Research School Network: Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – Building Habits Chris Runeckles explores the conditions and routines required for vocabulary instruction and how we make them stick

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – Building Habits

Chris Runeckles explores the conditions and routines required for vocabulary instruction and how we make them stick

by Durrington Research School
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Explicit vocabulary instruction is a teaching practice that builds the pillars of literacy that all students need in order to be successful in school and beyond. Students need a number of pillars to be in place for their literacy to improve. They need spelling, punctuation, exploratory talk, reading comprehension and more. The list is long. The range and scale of this knowledge can be daunting for those leading literacy, especially when choosing which teaching practices will yield the highest leverage in terms of supporting literacy development.

However, the evidence points to explicit vocabulary instruction as one of our best bets in doing so. In fact, explicit vocabulary instruction is only one part of vocabulary instruction. There is also incidental vocabulary learning and the cultivation of word consciousness. The explicit kind is marked out by the inclusion of students making use of the vocabulary themselves, practising using the words in different contexts and on numerous occasions both verbally and in writing.

Explicit vocabulary instruction appears as a recommendation in several of the EEF’s guidance reports, including the most recent, Improving Primary Science. In fact it is recommendation one:

Sci Vocab

Based on the evidence and the overarching important of literacy, we can then be fairly certain that it should form part of a teacher’s toolbox of strategies no matter their phase or subject specialism. 

In order for teachers to deploy it as a teaching strategy effectively, they first need to be supported by curriculum and assessment decisions by leaders. In terms of curriculum, word lists need to be drawn up of the words that are going to be explicitly taught. We cannot do this for all words we encounter, if we did, it would be all we did. 

The nature of the words to be taught is a decision in itself. Tier 2 words are those that are more prevalent in written language, contain multiple meanings and are important for reading comprehension, for example measure, fortunate and tend. Tier 3 words are those that are tightly associated with a specific domain and usually only acquired as the need arises. In schools, we often call Tier 3 words our subject-specific vocabulary. 

Researchers differ on which we should focus more heavily on. Marzano, for example, strongly advocates the explicit teaching of Tier 3 vocabulary as a means of increasing students’ background knowledge through secondary experience. Marzano argues that this is especially important for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds where exposure to knowledge and educational experience may be more limited. Conversely, Beck, McKeown and Kucan promote the explicit teaching of Tier 2 vocabulary, claiming that these are words that students are likely to meet in different contexts, and so can help them to layer different dimensions of meaning and understanding to a text or situation.

Assessment should also support vocabulary teaching. This would happen first through formative assessment strategies to test knowledge and comprehension. An example of this would be a do now” task involving test sentences, where each pair of sentences comprised an example and a non-example of the vocabulary being tested. Students would choose which was the correct use on mini-whiteboards to display to the teacher.

In terms of summative assessment, testing vocabulary can be built into internally created tests. For example a KS3 geography assessment could include multiple choice questions at the start with student friendly definitions of the word to be selected among distractors showing common misconception definitions.

Assuming these conditions (and the myriad of others too lengthy for one blog) are in place, how do we make explicit vocabulary instruction part of teachers’ habitual practice? Here we encounter the problem of enactment (as put by Mary Kennedy). In other words we can know something is worth doing but still not do it because changing adult habits and behaviours is really hard. Even something simple like ensuring you drink a glass of water in the morning may take 20 – 30 repetitions to embed.

First we need to provide a framework, essentially a vocabulary instruction routine. There are many out there, for example the Frayer model is one. Below is the framework we use at Durrington, adapted from existing models by head of English Andy Tharby and applied to a complex tier 3 word. It was used to exemplify the routine to staff at INSET

Vocab routine

This is not to say this is the only or best routine but is a good starting point. It can be adapted for different subjects depending on their specific requirements or pedagogy.

The next step is for teachers to first see this happening live. This can be a video of someone using it in class or watching a colleague deliver it as they would if they were teaching. Modelling exactly as it would be in the lesson, not a pantomime version or explaining how it would be done.

From there teachers need to practice and rehearse the routine. This should be done away from the classroom at first and with a partner so they can receive feedback. For this to work best it should be based on vocabulary that they will be teaching in the coming days. This will then provide the specific cue for them to enact the routine they have practiced. The more this cycle is repeated, the more likely that vocabulary instruction will become part of habitual practice and not just another piece of pedagogy that we would really like to start doing but don’t quite get to.

The basis for this modelling and rehearsal is also of course evidence-informed. Modelling and rehearsal are mechanisms 8 and 10 from the EEF’s Effective Professional Development Guidance report.

Ultimately, this is just one literacy intervention in a sea of possible choices. However, when we are looking for something that all teachers can apply to any phase and subject and one that supports in several ways and particularly for the most disadvantaged, I would advocate that it is among the very best.

To summarise:

- Explicit vocabulary instruction is an evidence-informed strategy to develop literacy.

- Curriculum and assessment must be designed to support explicit vocabulary instruction.

- A clearly articulated routine provides a framework for teachers to use.

- Modelling this routine and then ensuring teachers have time to rehearse it will make a change in behaviour much more likely happen.

By Chris Runeckles

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