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


4 thoughts on “Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 3: Because, But, So”

  1. This is really smart. Thanks for sharing it.

    In the example, what’s the appositive? Is it ‘evidence of her instability’…i.e a NP in apposition?



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