19 950 words I learnt at school

We are trialling a really easy and quick idea in our starters with the potential for long term impact. Developing a wide and functioning vocabulary is essential not only for learning language for all-round academic success. Educational research shows that vocabulary strongly relates to reading comprehension, intelligence and general ability. As children learn to read, they must learn to decode (sound-out) print, but they must also have a vocabulary base (word knowledge) in order to make sense of what they decode. Unless children are confident readers and writers by the time they embark on GCSEs in Yr9 (future curriculum) they will not be able to access each subject curriculum and will not be successful.

Daisy Christodoulou says ‘Knowledge is the bedrock of a good education for the 21st Century. Effective teaching should feature more direct and explicit teaching of factual knowledge.’ For too long the acquisition of important subject-specific vocabulary has not been a priority. Key vocabulary is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate knowledge, facts and understanding in order to make better progress. This practice is boy-friendly and can be a competitive and fun activity. This will create a strong orientation towards exam preparation and the new GCSEs certainly have more knowledge requirements. Much of the best teaching we see is knowledge-rich, hinges upon acquisition of key vocabulary and incorporates skillful questioning and feedback. John Hattie’s evidence underlines this: direct instruction of key knowledge is effective.

The evidence shows us that:

children's vocab

Research tells us that children from poorer homes are exposed to less parent talk and a much-reduced vocabulary. Two recent studies this highlights the issue. Hart & Risley (USA) suggest that poorer children hear 30 million fewer words by age 3. Frank Field’s 2010 report on Poverty and Social Exclusion suggests that UK children hear 23 million fewer words before school. Since the best measure of ‘disadvantage’ in schools is being in receipt of the pupil premium (free school meals), then most of our children by definition are word-poor. Thus one of our primary roles is to develop not only literacy, but to build and grow every child’s vocabulary. By doing this we will be providing them with greater chance in their exams, more enjoyment in their subjects and ultimately better access to higher education and to better paid jobs.

In other words there is a word-gap for our children, which we need to tackle head-on. We have tackled poor equipment in a very direct and explicit way. We are starting to do the same thing to improve the vocabulary for all of our students over their 7 or 5 years with us.

So what we will do:

In every silent starter (see previous blog) of each new lesson 3 new key words will be introduced with definitions – students will write these into their exercise books (and maybe also perhaps into an A6 vocabulary book which students keep in their pencil cases).

  1. At the end of each day students will have recorded 3×6 = 18 new words.
  2. At the end of each week this makes 18×4 (Mon to Thur) + 1×3 (Fri) = 75 new words. Two tutor times per week are used to embed, check and test knowledge of these words.
  3. At the end of each year this equates to 75 x 38 = 2850 new words
  4. 2850 x 5 = 14250 new words
  5. 2850 x 7 = 19950 new words

These numbers are ambitious and very significant when set against the following:

Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct suggests that the average US graduate has a vocabulary of 45 000 words

 The Guardian newspaper, in 1986, estimated the size of the average person’s vocabulary as developing from roughly 300 words at two years old, through 5,000 words at five years old, to some 12,000 words at the age of 12. The Guardian’s research suggested that it stays at around this number of words for the remainder of most (average) people’s lives—while a graduate might have a vocabulary nearly twice as large (23,000 words). Shakespeare, according to Robert McCrum et al, had one of the largest recorded vocabularies of any English writer at around 30,000 words.

 Professor David Crystal, researcher in English language studies and author of around 100 books on the subject suggests how to discover the size of one’s vocabulary. “Take a sample of about 20 pages from a medium-sized dictionary, one which contains about 100,000 entries or 1,000 pages. Tick off the ones you know and count them. Then multiply that by the number of pages and you will discover how many words you know. Most people vastly underestimate their total. A reasonably educated person should know about 75,000. An ordinary person, one who has not been to university say, would know about 35,000 quite easily.”

How we will make this have impact over time?  Of course issuing new words is just the start, and serves no purpose if those words are not repeated, embedded, learnt in context. Otherwise words are like confetti. Wasted and trodden into the wet ground at the end of the wedding. We aim to use tutor times each week to check and test spellings and meanings. Faculties will keep and promote the key words for each year group, and we wil be much more explicit and ambitious in our teaching and faculties over our policy to the acquisition of key words.And we will use spelling tests – like the learning of times tables, we must not assume that our children have learnt key spellings. We aim to use the website to promote what we are doing and ask parents to support by checking spelling/meanings/glossaries. I expect that we will evaluate our success over time in our test & exam results, through student and teacher voice and student confidence. In addition we will use PPM funding to sponsor a summer reading programme for those children who are behind with their reading age by the end of Yr6, and who still lag behind by the end of Yr7 and Yr8.

Words. Just words.



Pochettino and Pencil Cases


I have supported Tottenham Hotspur since I was 4 yrs old, and in that time they have wavered from also-rans to jostling with glory in the FA Cup to relegation. Their regular underachievement has helped remind me of my own humanity. As West Brom is to Frank Skinner and Adrian Chiles, so Spurs have been to me in my teaching career. Down the years Yr11 boys would, on a chilly Monday at break time call across a cold wet playground “Unlucky yesterday sir!” and that spirit of compassionate, slightly downbeat camaraderie has often aligned me with them. Sometimes sulking helps.

Possession is one tenth of the law.
But something has utterly changed. Spurs fortunes have transformed this season and they are on the verge of doing something ridiculously successful. They are not immune from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but it really looks like they might do it. So what has happened? A lazy conclusion one could draw would be that they have two or three class players at last in Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele. But the truth has to be different: the evidence shows that over the years even when they have had great partnerships in the same team; Ardiles & Villa, Hoddle & Crooks, Gilzean & Chivers they have never quite reached expectations. But this year the Spurs coach Pochettino has done something monumental and yet simple which is way beyond bringing in big-name players. Added to this, and incredibly, ten of the last 18 England debutantes have grown through Pochettino’s coaching philosophy, at Spurs and at his previous club Southampton. He is doing something special. Sometimes the most effective transformations come from simple ideas.

If you could distil success in football down to one key variable, it would be possession. A quick look at the correlation between possession stats in the English Premiership shows that 5 of the top 8 teams have the best possession figures. Roughly the same picture emerges across italian Serie A and La Liga in Spain. 

So then presumably possession is the number one ingredient to successful football teams. Retaining possession for around 56% of the match means that the opposition have less time on the ball and obviously, less time to score. The exception in the Premiership of course is Leicester, with their twin pairing of Mahrez and Vardy who rely on speed and attack on the break, rather than through a slow, possession build- up.  The evidence suggests that with Barcelona (the most successful club in years) at the top of the European possession league at 62% then this assertion is true. Pep Guardiola, the former Barca coach must have distilled the essentials of this approach to perfection. But of course there is more to it than that. Barcelona use an ABAC passing structure (eg. Xavi to Messi, back to Xavi then onto Neymar), which separates them from other clubs with similar high profile players (who more often use an ABCD routine). So not random possession but a carefully planned structure, which breaks through defences. The Spanish national team has dominated world football for years, and has changed football into a game that is less about brilliant attacking play and more about patience, avoiding mistakes, and making certain that mathematics ensures you cannot lose. (bear with me if you have a football allergy – there is method in my madness)

Pep Guardiola is the most wanted manager in the world and will soon move to Manchester City, the fifth richest club in the world according to Forbes’ rankings (Barcelona is second to Real Madrid). Clearly great coaches don’t come cheap. Of course this knowledge is not new. A brief look at the Spanish ‘tiki taka’ style of close touch possession football, shows that these simple concepts were built on the ‘Coerver’ method of Dutch football which emerged through the 1970s through Feyenoord and Ajax and which the Dutch master Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona.pep

This also influenced the way that young children were coached across Britain over the last 20 years, my boys among them. Less physical, less Wimbledon 1990s long ball; more of a two-touch, non-contact possession game. And so great young coaches like Mauricio Pochettino are borrowing this knowledge, from Cruyff and Guardiola before him, and harnessing it to their advantage. I watched from the Hawthorns stands before Christmas as Moussa Dembele utterly controlled the Spurs – West Brom match  dominating possession in the middle and yet only achieving a draw. Sometimes the means do not always achieve the ends, but in creating the conditions for teams to become more reliably successful, coaches have taken some of the randomness out of the game. Great coaches develop predictable success.

Knowing that we never stay still for long, and that after half term I wanted to see another real hike in expectations at school, I decided to go and see an example of what constitutes success in education.

I went to Magna Academy in Poole four weeks ago. Sometimes disparaging comparisons between education and football management are made, but in this instance I was looking to see what simple truths & techniques the head coach/headteacher had distilled in order to springboard a school from special measures to outstanding within three years. There were many very robust and incisive approaches to tracking data and creating much more ambitious flightpaths for children the moment they arrive in year seven now that key Stage 3 is dead. Teaching was clearly changing lives. But three of the key drivers for this transformation had been:

  • Equipping all students with full pencil cases where the majority of children receive the Pupil Premium
  • Students moving in silence around the academy (while all staff stand on duty), and
  • Teachers controlling the first five minutes of each lesson with silent starters.

Establishing a baseline of behaviour routines has meant for staff that this is a joyous place to teach, has taken much of the behaviour management stress away from teachers (at a time when we are reminded daily that teachers are leaving the profession), and equally importantly has meant that children are thriving in a calm environment of exploratory, high class learning. Children at Magna Academy are now competing with the two grammar schools in Poole for progress and even for overall attainment.
Like Poole, Gloucester is a city where for years the status quo has permitted a small number of underperforming state schools to wane while the grammars and high performing state schools remain in pole position, seemingly in glorious isolation.Two weeks ago, the next step change in expectations happened at Gloucester Academy and it is that perfect combination of the trilogy of right equipment, quiet movement between lessons and perfect, silent starters which have transformed learning in the last two weeks. No excuses about equipment save hundreds of minutes each week. Our regular nudges in our schools demonstrate a desire to want our children to receive and benefit from the kind of ethos, behaviour and quality of teaching that formerly only existed in a few schools. Can this culture change that schools embracing such ‘no excuses’ transformations create social mobility? Of course it can.

It has brought greater consistency without destroying the individuality of each teacher and it has allowed students to thrive in their learning. It creates predictable success because it supports the least experienced teacher in the building. The feedback from children has been immense, and teachers describe how much more enjoyable it is not giving out equipment and being able to focus on the essentials of good quality instruction for well-equipped, well-organised students right from the outset of each lesson.
What are the things that will have the greatest impact for the least input? In sport and in schools learning from great coaches and leaders can sometimes help us distil and simplify what are essentially complex organisations in order to find simple and clear nudges which can yield surprising results. Pochettino has learnt this for Spurs and increasingly I am learning this for GA.