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Research School Network: Developing vocabulary across the curriculum – a case study ‘Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.’ (Wittgenstein)


Developing vocabulary across the curriculum – a case study

‘Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.’ (Wittgenstein)

by Greenshaw Research School
on the

Greenshaw High School is a large comprehensive in South London. A growing proportion of students have English as an Additional Language, and many students leave as the first members of their families to access higher education. Greenshaw has begun to focus very specifically on vocabulary teaching to ensure equality of access to a knowledge-rich and conceptually complex curriculum, and to raise aspiration, attainment and cultural capital. 

Initially, work was undertaken in whole-school training to ensure teachers understood the place of vocabulary teaching across every aspect of the curriculum. Subsequently, language leads were selected and trained from all departments in the principles of direct vocabulary instruction. They also identified key tier 2 and 3 vocabulary in subject areas that students would be expected to be taught through their various subject lessons. 

This had some success, but there remained a tendency to see vocabulary teaching as additional to the curriculum rather than it being equivalent to the curriculum: the language is the knowledge and the knowledge is the language. Therefore, this evolved into the production of knowledge organisers for students, to ensure that familiarity with the definitions of Tier 3 terms was embedded. Students have these in a journal and must learn each atom of the knowledge organiser in a structured and independent way through the year. Again, this is supported by explicit vocabulary instruction in class. Vocabulary is one of our 12 principles of great teaching and core to our CPD. Some research-based instruction and coaching was delivered to help teachers achieve subject pedagogy goals last year, and this year vocabulary has been foregrounded and included in all teaching staff’s goals. 

In addition, Greenshaw has developed two exciting projects, unique to our school. One is Big Words for Big Ideas.” Each week students in Y79 examine a list of 10 less frequently used mainly Tier 2 words, often those with Greek and Latin etymologies. The words are defined, usage exemplified and etymology explored. Students study these independently and answer some comprehension tasks about the words. They also have one word root to explore in the same way each week. The retention of understanding of vocabulary and phonemes is then assessed as part of regular assessment hours. The aim, then, is to maximise exposure to new vocabulary and enable students better to understand less familiar words. Over KS3, students will have interacted with around 1000 words they would not otherwise have been able to understand. The other project is 

The Big Ideas That Shape Our World,” a component of our independent study schedule, that introduces complex political, social, cultural and artistic ideas to students in Y79. The activity centres on an article of complex text supported by a glossary of key words. Students answer comprehension questions which require them to engage with the new vocabulary within the text. Again, this new vocabulary and the big ideas associated with it, are assessed as part of the regular assessment hours.

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