Posted in Projects

Vocabulary Project: Part 1- Rationale and Launch #appletonacademy

To an English teacher, words are everything. Put in the right order, they have immense power to move us, fascinate us, make us laugh and teach us. Words excite and entertain me, but as someone who has always loved to read and felt able to express myself with an ever expanding vocabulary, sometimes I am at risk of forgetting how words (or lack thereof) can create barriers and instil fear in some of my students. Revered journalist, William Raspberry said, “Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors than a college degree… Bad English will slam doors you never even knew existed.” While there are many things which contribute to overall “good English”, vocabulary is arguably one of the most vital components in your arsenal. A wide vocabulary can enable a speaker to be succinct, precise and sophisticated, while a narrow vocabulary can lead to vague expression, waffle and frustration.

I want my students to have vocabulary which enables them to:

  1. Express their emotions
  2. Articulate their ideas, including those which are abstract and philosophical
  3. Persuade, inform and advise with clarity
  4. Judge and use appropriate formality and tone for a range of different situations
  5. Disagree with someone whilst remaining reasonable, logical and intelligent
  6. Describe things which they can imagine, creating imagery, settings, atmosphere and characters
  7. Handle technical terminology needed to access my subject
  8. Access higher bands on GCSE and A Level mark schemes
  9. Understand questions they are asked, and academic presentations they hear
  10. Explain what they have learned, reflect on their progress, and plan for future learning

This sounds like a great deal, and shows very clearly how important a good vocabulary is; it is like a toolbox – students need to be able to find exactly the right sized spanner for the job at hand, otherwise it will be a botched job!

book thief

One key issue we must contend with in education is the huge vocabulary gulf between students when they arrive at primary school which, in general, continues to widen as they move through the key stages. Students who come to school with a large vocabulary develop faster, rapidly expanding their vocabulary, while students with a narrow range of words progress more slowly. By the end of their school careers, students who were ‘word poor’ on entering primary school are even further behind their more articulate peers, and therefore less likely to achieve their potential in examinations and later life.

The quality and focus on vocabulary teaching varies greatly around the country, and the best examples I have seen are where there are strategies which identify key vocabulary in all subject areas, and explicitly teach these words in a regular, methodical way. My current school is embarking on a project this year with the aim of embedding the explicit teaching of vocabulary across the entire school. We are an all through academy, teaching students from age 3-18. I am excited about the prospect of developing systems which will eventually be consistent throughout a child’s school career; imagine what we could do with a ‘word poor’ child if we had regular, methodical teaching of key vocabulary from age 3 all the way through to Post-16!

the book thief words are life_thumb[3]

Step 1:

The ‘Dream Team’, made up of primary phase leaders and secondary reps from a range of subjects, had a day of training with vocabulary expert, Jane Dallas. Jane’s incredibly effective system is accessible and relevant throughout all key stages. For copyright reasons I cannot repeat the system here, but please contact Jane if you are interested. The key principles, however, are based around repetition and placing vocabulary in context for students.

Step 2: All primary staff were trained by Jane on the system to be used this term in all primary classrooms. Secondary team met to agree on adaptations for a range of subjects, and strategies to test for the next few weeks.

Future plans: Once strategies are embedded in test classrooms, secondary team will ‘buddy up’ and spread the practice across school. Whole staff training will be led by the ‘Dream Team’ in the Summer term 2015, and we will continue to monitor and support the teaching of vocabulary into the following year, school wide.

If you are interested, stay tuned for developments! – I will be treating this as a piece of action research and posting results and examples of student work as things progress…

Posted in Teaching Ideas

Five displays which work…

If there has been one pattern in my teaching career, it has been the slow realisation that nothing is worth doing unless it can answer ‘yes’ to two questions:

1) Can it be re-used, and/or integrated into a regular part of my practice?
2) Will it make students active, rather than passive participants in their own learning?

1) We spend so much time creating resources and setting up activities that we need to be discerning about the things we spend our precious time on. I never spend time making something unless I am going to laminate or cover it with sticky-back plastic, and bring out again or refer to it on a regular basis.

2) No matter how innovative or beautiful a resource is, if YOU have put more time into it than the students will, then it is not doing the right job! Some resources make students lazy – a beautiful learning mat, revision resource or word wall is a lovely thing to have, but is it asking students questions? Prompting them? Challenging them? OR is it just giving them the answers and allowing them to be passive?


A good display can save you hours of work and help to establish familiar classroom routines. The displays below are all reusable and interactive…

1. Sentence Structures

This display was designed by my very creative colleague, Kat Lang (@Kat_Stubbs), based on the sentence structure work done by Chris Curtis (@Xris32). Peg a range of sentence structures onto a ‘washing line’ so that students can use them for inspiration when doing written work. This can be directed by you, or students can simply opt to use them when they see fit. Laminate the sentences so that they will last all year!

Sentences sentences2 sentences3

2. DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time)

Create a selection of reflective tasks based on the skills students need to develop, and attach them to a display so that students can select their own DIRT tasks to improve their work. Tasks could involve instructions such as, “VOCABULARY: Choose three words in your work and use a thesaurus to replace them with three more effective words or phrases,” Or “ANALYSIS: Can you link this text (or the ideas in it) to any books, poems, films, songs you have experienced? Try to explain how, using examples.,” Or “FORMALITY/TONE: Why is it important to get the level of formality in a piece of writing exactly right? Can you think of a time you have NOT got the formality right?”

This example shows a DIRT wall based on a flower garden. The tasks are separated into the skills areas: vocabulary, analysis, writing for effect, formality/tone, structure and metacognition. Each of these areas has a different flower pot and the tasks are on colour coordinated laminated cards.


3. Cookie Jar

This is a brilliantly creative display from my colleague Lizzie Hutchinson. It uses a cookie jar as an extended metaphor for reading skills. There is a biscuit type for every reading AF, and students write examples of their best work on a cookie template to go ‘into the jar’ (in the middle of the display)

Rich Tea biscuit in a jar – information retrieval (because it is a simple biscuit that you have to go in and retrieve)

Jammy Dodger – inference and reading for meaning (because of the good stuff in the middle!)

Pink Wafer – structure and layout (because you can see all the layers)

Millie’s Cookie saying, ‘without you I’d crumble’ – language

Fortune Cookie – culture

Cookie Monster – author’s perspective

Cookie cookie2 cookie3


4. Formality Scale

This is the brain child of an incredibly talented AST I worked with in a previous school. Students measure their own language and that of their peers (and teacher!) using the formality scale, for example:

Teacher: thanks, a brilliant answer, but where would you rate your language on the formality scale?

Student: about 30%

Teacher: so how could you re-phrase your answer so that it is at 75%?

I tend to add words and phrases which students say a lot around the outside throughout the year, so that they can see where and when that language is acceptable. The scale can also be referred to when setting written work and discussing formality and tone for audience and purpose.



5. Black sugar paper and chalk

VERY simple! Back a display board with black sugar paper and get yourself some chalks in a range of colours. Over the course of a scheme of work, students can write key concepts, quotations, questions and key vocabulary onto the board in chalk. This gives them ownership of the display, and allows them to prioritise the things which really matter to them during the topic.

You can also stick examples of good work, or extracts from texts onto the board and have students annotate them in chalk.

I would love to hear about brilliant long term displays you have used which work! Please get in touch with me: @funkypedagogy and I’ll try to update this blog with the best stuff!