This is the first in a series of blogs on how I think my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The summary of what this means is in the first post here. This post will focus on how I have developed my teaching of subject vocabulary to the stage where I think it can be classed as ‘vocabulary rich’.
My view of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved. When I first taught I didn’t put much emphasis on words as I felt that the subject content was more important and that subject vocabulary came after the learning of concepts. In the first specification of GCSE that I taught, the first question on the paper was always a keyword, 2 mark question. They needed to write the correct definition. I saw this as something they needed to learn and it was almost separate to further learning. I created subject vocabulary sheets, gave them to the students and just expected them to learn them. No strategies, just the words and the definitions. I was leaving it to chance if they learnt them.
Now, this has changed. My understanding of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved and over the years I have moved to this model. Some I’ve been doing for a long time (how I introduce words in my explanation) and others are relatively new in my practice. I’ve shifted to believe that vocabulary is the start of a deeper understanding of concepts within and beyond my subject.
Planning subject vocabulary
I’ve now realised that consistency is important. As a result we have written lists of the key terms that we will both use in our teaching for each topic. This means that all classes, regardless of ‘set’ or teacher accesses the exact same words. We plan to use them in our teaching so that students will be able to use them confidently in their own work.
Introduction of a word
When I first introduce a new word, I casually slip it into a sentence. But not just any sentence. A sentence where the students already know the meaning of all the rest of the vocabulary being used. The new keyword is the only word that the majority of them won’t understand. It will either be full of tier 1 words or already ‘known’ tier 3 words. For example, ‘”Sikhs offer free food to anyone in the langar”. They already know what a Sikh is and the remaining words are tier 1 words so the word ‘langar’ stands out.
The next sentence is then the definition in as much tier 1 language as possible (I would class this as differentiation).
“The Langar is a kitchen that serves food to everyone and anyone, even if they’re not a Sikh”
Explain on board
I then will write the word on the board and annotate it where appropriate. I will use synonyms where possible. I will use examples. I sometimes use pictures if appropriate (although my art work is rubbish it adds to the excitement!). I will explain the word in the context of what they already know, making links and connections where possible. I will usually get students to write down the word and its meaning.
This is usually when the hands go up. The students are starting to process what you’re telling them and have questions about it. They’re beginning to understand the word as a concept and their minds start applying it to situations which they then want to know about.
A classic in the example above is “Do you really mean anyone? What about a homeless person? They could get free meals all the time”or “Can I get a free meal? Where’s the nearest langar?”
These show that the student is moving from just a word to a deeper understanding of an important concept in the religion or view we are learning about. The key word becomes important ‘knowledge’ in the full understanding of the idea or concept it’s linked to.
In many cases it is possible to share with the students the root or origins of a word. In the past I haven’t really considered this as part of the learning. Now I can see that this is important for several reasons.
- Learning the origin gives an extra foundation for them to remember the word. The more they remember about the word itself the more likely they are to remember it. The visual ‘hook’ of a prefix or set of letters helps with the learning. I reference it when getting them to remember; ‘remember what I said about ‘mono’.
- It contributes to their wider literacy. They can see links to other vocabulary, out of the subject. It helps them create a vocabulary schema in their heads that can be used in my class, other classes and beyond. I don’t need to make up some nonsense for my contribution to whole school literacy. It’s already there.
- They love it! Whenever I explain some of the common prefixes or patterns in letters they seem to enjoy it. Especially when things ‘make sense’. You can almost see it processing in their heads as they realise that a ‘monotheist’ is ‘mono’ and a ‘theist’.
- I keep on learning more and more. From a selfish point of view I’ve learnt more from this, and as I love language, it’s very satisfying seeing students enjoying it too.
My knowledge of language has also increased through this focus on terminology. In the new GCSE students needs to know a few Arabic terms. I’ve gone well beyond what they need and have taught them as much Arabic as I can, for example all the prophets in Arabic. I know more Latin now than ever. (I now wish I’d been made to study Latin at school).
I’ve also taught them how Arabic ‘works’ so they can see the similarities and differences between it and English. For example the root word ‘s_l_m‘ meaning submission or peace. They can see it appear in Islam, Muslims, Salaam etc. I was particularly pleased when a year 7 exclaimed ‘Jerusalem Miss!’ and realised the s_l_m root was in it.
Our Languages colleagues may or may not agree, but most of my students love to ‘feel clever’ knowing words that aren’t English. I say the prophet in English and they say out loud the prophets in Arabic. Year 7 love it!
It provides ‘cultural capital’ they understand things that are ‘beyond’ their own experience. It stops the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, particularly in the context where I teach.
From this point onward, I will repeatedly use the term in my explanations and questioning. I will gradually decrease the use of the definition after I say the word, until I don’t add the definition at all. At this stage students begin to use the word themselves when asking a question.
If they use just the definition, I will usually say ‘What is that called?’ or suchlike to get them using the specific word in their own sentences.
This is where things have changed the most in recent years. If we want students to learn, remember and retain these words to be able to apply them independently, they need to be tested on them to help remember them.
At key stage 3, every lesson begins with a ‘quiz’ from previous lessons. This will cover this vocabulary and I may also ask questions about the etymology etc This means they all have to retrieve the key word, not just one of them, which is a limitation of whole class questioning. Depending on the difficulty of the word I will either put the word on the board and ask for the meaning or will give the definition and ask them what the word is. The former being easier.
At key stage 4 GCSE we do much more in-depth, specific testing on keywords which I’ve explained here.
At GCSE the keywords are one-third of student homework. See here for an explanation. This reinforces the importance of the vocabulary as a foundation for other learning. However, this involves learning words that haven’t been introduced in teaching yet.
When presenting this model people have questioned whether students should learn vocabulary before they’ve learnt the word and the linked concepts in class first. I briefly looked at some research and it seems there is research supporting both approaches. However, I want them to almost learn these by rote so that when we apply them in class they have the foundation knowledge. An anecdotal example of why I’m not overly concerned about doing it this way was giving students an exam question linked to the words they had been given for homework and some students using these in their work even though we hadn’t covered them in class. They clearly knew them enough to apply them independently. Not all can, but some can.
How do I know these added focus on subject vocabulary is ‘working’? I see it. I hear it. Students use the words in their verbal responses. They use it in their writing. They start linking concepts due to the vocabulary.
As as subject we have agreed on the words and all students will learn them regardless of ‘ability’ or class. No differentiation by content taught. Everyone gets the same.
I spend more time on vocabulary than I’ve ever done before. I’ve shifted in my belief that keywords are there just to be learnt to answer a definition question. It gives students the confidence in their explanations. I can see in exam answers them using and applying these words well beyond just the definitions that they did in the old specification.
I think that student understanding is much deeper than just a definition used in RE. They can apply this knowledge and can use it outside of RE. It’s a new part of their huge schema of vocabulary. It’s knowledge beyond what they might learn at home or use between each other. Making teaching ‘vocabulary rich’ is much more than knowing keywords. They are the foundation for learning.