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December 2018 Blog

As an SLT we are currently reading two books which we then discuss as a group and then decide on how we can implement the key findings from the research carried out. ‘Teach like a Champion’ by Doug Lemov and ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ by Alex Quigley are both excellent books and ones I would highly recommend to any teacher. I want to highlight some of the key messages I have learnt from these books over the next couple of months and I will start with the key findings from Alex Quigely, which will support the presentation that Chris King gave earlier on in autumn term and will supplement the INSET training Tim Bezant will be leading on next week.  

Like most teachers when I taught GCSE PE, as soon as my students were finished in the exam hall I always used to go through the exam paper and guess on how I felt they would have done. Alex Quigley discusses doing exactly the same thing in his book and talks about the time when he was teaching GCSE English Literature paper and he believed that there was a real gift of a question on the theme of dreams in Of Mice and Men. When they came streaming out of the exam he excitedly asked them if they’d done it but none of them had. Why? Because it contained the word ‘futility’, and they had no idea of its meaning. This is just one example of how a limited vocabulary can be a significant barrier to academic success.

In our INSET training we now know that in order to comprehend a text we need to know an estimated 95% of its vocabulary. This might sound surprisingly high but think about the last novel you read, how many unfamiliar words did you encounter? One or two at most? Certainly few enough that your understanding and enjoyment were not impeded. 5 percent of words might be about 10 per page – at that kind of frequency our ability to comprehend disintegrates rapidly.

Conversely, the more words you know the easier you’ll find it to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words. If you know 95 percent of the words not only will you understand the text but you have a good chance of learning the other 5 percent. If you know fewer the 90 percent, then you’re probably stuffed. This leads inexorably to the Matthew Effect: This idea is that children who learn to read in the first three years of their education become fluent readers. They read more, learn more vocabulary which then enables them to read more and comprehend more advanced texts and so they advance further. The children who fail to learn to read, read less, are less fluent, have a poorer vocabulary, comprehend less and the gap just keeps on growing. It is the principle of ‘The rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

Obviously the best way to build vocabulary is to read, but apparently we only learn about 15% of the vocabulary we encounter in written texts so we need to read a lot to make sure we encounter words on multiple occasions before they’ll become part of our working vocabularies. According to one source, if you read for twenty minutes a day you’ll encounter an estimated 1,800,000 words over the course of a year whereas reading for only one minute a day will result in only 8,000 words. Now I’m not sure of the source or of the maths but if it’s only slightly true then this suggests something important. Is twenty minutes a day doable? I know Martha Coates in her role of literacy leader is going to be developing our DEAR time to make sure that students are reading the high quality books which develop their vocabulary and I am sure we are all on board in making sure this is a success. 

Many of us our now considering the key vocabulary we need to make sure the student’s understand when planning our MTP, but how should we be choosing these key words?

Alex Quigley discusses that vocabulary can be usefully divided into 3 tiers:

Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)                                                 
Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)

We don’t need to worry about tier 1 – students usually arrive knowing the basics and if not they will quickly pick them up in conversation with their peers. I also believe that as teachers we’re pretty good at recognising the fact that our students won’t know most of the Tier 3 words so it is important to teach them to our students specifically. Tier 2 words are often the issue- these are usually words that students will already have a conceptual understand of, even though they’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary. We need to consider these words carefully in our speech and our teachings. Isabelle Beck suggests there are 7,000 word families which are very high frequency in written texts and very low-frequency in speech. These are words that feature heavily in textbooks and exam papers. They are part of the language of academic success; without these our students will struggle in the new exams. The Academic Word List (AWL) was developed by Averil Coxhead which produced a list containing 570 word families which were selected because they appear with great frequency in a broad range of academic texts but would be uncommon for many students to understand. If you are interested take a look at her website.

Obviously as a classroom teacher, you can’t teach all this as you wouldn’t have time to do much else, but giving students access to challenging texts will expose them to much more Tier 2 vocabulary than they will encounter in dumbed down, ‘student friendly’ texts. If we want to make sure students learn this vocabulary we should concentrate on the ‘golden triangle’ of recognition, pronunciation and definition.

•Recognition – how is the word spelt? The ability to use phonics to decode new vocabulary and then to be able to reproduce the spelling makes a big difference.

•Pronunciation – how is the word said? Making students say it aloud and use it in a sentence increases the likelihood they’ll remember it.

•Definition – what does the word mean? It might sound obvious, but if you know the meaning of a word, you’re much more likely to remember it.

If we were to design a vocabulary building programme that concentrated on the words with the most instructional potential and highest utility then we might make a real start in closing the language gap between word-rich and word-poor children. And because we’re focussing on building vocabulary, it makes sense to teach students prefixes, suffixes and roots to help them puzzle out the meaning of new vocabulary more easily.

I am certainly looking forward to our INSET training on the 15th of January by Tim Bezant where he will be covering the technical side of prefixes and suffixes and how to increase our own understanding of them. It should be really interesting beneficial for us all to grasp as we are all teachers of English.