Explicit vocabulary instruction and everyone doing the same thing.

Towards the end of the last academic year I read this post by Jo Facer on explicit vocabulary instruction.  I started doing it a bit at the end of that year, and more thoroughly this year.  I think it’s one of the best things I’ve changed about my teaching.  I know with some certainty that this year, my students have expanded their vocabularies by eighty words as a result of this strategy.  It would have been more, but that’s my fault; some weeks I simply didn’t quiz them enough on the words, so they forgot them, so I had to pause teaching any new words.

However, this instruction is only now, towards the end of the year, starting to bear fruit.  Towards the start of the year, students didn’t include the vocabulary in their writing unless I said they had to.  Now, a couple of months before they end of term, they are incorporating the vocabulary a bit into their writing, with a bit more confidence, even when I haven’t told them to (I have also tweaked how I test them on the words a bit).  It’s still pretty rare, but now and then in their writing I’ll come across some sentence like, ‘he was an abhorrent man’, or, ‘it was most vexing’.  There is no way that they would have done anything like this if I had just, say, tried hard to encourage them to do more wider reading.  I know this because I never got sentences like ‘it was most vexing’ before I explicitly taught vocabulary.

The only thing is, I’m the only teacher in my department doing this.  They will have learnt eighty words by the end of the year, and that’s great, but it’s still not that many.  And next year they may well forget these words.  I feel like I’ve made a house of sticks, and now it’s just going to be left to the elements, rather than added to and made stronger.  Explicit vocabulary instruction is good when one teacher does it, but  (presumably) brilliantly powerful when everyone does it in the department.  If every English teacher teaches, say, 100 words each year, by year eleven students will have a solid 500 new words in their vocabularies.  And it’s still not that much, but a lot more than they would’ve got otherwise, and if they’ve had it all the way up the school, the words would be a lot more solidly embedded in their long-term memories.

So I guess this blog is looking at the small aspect of teaching vocabulary, within the bigger idea of department and school cohesion.  Telling off students for having their phones out works a lot better when every teacher does it.  If each teacher plans one different SOW at the start of the year, no-one has to plan any SOWs for the rest of the year.  If every English teacher teaches vocabulary, that’s a much surer way to improve vocabularies than if just one teacher does it.


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