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)


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