From the shallows, depth.

This blog post is essentially a write up of my slides from researchED Brum. Many thanks to the fabulous organiser Claire Stoneman @stoneman_claire for inviting me to speak. 

Education depends upon reading and all reading depends upon vocabulary. I have been designing a study with the help of Shirelands Research School and my school, Ashlawn, to improve secondary school-age children’s vocabulary knowledge. I’m keeping to Hirsch’s well-known comment “Broad, shallow knowledge is the route to independence…” [Hirsch 1988] as a cornerstone of this endeavour. It has been something of an instructional-altering journey for me as I’ve come across the work of the Professors Bjork on memory and retrieval which has led me to become aware of the work on learning as a generative activity discussed by Fiorella and Mayer. And finally, the most substantial text for my changes to practice is the magical, practical Bringing Words to Life.

I started teaching in 2004 and I always wanted to be good at my job. One of the big metrics for this, no doubt, is the approval of others and in particular, those in authority. Way back when I started I was determined to get the best A*-C grades for my students and to get an Outstanding in my lesson observations. I hit a purple patch with wackier engaging activities. One time I looked to prolong my observation hot hand teaching “Love Through The Ages” at A-level literature. I took ten large bars of chocolate (because love, innit) to the DT workroom and persuaded a technician to cut them up into a “jigsaw”.

A fine dust of cheap chocolate powder misted over our safety goggles. I closed my eyes and wished for an Outstanding. An Outstanding!

My lesson judgement streak continued and I was treated to visit other schools and English departments in difficulty; that was when I saw a lesson starter with an image of a lake and this task:

Lake and words

I then got it. I became the fish who could see the water. Words needed teaching explicitly. No student learning could happen effectively if a teacher didn’t impart knowledge. All you would get was those who were socially or economically advantaged making discovery progress and those who weren’t, weren’t. I was watching the Matthew Effect unfold and diverge in front of my eyes.

It took me a little longer to have the language to articulate that though: for which I’m grateful to Seven Myths, Tom Bennett and David Didau, plus Andrew Old’s blog. And Twitter.

This is how I have ended up designing a classroom or department level intervention for explicit English teaching of vocabulary. My major piece of practical guiding research has been the brilliant book: Bringing Words to Life (BWtL). But I’ve also been fascinated by the concept of “generative learning” which I first came across in the work of Fiorella and Mayer and have picked up on in the Bjorks’ work.

Fiorella and Mayer in the influential text Learning as a Generative Activity discuss many different ways to enable learning to “stick” and they group their ideas around the idea of leveraging the effectiveness of a task by making it generative: causing a learner to generate an answer through self-testing is more powerful an effect than having to recognise it from a choice. Robert Bjork crosses this ground here. 

Going back to BWtL: this book is especially good because it provides robust and explicit methods for making vocabulary stick. Not just theory. Although it does give some useful guidance before getting to the practical instruction. The key takeaways I’ve included in my slides when from rED Brum: have a look below.


So as an English teacher and leader I like the statistics “400 words” a year gives me a rough goal to measure. The reference to the ineffectiveness of dictionary work spoke to me; when I was first head of English a long while ago colleagues asked if we could “finally” buy dictionary boxes, I agreed with pleasure. Years later they sit in boxes around the department, underused and of limited impact. BWtL explains a better way to capture meaning for students than looking up in a dictionary!

The bit that gets everyone particularly interested seems to be the reference to “tier 2” language. Here’s a quick diagram that illustrates what everyone is excited about.

Tier 2 pyramidTier 2 words are essentially more mature and precise words for ideas that students already have. So I see these as enabling words, not necessarily concepts. It is here where the familiarity with Hirsch’s “shallow… to deep knowledge” idea thrives. One might say that to equip students with tier 2 words is not only bringing words to life it is to enable people for life.

However a dilemma surfaces. How can one determine a tier 2 curriculum from this? BWtL does tend to gloss this issue a little I think. But then, I decided that all words were valuable “velcro” for future knowledge if I followed the broad guidelines of making current knowledge that step more mature. Accordingly, as the next part of my research project, I downloaded about 1600 words from a US website named Flocabulary I then went through the vocab lists and simply chopped out words I thought were too… easy.

I know, not super scientific. But new vocabulary is “velcro valuable”, right?

As part of this research project, I have created an excel document with my words’ lists. I’ve enabled the document to randomly present different words in a form of spaced retrieval for the class teacher. You can download the beta version of the excel and have the words here.

Now for the teaching. My plan is to present the words with the class and through telling and cold call questioning have the students acquire working definitions of ten words. Then I will use a brief activity taken from BWtL. I’ve typed up the examples into slides here with my twist on most of them. All this should take about 15 minutes of one lesson a week. Tasks 1

Task 2As you can see the book has a panoply of brilliant questions, activities and tasks to help secure students’ understanding and therefore boost vocabulary in the long term; the goal being that young people become increasingly confident readers and successful learners across the curriculum. (I am particularly curious whether the tasks that are more demanding generatively have greater impact or stickiness, but I haven’t quite figured out how to control for this in the evaluation).

I aim to launch this project in September 2018 and will discuss with Chris Peirce @Peirce_Chris, my colleague and the head of the English and Media department, how to scale this. I’ll come back to these ideas in another blog.

Thanks for reading! Any comments are welcomed.


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