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Research School Network: Developing Vocabulary Instruction at KS3 Marc Davis discusses how a broader vocabulary provides the building blocks for eliciting deeper thinking.

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Developing Vocabulary Instruction at KS3

Marc Davis discusses how a broader vocabulary provides the building blocks for eliciting deeper thinking.

by Staffordshire Research School
on the

It was the eminent 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1921) who initially began the philosophical movement known as the linguistic turn’ which saw the study of language more closely aligned with academic disciplines such as anthropology and constructivist psychology. By placing linguistic study within these scholarly frameworks, he began to draw academic attention to the role that vocabulary plays in developing our wider-understanding of the world and the role that it plays in creating meaning.

For one to truly appreciate the richness and complexity of human existence, as well as to begin to conceptualise the sort of existential dilemmas that characterise the study of a multitude of disciplines such as art and philosophy and to move from the empty space left by notional abstract thought to rational to the catalogued shelves of empirical academic discourse, one must have a varied and extensive lexicon on which to draw. Human interaction- in all of its multitudinous forms- is built upon a common understanding of the implicit linguistic norms and the contextual nuances which have been developed over thousands of years and the task of developing young people’s ability to communicate in an articulate, coherent and, above all, accurate way hangs upon our ability in developing their vocabularies.

Put simply: words are the building blocks of thought and the wider variety of bricks we have available to us (and the more skilful the builder is in putting them together), the more complex and insightful that thought is likely to be.

There is a wealth of research in this area and, with this fundamental principle established, I conducted a project focussed upon developing our 19/20 Y7 cohort’s vocabulary knowledge. The aim was to improve both their ability to recall key language terms that will enable them to achieve and to have a positive impact upon the general overall performance of students across the curriculum. In an Oxford University study (2018), 43% of teachers reported that Y7 students have vocabulary deficiencies and Hirsch (2013) advocates for an increased focus upon vocabulary instruction, stating that vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities- not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also a general knowledge of science, history and the arts’. Alex Quiqley (2018) talks further about the inter-connectedness of knowledge and vocabulary in his book Closing the Word Gap and Howard and Hill identify the role that explicit vocabulary instruction can play in unlocking our subjects for students, offering the language and means to articulate it for themselves’ to avoid the pitfalls of the Mathew Effect (2011) which describes the language disparity between underprivileged students and their more advantaged peers. Vocabulary, alongside socioeconomic status, is one of the key factors that determines whether a child will go on to achieve a good pass at GCSE in mathematics, English Language and English Literature (Eggleton:2021).

vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities- not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also a general knowledge of science, history and the arts’. Hirsch (2013)

I followed the advice of the EEF’s 2018 guidance document Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools
which highlighted the role that an understanding of etymology (the origin of words) and morphology (the make-up of words) play in developing vocabulary instruction in a range of identified subjects. I shared strategies such as Frayer Models which seek to teach new vocabulary whilst simultaneously contextualising it within the students’ existing inter-subject schemata. This strategy proved popular for the teaching of identified tier 3 subject-specific vocabulary which students also had outlined for them on their Learning Organisers for them to refer to. This whole-school approach was then supplemented by a weekly designated Literacy Lesson in the school’s Learning Resource Centre where students were provided with examples of Tier 2 higher-level vocabulary which used Geoff Barton’s 100 Words to Sharpen your Expression as a guide, as well as nominated words from subject teachers which have been identified as common problems. Retrieval practice was used to embed the new terminology into students’ long-term memories.

Morphology

Before these words were explicitly taught, students sat a baseline test to gauge prior learning before being re-tested on these words at the end of the school year. The average improvement in the recall of the definitions of these key terms was +17.2%, with History making an overall improvement of +34.6%. Progress in other subjects was more modest (+5.6% and +6.6% for Maths and Science respectively) though these subjects were recapping topics covered by the KS2 curriculum; revisiting terminology students had encountered previously meant their average baseline scores were relatively high.

With the efficacy of this approach having been established, I also researched more efficient ways of developing vocabulary with students, with Bedrock Vocabulary purchased. This programme provides consistency and contextualisation in the instruction of tier 2 vocabulary for students to aid retention and recall. Furthermore, this automated package will free up Y7 teachers to implement reading intervention for students who require support meaning that fewer students will need to be extracted from other subjects for intensive support. A small scale trial of the programme yielded 8.5% progress in the space of a month so I particularly look forward to seeing the impact it can have over the course of a whole academic year.

Marc Davis is the Curriculum Leader for English and the Lead Teacher for Literacy at John Taylor Free School in Staffordshire. 

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