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A glossary of agreed definitions [42.67 KB]

If students are to be academically successful, they need to be fluent in the language of academic success.

As with every discipline, vocabulary instruction unlocks students’ ability to make meaning from the curriculum and to express their own views with clarity and precision. Much has been written elsewhere about the evidence underpinning the most effective ways to help students learn new vocabulary, but the approach we’ve taken is drawn from the research of Isabelle Beck and colleagues They estimate that if a new word is encountered in a text, the reader has about a 15% likelihood of making it part of their working vocabulary. If the same word is met in three different contexts, that probability increases to above 50%. However, by using what we’ve come to call the ‘golden triangle’ the likelihood that students will learn a word can be as high as 80%.

As most teachers are now aware, vocabulary can be roughly divided into three ‘tiers. Tier 1 words are those that are common to spoken language and are likely to be well known by students (hat, running, dodgy, slow etc.). Tier 2 words are those that are common to written language but relatively rare in speech (fusillade, substantiate, obsequious, turgid etc.). Tier 3 words are specialised, academic words that described the concepts of subject disciplines (osmosis, tectonic, algebra, onomatopoeia etc.) These distinctions are important because the way we treat Tier 2 words (topic vocabulary and excellent epithets) and different to the way we handle Tier 3 words (subject terminology).

When teaching both topic vocabulary and subject terminology students are asked to go through a familiar process each time they are introduced to a new word. Firstly, with all of the specified vocabulary items, students should be asked to self-assess where they rate their understanding using this 4-point scale on their MWBs 

Please rate how well you know the word implacable:

A)    Never seen it before

B)     Seen it, heard it, unsure what it means

C)     Understand and can sometimes use

D)    Confidently understand and can explain

If students are confident they can explain the word, they should be given the opportunity to do so. Then teachers should go through a process we call Say It, Spell It, Know It Whenever students are asked to retrieve the word or its definition its worth asking them to rate their familiarity again. Ideally, over time, all students will become confident they can explain.

Say it Spell it Know it

The ‘Say It’ phase of teaching simply requires the teacher to model the word’s pronunciation and then get the class to repeat the pronunciation back as a choral response. The idea here is that speech is particularly ‘cognitively sticky’ and that if students have not just heard the word pronounced correctly but also said it themselves, they are much more likely to remember it. NB. Students must not be taught to write the phonetic pronunciation.

The ‘Spell It’ phase of instruction involves the teacher breaking down the word into morphemes, running over how each is spelt and then removing the word from the board and asking students to recode the sounds into letters. By ensuring students are familiar with both the pronunciation and the spelling, re increase the probability that they will recognise it the next time they see it. The idea is to deliberately teach students that the prefix ‘im’ signals that the root word will take on the opposite meaning so that ‘plac’ means to make calm, or to please. Then, the suffix ‘able’ always creates an adjective (meaning ‘possible’) which results in an adjective meaning ‘impossible to placate’

Finally, the ‘Know It’ phase focuses on synonyms rather than definitions. Often, dictionary definitions are unhelpfully opaque and leave students move confused than before. By giving a synonym in everyday language and employing the phrase “it’s a bit like…” we build a bridge between familiar and unfamiliar vocabulary. Most Tier 2 words have straightforward Tier 1 synonyms and so, with a bit of thought, this is easy to do on the fly: ‘benevolent’ is a bit like ‘kind’. When students ask, as will inevitably happen, “Why didn’t they just say ’kind’ then?” we can say, “Because they’re not quite the same, benevolent is also a bit like ‘well-meaning’ and is also usually used about someone in authority.”

Subject terminology

Subject terminology needs to be dealt with differently. Here, we suggest that students are taught to memorise agreed definitions using the process set out in 2[DD1] .x. Often, students will have a vague understanding of words like metaphor, theme, or alliteration, but when pressed will often say something like, “I know what it means but I don’t know how to explain it.” By ensuring students have fingertips recall of an agreed definition, they are liberated. They learn exactly what these arcane sounding words mean and, over time, this frees them up to use them with increased clarity and precision.

The other class of vocabulary we specify is what the English department at Ormiston Horizon Academy call Excellent Epithets. As you can see in C25K, part of our approach to academic writing is to pre-teach a set of appositives and adjectives for major characters or themes in a text. So, for instance, in the King James Bible module in Year 8, students will learn the following Excellent Epithets for King David:

David – Appositives: shepherd boy, warrior, King of Israel

Audacious (adj) Willing to take bold risks
audacity (n)

Humble (adj) Having a modest sense of your importance
humility (n)

Composed (adj): Able to keep your feelings under control; calm
composedness (n)

The adjectives are chosen to reflect different aspects of a character and, as will become clear, there is a focus on students being able to transform words across word class – particularly from adjective to noun. Very often, if students only learn one form of a word, their writing – and thinking – is held back. If you only know ‘patriarchy’ and are unfamiliar with ‘patriarchal’, you end up torturing a sentence to make the version of the word you know fit.

Etymology and morphology plays an important role in our approach to vocabulary. When students (and their teachers!) learn what the prefixes, roots and suffixes that make up words mean, new insights can be unlocked. One of our favourite examples is the term ‘metaphor’ – one of those words everyone recognises but often struggles to define. The literal meaning of metaphor –in both ancient and modern Greek – is to transport. There’s something rather exquisite about the fact that lorries in modern Greece are still called metaphores from meta (between or among) and phoros (carrying or bearing).

When we think about the metaphorical nature of language, metaphorically, meaning is transported from one ‘place’ to another. This has led us to the agreed definition of metaphor being: The transfer of meaning from one domain to another. E.g., ‘Time is money’.