The old bear roared in frustration and waved at the empty air with his huge paws, then reared up on his hind legs .’

It’s the Easter holidays. Reading booster revision class for year 6.  I have a group of 4 children. They need to get a level 4. It’s not going well. The bear in question has recently changed his behaviour – we are medddant to be describing how. And why.  I’m settling for how in the first instance.

‘So,’  I enquire, with that  strained upbeat  tone adopted by teachers when the odds are against us, ‘can anybody tell me what it means when it said the bear  ‘reared up?

Blank looks.    Someone says that rear means your bottom – which is sort of encouraging – though not particularly helpful in this context. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the words ‘rear up’.   Time for a spot of drama. I rear up out of my chair and we all practice rearing up and think about what sort of occasions might make us want to rear up. Not taking a bottom group booster class three weeks before sats, that’s for sure. All though I am – like the bear – frustrated.  Quick check that we know ‘frustration’. Nominalisation is a problem – they know frustrated but don’t automatically make the link. Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them more about nominalisation, root words, looking for links.

‘Ok, are we all clear now about the meaning of all the other words in the sentence?’

A pupil enquires, ‘what does hind mean?’  How come they don’t  know they word ‘hind?’ We do lots of stuff about animals. Surely it came up somewhere.  I check if they know the word ‘fore’.   Nope. Don’t know that either.

I reread our sentence, one more time, confident now that every word is now understood by my four pupils and that we can begin to answer our 2 mark question. So if we were, by some sort of miracle, to get a very similar sort of passage in the real test, where someone reared up in frustration – possibly on his hind legs – we might even be able to glean a mark or two.

‘Miss…? The undulating tone indicates a question is coming. ‘What’s a paw?’ Some of the group are excited now because they know this.  They rear up in excitement. ‘I know, I know, it’s what you call an animal’s foot!’ Mental note to self:-must make sure we teach them the word paw. Surely we teach them the word ‘paw’. Surely in the early years during ‘people who help us’ the vet makes paws better? I’m sure we learn ‘paw’ in phonics.  Despondently I turn and  reread the sentence yet again. My face a mask of fake brightness as I strain to erase any hint of sarcasm from my voice I enquire, ‘we are all sure what a bear is – right?’

By the way, I ought to point out, only some of this group are EAL. Others speak English at home. Allegedly. It’s a different kind of English though. Standard English is definitely a foreign tongue.

Look, I’ve got as  big a ‘growth mindset’ as the next ‘ResearchEd’ nerd, but there is something about trying to increase children’s vocabulary that drains every last scrap of optimism out of me. With just about everything else in education, it is simply a case of finding the right technique and then practicing the living daylights out of it. Actually that’s the grossest of gross generalisations. It is not simple for a start. And there’s infinitely more to education than just mastering basic literacy and numeracy. There is creativity and wonder and stuffing your brain with glorious morsels of knowledge. There’ s critical thinking and problem solving  and reasoning and immersing yourself in the imaginary worlds of brilliant stories.  But to get to all that properly you need to read, write and be numerate at least a little bit. And there are techniques like phonics in reading and using the concrete-pictorial- abstract approach in maths that have a proven track record of being pretty efficient.  I like the way the universe has been even handed here: favouring traditional phonics on the one hand and trendy ‘cpa’ on the other.

When it comes to increasing a child’s vocabulary, the way ahead is so much more mysterious. Something like phonics is, for the most part, generalisable.  Once you know the 44 grapheme: phoneme correspondences and how to blend and segment them – you’ve got that skill for life. You can transfer that skill onto any other phonetic language you encounter. Sure the gpc’s may vary a bit or even a lot, so you may need to upgrade you knowledge of those, or learn to decode from right to left if you learn Arabic, but the basic skill is there: it doesn’t need to go on being taught over and over once securely grasped.

Maths is pretty much the same. Once you understand the base 10 place value system, you don’t need to have it explained afresh each time we increase or decrease a factor of 10. It’s quite a complicated and abstract principle so may take some time to really understand, but once it is done, it is done for ever.  Same with the four operations. Yes we apply them in ever more complicated situations, but addition is always addition, whether it’s 2+3, 233+32.3  or  2a +(-3b).  Obviously there is a lot more to both, but you get the point. In both there’s an element of the really hard work being done in the early years and ks1.  After that, it’s mainly applying what you already know in new, more demanding situations. But words are so damn specific.  If today I teach you ‘paw’ that  doesn’t help you know ‘hoof’ tomorrow. If today’s character ‘rears up in frustration’, tomorrow’s will ‘slump in deep despondency’. Am I meant to have some sort of list- starting perhaps with aardvark and ending with zygote?

It has always struck me as miraculous that any child ever learns to speak at all. It’s creation ex nihilo par excellence. One minute you have a babbling baby who can’t say or understand anything and the next they start issuing orders like ‘more’ and ‘milk’. Before you know it they’ve moved beyond giving orders and labelling objects to generating their own, unique sentences- beyond just copying and into innovation. Watching a young child learn to speak is exciting and enthralling; no wonder parents bore everyone else senseless with news of the latest cute thing their genius  two year old has just said.

I am sure those who have EAL new arrivals turn up in February into year 4 /8/11 ( insert numeral of choice) have often witnessed the same miracle. One minute you are announcing to the class ‘here is a new boy,Yan Ye. He doesn’t speak any English yet’ and arranging a buddy system  to get him through geography and the next he gets a level five in his English reading sats. So- and here is the million dollar question, how come Yan Ye can learn English in little more than two years when he only really gets to speak it at school whereas some of this classmates have been surrounded by English since birth, been to the same school for 8 years and don’t yet know what ‘frustration’ means? Unlike their teachers. Why does this everyday miracle fail to ‘take’ for some children and what can we do about it?

Of course it is linked to disadvantage. For a variety of reasons, there is a much higher risk of growing up within a family with a limited language environment if that family is also poor. It’s absolutely by no means inevitable, but statistically, if you are poor, the odds of you being raised in a language rich environment are just lower.  When comparing  the exposure to language of the richest and poorest children, a seminal American study that makes me want to weep describes the grim reality that a child from a high-income family will experience 30 million more words within the first four years of life than a child from a low-income family. But it is also true that socioeconomic status is not destiny and that there are a variety of providers out there working with parents of babies and toddlers to empower them to break the inter- generational cycle of deprivation.  But what about the children already in the system? How can we help them?

Well it turns out that there is some sort of list. Or at least there should be, although there is a lot of argument about what should be on it. Unfortunately, Mr Gove was rather in favour of having a list. I say unfortunately because I think there is quite a lot in this list business, but Mr Gove tended to taint everything he advocated with the venom of his invective against teachers. A bit like the new maths curriculum. It’s really good- but you have to get past one’s stomach churning aversion to anything Govian to appreciate it. E.D Hirsch, an American academic and chair of the Core Knowledge Foundation, argues persuasively that in order to read, one needs to know not only certain words but something about the cultural context in which those words are set. It’s hard for a British reader to make much sense of an account of baseball or an American an account of cricket even though we understand the individual words perfectly well. It’s just together they don’t make sense.  Socioeconomic disadvantage in education is best overcome, he argues by the explicit teaching of knowledge and its accompanying vocabulary. Instead of wasting time teaching generic reading skills, precious curriculum time should be spent on the humanities and science, building up knowledge.  As his colleague Daniel Willingham argues in this video, teaching content is teaching reading.  The trouble is that Hirsch’s list, as well as being American and rather dated, just seems so arbitrary. Back here in the UK, Civitas tried to translate it into  our kind of English. Apparently, every year 1 child should know about Machu Picchu- something I confess I know precious little about (despite my knowledge based private secondary education). I think it’s a sort of templey thing somewhere in Latin America – Peru maybe- and was built by the Inkas or possibly Aztecs. The same list says every  year 2 child must know about rabies. Why? To give them nightmares, perhaps.

Much more usable is the work of Isabel Beck  . She divides words up into three tiers. Tier one words are everyday words that do not need teaching- table, house, book etc.  Tier three words are specific to certain domains and are fairly low frequency, words like isotope. Words like this are taught fairly easily as they occur in the curriculum. But it’s tier two words where the action is.  These are words that don’t usually come up in spoken language but are high frequency in written texts and give the learner a more mature, nuanced way of expression a concept they already understand. A child who knows ‘sad’ can be taught the word ‘forlorn’, for example.  Rather than providing a definitive list, she teaches teachers how to identify and choose suitable tier two words for explicit word work. she explains this well here.  There are two books by her that are definitely worth reading; Bringing Words to Life and Creating Robust Vocabulary. (Although the phrase ‘robust vocabulary’ brings a smile to my face: no need to put any effort into teaching that!)

Beck (and colleagues) explain that children don’t easily pick up new vocabulary just from the context and from their reading. Rather they need explicit instruction and creative ways to practice what they have been taught. Katie Ashcroft from the fascinating Michaela school explains how they are explicitly teaching vocabulary there.    How does this contrast with current practice in primary schools?

In my experience (almost entirely based in schools in Tower Hamlets), schools work very hard to provide language rich environments. We have to, since our population is predominantly EAL and those who are not EAL tend to number among the word poor.  We all know our BICS from our CALP.  Thinking of my own school, starting with the early years promoting high quality communication is our top priority.  We’ve done ‘Every Child A Talker‘ and refresh our memories its key messages every couple of years. We have a speech therapist on the payroll who regularly observes practitioners to develop their practice. We run interventions such as TalkBoost and Speech Bubble. We value speech as integral to learning. Talk partners are a completely routine part of every lesson from Nursery onwards. We expect children to answer in full sentences. We use sentence frames and dictogloss. We orally rehearse before we write and use drama across the curriculum. We talk for writing and internalise key texts. We spend a lot on our library which has high quality non fictions well as fiction.  Each year a group of children who have read widely get to visit the book wholesalers and spent a budget of thousands electing new books for our library. Authors come and visit.  We insist children read daily for homework.  We read to them daily.  Key vocabulary is highlighted and explained. Yet still, frustratingly, vocabulary problems rear up.

Upon reflection, I reckon we explain too much vocabulary too fast.  If I am reading Beck et al correctly, less is more. Fewer words, carefully identified and revisited over a series of activities.  This is something we can change.  We magpie literature, ‘stealing’ good words. We list ‘wow’ words and ‘star words’ and ‘powerful verbs’.  Beck’s tier framework provides real scope here to revisit our practice.  Those ‘powerful verbs’ are bound to be tier two words. Time for them to come down from our working walls and be rehearsed in the ways Beck recommends.

Beck’s recipe is as follows:

First introduce a new word in context. I think this is pretty standard primary practice. I don’t think primary schools tend to just dole out list of edifying words to learn. I hope not anyway.

Secondly, provide a friendly explanation. Not a dictionary definition unless it is from something like the Collins COBUILD Dictionary that defines words in full sentences. Beck suggests explaining words with sentences that use words such as someone, something, if and you. For example,’ if someone is jaded,me has or has seen so much of something that he begins to dislike it.’ (p24 Creating Robust Vocabulary). I think, given time, this is the sort of explanation most of us would tend to give. The trouble is, because our vocabulary teaching tends to be so ad hoc as we encounter words in the middle of stories, we try to articulate a coherent definition on the hoof and fail miserably, coming up with something garbled.

But even in programmes such as Success For All that go out of their way to highlight and define high value vocabulary, this goes nowhere unless the students have opportunities to encounter this word several more times over a series of days. So step three is that old favourite spaced repetition.  Beck suggests spending  a few minutes over 5 days on a few words. After introducing the word and briefly defining it, on subsequent days, children can be given opportunities to process the new words mentally in a variety of ways. One technique is called example/ nonexample. Here students are asked to decide if various sentences illustrate the target word or not.

If any of the things I say might be sleek, say ‘smooth man’. If not, don’t say anything.

a porcupine 

a duck

a leaf

a car

Another technique is word associations. This is basically matching. A card sort really- though maybe without the cards.

The next activity she suggests involves  generating situations, contexts and examples.

How might a …..cook……a musician…..a basketball player……..a teacher show they are:





And so on.  Then at the end of the week,mother words go in a word back. Each week, three ‘old words’ are drawn from the bank to jog those memories. That way, they stick and might actually get used.

I’m not sure why it is secondary school teachers who are leading the way here (or maybe they are just the ones blogging about it) but there is some inspiring practice being developed.   As well as Katie Ashcroft, l have also found this by Josie Mingay on using root words as our bread and butter teaching. We already do this is spelling – so why not in vocabulary instruction too? Joey Bagstock  – a colleague of Josie’s – is worth reading too.  Which brings me back to nominalisation.  This term foxed loads of primary teachers when it first appeared in the writing APP grid for level 6. It’s only now after reading this brilliant blog ( nominalisation comes right at the end) I realise it is a great way of turning an ordinary sounding verb into a much posher sounding noun and making your writing seem so much more intelligent. Contrast ‘when the Romans arrived’ with ‘The arrival of the Romans’.

Of course, I can bet my bottom dollar that however many words I successfully teach my charges, when it comes to test time, those words won’t be in the test.  ‘If only I had taught them frugal instead of exuberant’,’  we will exclaim.  And when it’s a test we are talking about, that arbitrariness remains. But we are teaching these words for life and not for the test. Be nice if they coincided though- just this once.


6 thoughts on “Wurdz.

  1. Annon says:

    I have read maybe half of ‘Brings Words to Live, but I found it somewhat underwhelming, perhaps because the method focuses on a small number of words which might work well when expanding active vocabulary, but will hardly make a dent in increasing passive vocabulary, which is what is needed for reading comprehension, to the levels needed to read the vast majority of literature. Also maybe I’m so used to the idea of spaced repetition that one of the main selling points of the book was unnecessary for me.

    I was interested that you mentioned root words as this is what I have been looking into recently as it feels more like giving people the underlying tools to understand advanced language rather like phonics with basic reading. I am however aware that it doesn’t help that much with Anglo-Saxon words, so is more helpful with older pupils.

    I think your example of fore and hind legs is a good example of the power of morphology, as fore is also in the common words forehead and before while hind is in behind, so teaching pupils to look at words morphologically​ might help them deduce the meanings of unknown words (if your lucky).

    I think the best books I have found on root words is ‘The Word within the Word’ by Michael Clay Thompson. I think he has some books for younger children too. It is American and therefore expensive, but it might still be worthwhile​ getting a copy for yourself, as he shows how a morphology based vocabulary programme might work, and I have certainly learnt a lot from it.


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