For a number of years, we've been looking to develop a genuinely coherent approach to building students’ vocabulary. There are plenty of isolated activities out there which you can utilise for supporting, challenging and encouraging students to apply subject specific terminology, but we had found little in terms of proactively developing a student’s mastery of words more generally.
However, last September, Colleen Driggs from the Teach Like a Champion training team recommended Isabel Beck’s book, Bringing Words to Life to me. At the training, we watched a brief clip of a classroom interaction which was designed to demonstrate how teachers can use resources to maximise efficiency of assessment as they circulate. The focus of the section of the lesson was on the understanding and use of the word disposition. I was struck, not only by the slick nature of the teacher’s approach, but also and more importantly by the impact - the way in which the students, on first encountering this word, had appeared to become swiftly confident with its meaning and were able to apply it.
On the train home that evening, I bought an e-copy of the book and began reading.
Beck and her colleagues identify three tiers of vocabulary:
- Tier one – Vocabulary which is used in everyday speech encountered by the learner
- Tier two – Vocabulary which doesn't regularly feature in oral communication encountered by the learner, but which could be used across a range of academic disciplines
- Tier three – Academic vocabulary which is subject domain specific
Beck then argues that, in order to maximise learning time when selecting words to focus on with students we should choose those which:
- Don't feature regularly in oral communication
- Aren't subject domain specific
- Aren't text specific and therefore will be revisited in reading or could be revisited in writing
Beck outlines a range of processes which can be used to introduce vocabulary, beginning with definitions.
She argues that we should introduce words with a student friendly definition. Words, she explains, can be introduced individually as part of an on-going programme or in groups of words which students will encounter over the next sequence of lessons or in a specific text. The word “disposition” from the example shown by Driggs, I have since discovered, appears a number of times in the book “The Giver” which is taught quite widely in America. I would imagine that the disposition sequence was part of the class’ preparation for encountering the word in the novel.
Beck also advises that, when revisiting definitions, we should use subtly different wording to ensure that students understand the meaning, rather than memorising the definition. This can be done through multiple choice or true/false tasks. Finally, she suggests that we ensure that we cover subtle differences and similarities between the meaning of the new word and the meanings of similar known words. For example, when looking at disposition, we should explore similarities and differences with personality.
Further exploration and assessment:
Following an initial introduction to the word or set of words, Beck proposes that you can link them to students’ current knowledge and assess their retention of the word and its meaning(s)through activities such as the following:
Example/Not an example - Giving students the word and five different situations. Students then have to identify which situations are examples of the word
Word association - How does word 1 link to ...?
Have you ever...? This is particularly good for verbs.
Questions which require speculation: "When might you...?" "How could you...?" "Why might you...?" "Which would you...?"
Finish the sentence. For example, "I only wanted to eat a morsel because..."
Respond to a picture stimulus using the word(s).
Does the sentence including the word make sense or not make sense? How do you know?
Look at meanings in different contexts and how the contexts can affect the strength of meaning. For example: Glum could be used to describe children who have been told to come inside to continue playing because it's raining or children who have been told to come inside and start afternoon lessons because it's raining. Who would be glummer?
Create opportunities for students to consider links between words they're learning. For example, could a virtuoso be a rival?
For words which describe feelings or emotions, get students to react in that way when you read out a scenario which might lead a person to feel the emotion.
What would make someone say..."I am totally [insert vocabulary]" or "I feel absolutely [insert vocabulary]"
Give students challenging sentence stems including the vocabulary. For example, "The citizens were incredulous when..." or "The spider felt admiration for the boy because..."
Give the word a context and a purpose. For example, Imagine a situation when a teenager absconded. Write a headline and the first paragraph of a newspaper article, reporting the situation which uses the word abscond.
Laps. Pair students up with a timer. Give students four sheets with their words on the left of the page and mixed up definitions on the right. Students have to draw lines between the words and the definitions. On each page the words are in different places and the definitions are subtly different. Students challenge themselves to link the words and definitions quicker than their previous personal best.
Once you've introduced a lot of words to students, you can get them to group words. For example, adjectives which describe people or adjectives which describe places.
On returning to school, I trialled the approach I’d seen on the video with one of my classes. In the first lesson, I used an adapted version of the resources from the training and then, in subsequent lessons, a sequence of similar exercises with a range of different words. What was fascinating was that the students didn’t just stick with using the words in my lessons, but went on to make use of them elsewhere and retained them for tests and coursework. A number of our other English teachers have found the same and we have continued to use other resources through the year.
This term, we are introducing a word of the week across the Academy. A generic list of words of the week will be generated. These will be Tier Two words. For example, abhor, bombard, glutton, complacent, platitude. The word will be introduced in the first Accelerated Reader session of the week through a Do Now Challenge activity which will be on a slide produced centrally. Each subsequent day, students will complete an additional word of the week Do Now task based on the word and, as time goes on, incorporating previous words. An example of the poster and the slide can be found below.
A slide will be also be added to our plasma screen displays and posters will be put up around the Academy to display the word.
We’ll be assessing the extent to which students have retained this knowledge through a multiple choice quiz which will be held as part of the English curriculum at the end of each term.