Teaching Vocabulary – A solution-focused approach

So it was, whilst preparing for a live lesson with Year 10 the other day, that I was thumbing through my Hodder textbook on ‘Superpower Relations and the Cold War’ and came across the expression ‘A false dawn’. Immediately I started to ponder, ‘How many 15-year olds are familiar with this expression?’ This also got me thinking about all the other terms that we need to familiarise our students with – just using Early Elizabethan England as an example, we have language such as ‘papacy’, ‘legitimacy’ and does anyone remember ‘Algonquian’ from a few years past?? (I still don’t know how to say this word – advice welcome!)

Rather than continuing to bemoan the presence of tricky vocabulary in our syllabus, I decided to look into the research and try and seek out strategies that can help us to address the ‘word gap’ with our students. What follows is a summary of the research and some practical solutions.

What does the research say?

According to the OUP report – ‘Why closing the word gap matters’ (2018), on average 43% of year 7s had limited vocabulary to the extent it limited their learning, and worryingly many teachers think that the gap is increasing. 38% of teachers quoted time constraints or the need for more support in teaching vocabulary as barriers to addressing this fully.

There is also an unfortunate phenomenon with vocabulary with what’s known as the Matthew Effect. Studies show that the better your vocabulary is, the easier you’ll find it to read and the more vocabulary you acquire. If you don’t read, you don’t acquire the vocab, so essentially the word rich get richer and the word poor get poorer.We can start to see why this creates barriers in our lessons. Furthermore, it is estimated that in order to fully understand a text, we need know 95% of the words in it. This means as teachers we have a lot to do to build up our students’ vocabulary to negate the Matthew Effect and ensure that they can read and enjoy the texts we put in front of them.

Practical Strategies:

There were some key nuggets from the research that really struck a chord with me in terms of trying to plan for better teaching of vocabulary. Schmidt (2008) said students need to hear a word 10 times to become confident in understanding it and applying it to different contexts. This shows that vocabulary is not something that can be picked up now and again, but rather it needs to fully planned for and implemented in our lessons. In addition, the OUP report (2018) likened vocabulary acquisition to a football net in which to be successful, students need to connect new words to their existing word net. Again, this has huge implications for how we plan and implement our curriculums and reminds us that our units should not stand alone, but should all be building upon student’s existing schemas. With these ideas in mind – these are some strategies that I particularly liked and which I will be trying out with my students next academic year to try and tackle the word gap.

  1. Something that seems obvious to me now, but I never thought of before, is to explore word roots with students. This is a great strategy to build students vocabulary as if students understand the gist of a word root, they can begin to make educated assumptions about even unfamiliar words’ meaning. Taking History for example, if students are aware that ‘chron’ means time, they can start to work out what words like chronology and chronological order may mean. If a student knows that ‘bene’ means kind – if the word ‘benevolent’ appeared in a text, they might start forming some ideas about what that means.
  2. Clare Sealy, in her article with the Chartered College, says we should construct a curriculum where explicit links are made “within subjects, across subjects and across years, with repetition of vocabulary at its heart”. She says each time we revisit a tier 3 word in a different setting, the understanding of it becomes denser – more solid and more nuanced. For us in our History department, we are working hard to exploit these links better, so for example when teaching about Communism and Capitalism in the Russian Revolution unit (Y8), not only is this a perfect opportunity to prepare our students for the Cold War study at GCSE, but even in other Year 8 topics like ‘1920s America’. When we taught these two units in succession, it was pleasing to see students using terms such as Capitalism across the contexts. I also would like to work more closely with the English department to see where our vocab overlaps, having recently seen their study of ‘An Inspector Calls’ requires students to understand terms like Socialism and Capitalism, to not do this just feels like a wasted opportunity.
  3. In order to avoid the Matthew Effect, we should encourage ALL our students to read more demanding texts, and not just reserve them for those we think can handle it. As historians, we can provide time to read using articles from magazines like BBC History, or from historical scholarship. Lindsay Bruce on teachithistory says we should read to the class so they can hear the intonation in our voices and so we can then talk through the difficult vocabulary. Reading these higher-level extracts provides more exposure to tier 2 and 3 vocabulary. Chris Runeckles agrees similarly that we should avoid dumbing down our texts at all costs.
  4. Another surprise to me from the research was that we should avoid over-reliance on dictionaries to develop our students’ vocabulary, as these are not particularly useful for our lowest ability, who will most likely need more support. We would be better explaining terms in student-friendly language, not just simply giving a definition (Miller and Gildea, 1985). Research says that we should also get students to interact with word meanings straight away so if we said the word ‘commotion’ for example, we could ask ‘Would there likely be a commotion in the playground or library’? (Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching – ‘Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning’)
  5. I have used word match ups in the past, however it is said that word match ups require only surface level mental activity and produce minimal learning results – we would be better off encouraging students to think about words and their meanings, identifying appropriate uses and using meaningful examples they can relate to.
  6. We should encourage students to write their own definitions, rather than us providing them – putting words into their own language helps students to better make sense of them. In our department we have a booklet of practice exam questions followed by a blank glossary at the back – however next academic year I will endeavour to use this more frequently to ensure that the language there becomes more embedded. 
  7. We often use video clips in lesson however it never occurred to that we could also provide transcripts of the video, particularly if we are using quite demanding clips. Students can then have this in front of them and we can spend time afterwards talking it through and trying to unpick the difficult terms used, rather than letting those words on screen simply drift as could happen when just watching the video.
  8. Finally – Hunton suggests that we create a list of extremely common tier 2 words. Through use of discussion and ‘cold calling’ students could acquire working definitions of about 10 of these tier 2 words each lesson – which he estimates to take about fifteen minutes of one lesson a week. 

Closing thoughts:

Whilst reducing the word gap remains a significant challenge to all teachers, from the post above, I hope to show how we can use strategies to address this and should do this in an inclusive way to ensure all our students benefit and to try and negate the dreaded Matthew Effect. If you would like to read more, please see below for some suggested reading and further tips.


Making Every History Lesson Count – Chris Runeckles

OUP – Why closing the word gap matters (2018)

Chartered College Impact Journal  – Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning

Teachithistory – Closing the word gap

Learning Spy blog – David Didau


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