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.