Research School Network: A vocabulary led curriculum Part 4: using vocabulary to guide curriculum planning


A vocabulary led curriculum

Part 4: using vocabulary to guide curriculum planning

by Huntington Research School
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I recently delivered an assembly where I took the complete liberty of rewriting a classic Dr Seuss quote – my addition in bold:

The more you read [wider your vocabulary], the more you’ll know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.’

Granted it doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as smoothly, but it was an attempt to emphasise to pupils the weight of knowledge that is contained in words. Fear not though, as the words can without doubt take the load: so much meaning can be stored within them as these words can act as the prompts, the doorways for our schema, which Julie Watson spoke about in her blog from this series.


The pertinent question then becomes which word doors’ do we want to give to our pupils? If you start listing all the key words you want pupils to know by the end of KS2 or KS4, that way madness lies because there are simply so many. So which are the crucial concepts, the big ideas, the meaty meanings that will best support pupil understanding in your subject? It can certainly lead to some lively departmental debates as you attempt to narrow down which word doors’ will best open up 1000 years of history, scores of science concepts, and several A‑level maths topics that now feature in exams for 16 year-olds.

Oftsed are also acknowledging the central role of vocabulary on page 22 of their new draft inspection framework, and while we shouldn’t jump every time Ofsted say something, it is encouraging to see this being recognised in their documentation, reflecting the important role that a coherent vocabulary strategy has in a robust curriculum.

So how many words do we pick as part of our curriculum? The temptation is to keep adding words. As a rule of thumb, a proper teaching of, on average, any more than one new word every lesson is going to prove unsustainable (this does not include providing brief definitions and explanations to enable pupils to access the content of a lesson). 

Narrowing the number of concepts (words) might never be perfect but it can bring us nearer to Tim Oates’ idea of fewer things in greater depth’, and of course once a pupil has a more fulsome understanding of a certain word they are far more likely to be able to attach new vocabulary and knowledge on top (What Reading Does for the Mind’ is always worth a read with regards to this).

But what about the moral question: if I intentionally do not teach some words from the vast new curriculum, and those words come up in the exam, what then? There is always going to be this tension for teachers: however we may teach a course, we are never going to cover every single option, from every single angle. While it may create some butterflies, doing less in more detail will give students a far more robust toolkit of knowledge and strategies with which to tackle the unknown.

The realities of implementation

Teacher knowledge

Staff will need time to digest some of the most relevant research around the importance of vocabulary instruction, as well as then the time to select key words. This means more than just a couple of hours on a training day. Without this foundation knowledge we are always in danger of just asking staff to do’ something new without giving them an understanding of why’.


Avoid just giving pupils a stick-in glossary. The strategies you use to unpick a word may depend on the phase and subject you are teaching: morphology and etymology can be powerful, especially for words in Science and Geography; timeline tools for History perhaps; visual maps (these can be done electronically at Membean), supporting images or tools such as the Frayer Model can be great for finding greater depth in words for English and Drama, as well as a useful way to unpick Maths concepts. Whatever strategy(ies) you choose it can be helpful to share the workload if possible and create some central resources that everyone in a year, department or school can use. This might mean a couple of slides, or maybe a worksheet that begins to unpick the word and might also form part of the following section…

Recording and revisiting

The Magic of Words suggests pupils may need as many as 24 exposures to a new word for it to stick. While they acknowledge the difficulty of ensuring quite this many, it does suggest that children need many more encounters with new words than we may previously have suspected.’Ensuring there are vocabulary books or worksheets for pupils to record new words in can be useful so that their engagement with the word becomes an active process, and allows them to relocate the word more easily in future lessons because it is unlikely to stick in their brain straight away.

So if you are grappling with a curriculum re-write, don’t forget to consider the role vocabulary can play in giving you some pegs to hang your curriculum content on.

Marcus Jones, Literacy Lead, Huntington Research School


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