sentence as they have to produce developed responses, extending their thinking in the process.

Initially, I allow students to work with the support of their vocabulary tables-an approach that I explored in this blog-allowing a high chance of success in order to help encode these words in their memories. In later practice activities, I ask them to do these without any scaffolding, essentially combining the ‘retrieval effect’ with this approach.

Although The Writing Revolution restricts this practice activity to the three aforementioned conjunctions-and this is a great place to start, particularly with weaker students-the premise can be extended to include a wider range of sentence constructions, adding variety and increasing complexity to the practice. We have been experimenting with using phrase level analysis (appositive, participles and absolutes: see here for an overview) as well as ‘even though’ and ‘by’. This deliberate practice model is very similar to what Doug Lemov calls Art of the Sentence , an approach that asks students to regularly practice whatever sentence constructions that are deemed important in your subject.

With regards to teaching literature, let’s have a look at some examples that encompass the original framework:

1) Mr.Birling is pompous because…

2) Eric lives a privileged life so…

3) At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth seems dominant but…

As they are, these sentence stems pose a challenge and require students to think carefully about the meaning of the target vocabulary. To increase this challenge, you can add specific success criteria, detailing exactly what you would expect a student to include in their completed sentence or sentences. When used like this, these practice items can go beyond mere sentence completion, instead acting as targeted and purposive responses to whatever text you are studying. Sometimes these criteria can ask students to make links between the target vocabulary and other relevant bits of knowledge; they can also make clear your expectations as to technical sophistication or the full development or arguments and ideas. Also, they can be used to make links between different pieces of vocabulary that you have taught them.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

1) Mr.Birling thinks he is infallible because…

  • Include pompous
  • Include a quote
  • Add a semi-colon and a further independent clause

Mr.Birling thinks he is infallible because he emphatically states that the ‘Titanic’ is ‘unsinkable’; alongside other bold and pompous pronouncements, this makes us doubt his intelligence and question the validity of his position as a man of influence at the top of society.

2) Eric lives a privileged life so…

  • Include a quote
  • Add a participle phrase

Eric lives a privileged life so he has few responsibilities and immense wealth, enabling him to drink ‘too much’.

3) At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth seems dominant but…

  • Add an appositive
  • Add ‘Out Damned spot!’
  • Add a second sentence discussing Shakespeare’s intention
  • Include nefarious, insurrection, plight and admonishment

At the beginning of the play, Lady Macbeth seems dominant but her nefarious plan eventually causes her to become mentally unstable as she chants ‘Out Damned spot!’, evidence of her psychological instability. Perhaps Shakespeare wanted her plight to serve as an admonishment to those considering insurrection or regicide, potentially flattering King James, who had just survived an assassination attempt.

An additional benefit to these restrictive practice exercises is that they allow the teacher to circulate and give precise feedback to students as they write. You need quotation marks around your evidence. Has your appositive got a noun in it? Check your spelling of ‘assassination’. Tell me what ‘but’ means…does you sentence make sense here? Instead of taking in books, marking and then handing them back-a laborious and lengthy process-corrections can be made instantly and quickly. Because the practice is so defined and restricted, your feedback can be completely purposive and precise. Instead of vague, abstracted comments like you need to develop that further or you should extend that point or you need to use better vocabulary, you can refer to the success criteria for each practice item. I tend to do these under a visualiser: modelling several by writing them ‘live’ is crucial, especially for the ones that contain specific success criteria. Sometimes I take a student’s book and we explore their work under the visualiser; sometimes I ask students to read out one that they are proud of (making sure they SAY the punctuation marks so that I can check if they are accurate).

In a future blog, I will look at how we stagger and space out this practice across units to take full advantage of the benefit of distributed as opposed to massed practice. Regularly recapping and engaging in retrieval practice is essential if we are serious about students retaining the information that we teach.

Next post: How to use low-stakes quizzing and retrieval practice


Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 2: What and How?

In my last post I tried to give an overview of the importance of teaching formal, academic vocabulary as well as how we approach it by mostly focussing on Tier 2 words (those that occur across a range of domains, are characteristic of written texts and are used less frequently in spoken communication).

There are two main ways that we list and explain vocabulary. Firstly, all of our units contain challenging non-fiction articles that support the main text we are teaching. Before reading Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov, the idea of reading widely around the literature texts that we teach was not really something that I had given thought to. I used to dismiss texts and articles, erroneously believing that they belonged to a separate academic domain. I would never have read a historical non-fiction article on The Great Depression when teaching Of Mice and Men, foolishly believing that to do so would be to cross into the realm of Humanities or History. In my mind, there were fixed lines in between subjects and in English, we read fiction. Now, reading challenging non-fiction is central to our curriculum, providing students with essential background knowledge and exposing them to a wider range of texts. If all they read was fiction, then the vocabulary that they would be exposed to would be limited. Broadsheet newspaper articles, pieces from quality magazines and other non-fiction texts open up a whole new world of formal vocabulary to students. When selecting non-fiction texts that complement our main texts, we attempt to choose texts from a range of domains, encompassing a wide field of content which results in an equally wide selection of vocabulary. This website www.commonlit.org is an amazing free resource for finding texts-I think James Theobald first made me aware of it in this post: https://othmarstrombone.wordpress.com/2017/06/25/5-useful-online-resources-for-english-teachers/. As well as being a useful resource for finding texts, you can create virtual classrooms and set additional reading to your students, an approach that I am currently trialling with some classes.

With non-fiction texts, we highlight and briefly explain vocabulary terms, choosing words that are predominantly Tier 2 and have high utility (as explained in the previous post). Here is an example from a non-fiction article on Witch Hunts which complements The Crucible, a unit that we teach in year 7. The full non-fiction article explores the Salem Witch Hunt but also looks at The Reign of Terror in France, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign and The Cultural Revolution. The intention is to provide a range of examples where similar things have happened so students get a deeper understanding of the idea of a ‘Witch Hunt’.

non fiction vocab table exampleIt is important to ensure that definitions are on the same page as the word that is being defined so students don’t have to flick back and forth in their booklets-an attempt to avoid falling foul of the split-attention effect (see Oliver Caviglioli’s brilliant visual summary of this aspect of Cognitive Load Theory here). As well as helping students to understand the text, listing these words allows teachers to know what to quiz students on in recap tests-future posts will look at how we approach retrieval practice and vocabulary application.

The second and main method of listing, presenting and explaining new vocabulary is through Vocabulary Tables. Here is an example from a GCSE unit on Jekyll and Hyde.jekyll and hyde vocab table example.png


Each word has a definition and an example sentence. In the first attempts at these tables, I created example sentences that were unconnected with the text in the hope that students would gain a deeper understanding of the word by seeing it contextualised using different subject matter. This didn’t really work. As many of the words are completely new to most students, asking them to initially juggle several contexts is too much. They need quick, initial success with using the word in conjunction with the first context that they learn it in-in this case, Jekyll and Hyde. Later on, when they have acquired the word and are able to accurately use it in the first context, you can then start broadening the depth of their understanding through questioning and vocabulary application activities, approaches that I will look at in subsequent posts. (see this blog http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/struggle-and-success/ which promotes a similar idea of success followed by later challenge) All of the example sentences deliberately use the type of constructions that I want them to be able to use in their writing, essentially acting as mini-models.


If you want a more in depth look at some of these sentence constructions, you can find out about appositives here, participle phrases here and absolute phrases here.

In the left column, we list and label all relevant forms of the word, allowing students to explore morphology and affixes. Drawing attention to common suffixes and prefixes and how adding them can change the word class is slowly having a distinct effect on students: they are beginning to make generalisations, asking questions like Is Archetypally a word? Can you say callousness? Yesterday, a year 7 student asked me Sir, is pseudonymic a word? Using his knowledge of the suffix ‘ic’, he had made a clever generalisation in order to create an adjective. Sometimes their attempts are wrong, but their efforts and piqued interest in the construction of words is fantastic. Because all words in the table are labelled with their class, students are better able to classify words that they encounter in other texts, something that is increasingly important with the new reformed and more rigorous GCSE examinations.

So how do we use them?

Typically, we will have already read the section of text that the words refer to. Then we read the table. The whole thing. Students take turns reading out loud and I ask questions about the sentences and definitions in order to check their understanding. This provides lots of short bursts of reading fluency practice, specifically practising the kinds of analytical constructions that I want them to be able to write. I ask questions about the meanings of words; I ask questions about the example sentences, allowing them to deepen their knowledge of the text that we are studying as each example is a tiny piece of analytical writing. I am fully in favour of explicitly teaching students common interpretations of texts-I agree entirely with Andy Tharby’s point that ‘the explicit teaching of ideas and interpretations need not be restrictive’ (see this blog: https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/what-happens-when-we-teach-literary-interpretations-as-facts/). Rather than acting like a straightjacket, coercing students into thinking the same as the teacher, explicitly taught interpretations allow students to critique, discuss and deconstruct ideas, unlocking challenging texts and making them accessible.  I ask questions that link the new words to previous texts we have studied, encouraging students to make connections. I add extra information, developing their understanding of the new words by offering antonyms or giving different examples of how the words can be used. We annotate the table, adding notes and further explanations. Sometimes we do choral drills, allowing students to practice the pronunciation of trickier words.

The words in the vocabulary table, along with the example sentences, are then deliberately used in model paragraphs that students annotate, discuss and deconstruct, allowing them to see how these tiny analytical building blocks fit into paragraphs and essays. When students write their own paragraphs or essays, they use these tables as a resource to improve the precision and sophistication of their writing and they know that a good response will use some or many of the new words. When giving feedback on paragraphs or longer pieces of writing, I can be precise as to how students can improve their vocabulary. Instead of giving farcical feedback like You should have used better vocabulary– a statement not dissimilar from Your writing should be better-I can suggest specific words that they should have used and, using the table as a resource, they can then redraft their work. Weaker students are able to use the example sentences as starting points for their own analysis, borrowing the entire example sentence and then expanding upon it.

In my next post, I will look at how we practise using these words through Because, But, So (An idea from The Writing Revolution)


Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 1: What and How?

In my last few posts (first one to be found here), I looked at how teaching phrases can raise the sophistication of student writing.

When I began teaching secondary English, I approached vocabulary instruction in an ad hoc, spontaneous fashion: more often than not, it was an after-thought where, in the middle of an explanation or during a discussion, an apt word would have been hastily added to a whiteboard or quickly (and badly) recounted to a student. I routinely asked students to brainstorm words to use: Let’s think of some adjectives to describe Lenny! Brainstorm adjectives to describe a Gothic churchyard! Let’s list some synonyms for ‘evil’! This approach relied heavily upon students with wide vocabularies to offer suggestions to those who did not, begging the question: what new words were the logophiles learning? It was also extremely time consuming as students often suggested irrelevant or ill-chosen words. Scribbling words on a whiteboard and occasionally adding one that came to mind was hardly rigorous. Not only did the words lack succinct and precise definitions, students were not presented with an example sentence that demonstrates how to use the word, something that is crucial if they are to use it themselves. The vocabulary words that I taught were not explicitly listed, making it incredibly difficult for me to help students acquire and retain them by using retrieval practice (a strategy that I will blog about in future posts). Teaching a new word once in isolation, especially to students who have weak background knowledge and do not read for pleasure, is almost certainly a waste of time: they will quickly forget it.

I have since found that there is another way.

In broad terms, once students are able to decode, their ability to read is almost entirely dependent on their vocabulary and background knowledge. This American Educator article by ED Hirsch explores this premise and is well worth a read. How well you can read something-and by ‘read’, I mean ‘understand’ here-is entirely dependent on how familiar you are with the subject matter. In that sense, reading ability is domain specific and, if you know lots or most of the vocabulary that is used in a text, you will better be able to understand it. This blog post explores this idea in a little more detail: https://thetraditionalteacher.wordpress.com/author/anthonyradice/. Teaching vocabulary is crucial and we should teach it with thought, planning and a strategy.

There is, however, a problem. If teaching vocabulary is important, the question arises: what words should we teach? Lesson time is limited and we can only teach so much. When responding to texts, one of the indicators of the depth, quality and sophistication of analytical writing is the precision of the vocabulary that is used. As explained by Daniel Wilingham in this article, you can’t really teach inference as a thing in itself. The ability to infer and also to analyse is entirely down to a student’s background knowledge and vocabulary. As GCSE literature-and much of the reading part of the new GCSE language exam-ask students to infer, explore, analyse and interpret, we have decided to teach words that can be used when analysing and responding to texts.

Like many other departments, we have tried to focus on Tier 2 words, those that ‘that occur across a range of domains, are characteristic of written texts and occur less frequently in oral language’. Teaching Tier 2 words is a high utility strategy, allowing students access to vocabulary that can be used across a text, other texts and maybe even other subjects. When we decide upon which words to teach in conjunction with a text, we think hard about the utility of a word. Will it be useful later on in this text? What about later on in the unit? How about future texts? What about in future years? Students need to encounter a word multiple times across different contexts if they are to retain and be able to use it themselves.

Below is a word that we teach in year 7 during an Introduction to Shakespearean Rhetoric unit. A Tier 2 word, it is useful not just within the unit in which it is first taught, but also other units across year 7 and up to the end of KS4.

Here are some example of the utility of this word:

1) Domineering and tyrannical, Napolean asserts his authority, expecting total obedience from the other animals. From a subsequent year 7 unit on Animal Farm

2) Creon, a domineering and despotic leader, is enraged when Antigone undermines his authority. (From a later year 7 unit on Antigone.)

3) Proclaiming ‘Danger knows full well That Caesar is more dangerous than he’, Caesar demonstrates his hubristic and domineering nature. (From a unit on Julius Caesar in year 8)

4) Jack domineers and controls the choir, a group who obey and even fear him. (From Lord of the Flies in year 8)

5) A domineering father and husband, Lord Capulet commands both his wife and his daughter. (From Romeo and Juliet in year 9)

As many students do not regularly read for pleasure, the explicit teaching of vocabulary is vital: if we don’t teach and practice these words, it is unlikely that students will become familiar with them. While Tier 2 words form the majority of what we teach, we also teach subject specific, technical vocabulary (Tier 3); words like ‘chiasmus, refrain, anaphora, soliloquy, synecdoche, trochaic, plosive, harmartia etc.’

In the next post I will explore how we present and explain vocabulary via non-fiction texts and Vocabulary Tables.