Schools can be hectic places and the work of a teachers is seldom ‘done’. When faced with the job of a challenging new curriculum, particularly for our more disadvantaged pupils, tackling such work can feel nigh on insurmountable. Happily, when we shrink the problem down to constituent parts – like the effective teaching of vocabulary – we offer a solution and a start for busy teachers.
I have had the pleasure of speaking to countless teachers about their increased understanding of explicitly teaching vocabulary and being more aware of the ‘academic code’ of school. Great blogs, articles and headline making teacher surveys from Oxford University have made vocabulary instruction more visible, achievable, with the complexities better understood.
And yet, the typical reality of teacher training and support is sobering. Most teachers have not proved confident in teaching vocabulary much beyond using dictionary definitions, glossaries and the odd ‘word list’.
We know that vocabulary instruction and development, like wider reading, is a process that does not produce speedy, magic results. In a world demanding quick fixes, we need to be in it for the long haul, as vocabulary development emerges cumulatively over time.
It is too easy to assume singular strategies and one-off training sessions offer teachers the platform for real, sustained habit changes when it comes to vocabulary instruction.
There is the obvious danger that teachers enjoy some vocabulary INSET training, share some resources, and perhaps try a strategy or two, but the rollercoaster of the school year carries us off once more and our best laid plans, like working ‘word walls’, are lost and our classroom displays become little more than dulled, tattered wallpaper.
Working with schools, it is clear that addressing the challenges of the curriculum and ensuring communication for every pupil flourishes, requires a whole-school strategy. In my book, and freely available on my website resources page, I pose the following questions for schools when considering a whole-school strategy to address vocabulary at the heart of curriculum:
- What vocabulary does the children I teach need to know, understand, and use, to be successful in school and beyond?
- How challenging are the reading texts that I expect children to read and understand in my lessons?
- How do we best select what words to teach?
- How do we best teach the words I have selected to teach?
- Are they any barriers or misconceptions related to the words that I have selected to teach?
- What strategies will I deploy to overcome those barriers and to correct misconceptions?
- How do we best foster a culture of reading in my classroom and/or school?
- How do we encourage children to become avid readers beyond the classroom?
- How do we best foster a culture of rich academic talk in my classroom and/or school?
- How will we know whether children in my classroom are successfully growing their vocabulary and that my practice is having a positive impact?
It is clear, and rather unsurprising, that complex problems require complex solutions. Improving our vocabulary instruction will demand more than just word walls.