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.

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