Words QX
Photograph by permission of Fotoad Photography.

In my childhood days, every Sunday after tea, I would play a board game with my late grandparents.  Tinned peaches with evaporated milk shrink my taste buds, but I have fond memories of sitting down with my family around a Scrabble board.  I was often armed with a Q or an X, looking fervently for the red triple word squares.  Alas, you could almost guarantee I’d have to deduct the value of the tiles from my final score (much to my sister’s delight!)  I can confidently say that I did have a strategy; I just didn’t have the breadth of vocabulary needed to take on crossword addicts and countdown conundrum competitors.

Tiered vocab
Bringing Words to Life  – Beck, McKeown, Kucan 2002

As a teacher, I am very aware of how vocabulary should be a rich tapestry of words, connected and layered to grow context, understanding and breadth across learning sequences in curriculums.  Imagine tier two vocabulary (robust, academic words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas) threading through schemes and curriculums like tiles on a scrabble board; each word connecting with knowledge to be taught and attracting other words like magnets, creating concrete cognition and a real understanding of words in their context.  It’s exciting, it’s engaging and a love for lexis can readily be ignited through curriculums to the classroom and feed the cognitive schemas of the students we teach.   The place where I work has invested in Bedrock Vocabulary to support this process, and for the students, some of the words are beginning to stick.

In order to understand a text, we need to know 95% of its vocabulary[1].  If I were to read a paper on ‘echocardiography and the outcomes of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction with an Aldosterone Antagonistic’[2] I’d struggle to understand what I was reading.  A paper like this would be full of words that belong to the specific subject of medical science.  I’d try to connect words, but if I knew less than 90% of the words on the paper, I wouldn’t stand a chance of understanding what I was reading.  My strategy would be to dip into my toolkit of context and word structure to build an understanding of the text.  I read, so I am able to read around for meaning and use my knowledge of all things lexical.  The greater a person’s vocabulary, the easier they find it to read and acquire new vocabulary.  This inextricably links to the Matthew Effect (in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.)

Place that scenario with the students we teach and questions begin to emerge – how do we increase opportunities to expose students to tier two and tier three vocabulary, making sure that we teach them as many useful words as possible, whilst growing and strengthening their lexical foundation?  With reading and vocabulary, how do the poor become richer and the richer, richer still whilst closing the vocabulary gap?  Good questions have the potential to spark engaging, thoughtful and forward thinking conversations across school teams, and these two questions are no different.  They are constantly at the front of my thinking and my planning for learning.

Set out your board

From teaching English literature to Geography, the end goal must always be in sight, bridged by the overarching idea of what is to be achieved.  Well planned schemes of work will bounce vocabulary back and forth through interleaving, planned recall and context building.

vocabulary diagram

And the breadth of context can be grown even further, for infrastructure has cross-curricular potential; Priestley’s infrastructures of society, chaos and disorder in Macbeth and so on.  Schemes should build a picture of hierarchical learning generated from components of increasingly complex activities.

Sort out your tiles

There are so many words which our students may not understand, and if you are like me, you’d wish you could wave a magic wand to make a schema bursting with vocabulary and context magically morph in the brains of our students.  We can’t, so we have to be smart with our vocabulary choices.  Which words are the most useful to build context and familiarity with word structure?  Which words will benefit students not only in the classroom, but beyond?

Go for the triple word score

One: Revisit those carefully chosen words.  Make them part of recall activities and verbal responses to strengthen their place in long term memory.  Recall is far better than repetitive study.  Recognising words is a part of the foundation to build on.  Two: Read vocabulary aloud, spell it out.  Insist on well-crafted verbal and written responses that include words being taught.  Three: Add synonyms and antonyms to develop a breadth of understanding and build context.  Active practice vocabulary is a good strategy to set this ball rolling.

“Who can describe a situation in which authority might be shown?”

“How does Priestley present Mr Birling’s authority?”

“We can say to have authority is to be commanding.  Who can describe an event where Mr Birling is commanding?”

“Who can describe an event where Mr Hyde is commanding?”

Vocabulary can ultimately change life chances of the students we teach.  Vocabulary shouldn’t be a scrabble of making words fit, plugging lexical loopholes with memorised words devoid of context or definition.  Assessment marks shouldn’t have to be reduced as a result of an unknown or misunderstood intrinsic word in an assessment question.  Words should shine off the page like the triple word score on a Scrabble board, layered with recognition, pronunciation and definition.  As educators, we need to make sure students can use the widest breadth of vocabulary that we possibly can.

[1] Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? In C. Lauren & M. Nordman (Eds.)
[2] US National Library of Medicine 10.1161/CIRCHEARTFAILURE.113.000887