‘We Did Vocabulary Last Year’

“We did vocabulary last year.”

I have the privilege to speak to lots of teachers and school leaders about vocabulary, accessing the school curriculum, along with the challenges of making a difference in helping develop the academic language of our pupils. 

There is a natural trajectory I note, whereat schools recognise it is a challenge for their pupils and so they make it is CPD priority. It then features prominently in training days for that school year. Too often though, it appears at a couple of training days before a new focus soon supplants it, with links being ignored. It can quickly become the old news ‘we did last year’.

Instead, we should ask: how does our training session lead to specific habit changes in the classroom? How will these be sustained six months/twelve months from now?

Viviane Robinson describes the issue well when she articulates sustainable change in school “involves the uncertain and complex process of integrating and aligning new practices with hundreds of existing practices.” (from ‘Reduce Change to Increase Improvement’).

If we consider ‘new’ strategies, such as foregrounding Tier 2 vocabulary, or trialling the ‘Frayer model’, we need to consider how they sync with existing, long-standing teaching habits. It sounds easy to just trial a new approach, but sticking with it can be devilishly tricky!

How do we know have ‘done vocabulary’ well?

“The purpose of evaluation is not to prove but to improve.”

Stufflebeam et al., ‘Educational Evaluation and Decision Making’

We can be prone to quietly drop our new strategies six months after our training because it proved too tricky to form and sustain a new habit. Either that, or we move onto the next school year under the optimistic assumption that lots of good changes to our practice have been sustained.

Evaluating our efforts can help inform and improve our decisions, as well as better sustaining our efforts. First, we could do with evaluating our school context (what problem are we actually solving?); second, we can evaluate the process of teaching (what is changing in the classroom?); third, we can evaluate the outcome (what impact may our CPD be having on pupils’ outcomes?). 

Too often, we can focus nearly exclusively on the end of year data outcomes. We can miss those crucial and meaningful behaviour shifts in the classroom.

When we focus on evaluating the teaching practices, we can aim to identify ‘leading indicators’ of teacher, and pupil, behaviours that may have arisen from our CPD days, or related training and planning. 

I often pose these following questions when I do vocabulary training as a starter for potential ‘leading indictors’ of changing practice in the classroom: 

  • Are there more detailed and ‘academic’ pupil explanations?
  • Is there more extended dialogue?
  • Are there more questions about vocabulary?
  • Are there more examples of ‘word consciousness’?
  • Are there more vocabulary edits in pupils’ books?
  • Is the written expression in pupils’ books more sophisticated?
  • Are there more teacher questions about vocabulary knowledge?
  • Is there a ‘word rich’ climate in the classroom?

Of course, ‘academic’, ‘word consciousness’ or ‘word rich’ would need to be well-defined and understood by all teachers, if we were to expect to see them enacted in the classroom. But the key here is that we seek to observe teacher practices that are meaningful and that may help us zero-in on what is really changing and being assimilated into teacher habits as a result of our teacher training. It will likely prove more useful and useable for school improvement than any end of year results post-mortem.

Let’s then do more improving than proving.

Invariably, when we better evaluate our work, we recognise we likely need to sustain and continue our CPD efforts beyond the end of the school year, as well as offering teachers the necessary follow on support and coaching. In doing so, ‘we did vocabulary last year’ naturally becomes extended to add the clause, ‘and this year we are building on that by…’.

7 thoughts on “‘We Did Vocabulary Last Year’”

  1. Vocabulary is clearly about concepts – words that work with other words to create ideas. Your example in your post in the Frayer model of the deconstruction of ‘chartered’ in Blake’s ‘London’ is a fine example of a student’s gaining a wider understanding of the ideas behind Blake’s poem. It suggests the importance of what Barbara Bleiman calls ‘big picture English’ – focusing not only on linguistic minutiae but on the greater ideas that attract and inspire thoughtful reading. One could almost cite Matthew Arnold on the best that has been thought and said, with a wider sweep of sources than he imagined.

    1. Alex Quigley

      Thanks for commenting John. I do indeed think the ‘big picture’ is vital. For me, I don’t think there is necessarily a given way round we have to/should do it in English specifically. The global inferences we make are just as important as the local inferences – with both being in a complex interplay. Often, the individual word or phrase can unlock the big ideas, whereas at other times we should concentrate on the ‘big ideas’ first to then make sense of the minutiae. Fundamentally, vocabulary is always about connections and the part and whole.

  2. Alex, I would really like every member of our teaching and support staff to read this book whilst they have the time. Other than buy 80 hard copies is there any other way I can make this happen? Is there a digital version i could buy a site licence for?

    1. Alex Quigley

      Hi AE, Currently the only way it to bulk buy hard copies (Routledge can offer significant discounts for bulk orders – if you ncontact Louise.Perrier@tandf.co.uk) I am afraid. I do trainings for Teachology and similar, but I don’t have a site licence type set up.

  3. Pingback: A long week of U (and A*) turns - Teacher Tapp

  4. Pingback: Teaching and Learning working groups: 11th November 2020 – The Stanway School

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