Why teaching academic vocabulary matters

A new school year begins, full of old routines and new challenges. It is only natural to seek out novel ideas to start the year afresh, but we should be wary they are not at the expense of long-held priorities and practices. The teaching of academic vocabulary is one of those priorities that still matters.

Let’s begin with some recent, familiar school reading: the summer SATs paper for KS2 from this year. Read this paragraph from the third reading passage from the national assessment:

I was suddenly aware how quiet it was. I might have been the only person in the world. Even the clock stopped ticking, and the mice ceased rustling in the wainscot. I turned my head and saw a lady coming downstairs from the upper floor. She was dressed in a black dress which swept round her like a cloud, and at her neck was a narrow white frill which shone like ivory. Her eyes were very bright and blue as violets. I sprang to my feet and smiled up at her, into the beautiful grave face she bent towards me. She gave an answering smile, and her deep-set eyes seemed to pierce me, and I caught my breath as I stood aside to let her pass. I never heard a footstep; she was there before I was aware.

‘A Traveller in Time’

What do you notice about the SATs reading passage as an expert adult reader? Perhaps you notice the similes and the stark imagery of piercing eyes, or detect the building tension and sensual details familiar to a suspenseful ghost story.

Of course, vocabulary knowledge required to make sense of this passage. Words like ‘ceased’, ‘wainscot’, ‘frill’, ‘ivory’, ‘violets’, ‘sprang’, ‘grave’, ‘pierce’, all matter greatly to comprehension. Perhaps ‘wainscot’ can understandably be dismissed as extraneous to the drama of the description. By contrast, the meaning of ‘grave’ appears redolent with layers of meaning that is more important for understanding. Understanding ‘grave’ and ‘pierce’ are crucial to deep comprehension of the passage.

What is clear is that the language of what we read in passages like this is different to our daily talk. The vocabulary is more rare, the sentence structures more complex, the patterns of imagery more elaborately constructed. Research from Professor Kate Nation and colleagues – entitled ‘Book Language and Its Implications for Children’s Language, Literacy and Development’ – reveals the many differences between book language and daily talk.

This academic ‘book language’ needs teaching. In various guises, vocabulary instruction may include pre-teaching, such as identifying a key word in a text (such as ‘grave’), explaining its meaning, and recording it using a Frayer model. Alternatively, pupils may be encouraged to discuss ‘grave’ after reading, or to independently record important items on a ‘vocabulary bookmark’, or similar.

This school year, next school year – any school year – high-quality vocabulary teaching will matter to mediate the complex language of the classroom.

Academic vocabulary in different key stages, subjects, and text types

Let’s move to an informational text in geography, for older pupils, from an AS Geography Fieldwork Insert from a past AQA exam, which defines the term ‘interception’:

“Interception is the process where water is retained in the vegetation canopies. The rate of interception is likely to change with land use. Woodland areas are likely to have higher interception rates after a precipitation event because a proportion of the rainfall is retained. Areas with less vegetation would have lower interception rates. Areas with higher interception rates are likely to have less overland flow because some water will be recycled into the atmosphere through evaporation, and some will be infiltrated into the ground.”

You’ll notice the ‘nouny’, dense vocabulary that fills the paragraph which characterises the academic language of so many school texts. Tricky, dense noun phrases such as “vegetation canopies” and “lower interception rates” characterise this type of informational text. Pupils themselves recognise the “complicated”,” posh words” that they have to grapple with. The difference between the SATs story are significant and mark some of the stark differences with the language of the secondary school curriculum.

The familiar language of home can sometimes even interfere with understanding this classroom language. Vocabulary like ‘interception’ is polysemous – that is to say, it means one thing in geography and another thing in the real world. It would be understandable for pupils to mistake ‘interception’ as something that happens on a football or rugby pitch if they were to quickly skim it!

This is the ‘vocabulary gap’ that teachers recognise writ large each time pupils read and in almost all classrooms. The ‘gap’ is no reflection on the rich, valuable language pupils use with their friends at football, or with their family; but it is a reflection of the language of the classroom is so challenging and diverse that it can mean many pupils struggle to understand it. To understand this tricky vocabulary is to have the tools to succeed in school.

Vocabulary and complex curriculum questions

We cannot teach all the words in the same way, nor in the same depth. A primary school teacher may choose to pre-teach ‘grave’ to initiate pupils’ thinking before reading a particular ghost story passage, or they may raise the word in discussion after reading the passage. A geography teacher may pre-teach ‘interception’ alongside ‘evaporation’ in depth, but not choose to give other academic words the same degree of attention. Not all academic words are equal, so planning and curriculum design really matter.

We are left with complex curriculum and teaching questions:

  • What are the most important words to teach?
  • What are the ‘keystone vocabulary’ items to connect in curriculum topics?
  • What words will we pre-teach explicitly, compared to the words which may receive a quick check for understanding?
  • What words should we deliberate over and what words should pupils discover?
  • How will pupils learn, record, and be supported to remember key vocabulary?

Such difficult questions require professional development and planning time. There is no silver-bullet word list: vocabulary instruction is much more complex than that. This complex but vital aspect of understanding, learning, teaching and curriculum, needs to be sustained and maintained as a priority.

Best wishes with your vocabulary teaching this year.

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