Building confidence: teaching ambitious vocabulary through 19th century texts

Editor’s notes: After the success of her last blog post, Helen Sharpe has returned to share more great literacy tips! This time, she discusses how she uses reading and writing challenges to encourage her students to confidently use and understand ambitious vocabulary. You can visit Helen’s blog, or follow her on Twitter. And if you want to have your own work published on our site, contact us any time!

As mentioned in my previous blog for Bedrock, I work in a school with a significant number of ‘word-poor’ students. There are many ways we tackle this within the English faculty and the school but with the new English GCSEs that feature unseen 19th century texts, the development of our students’ vocabulary becomes more important than ever. 19th century literature is almost like a foreign language for our students, largely due to lack of exposure to this kind of vocabulary (although we are trying to address this with our KS3 curriculum based on classic literature through the ages).

With this in mind, I have developed an additional way to put vocabulary at the heart of our KS3 curriculum, taking inspiration from Rebecca Foster’s reading and writing challenges, which she generously shares through Twitter and her excellent blog, as well as the excellent ideas on vocabulary instruction in Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered.

Each week, year 7 & 8 will have a text (either fiction or non-fiction) to read as homework, which links to the current scheme of learning. In advance, I choose a group of ambitious vocabulary words from the set text, so my students can learn them as homework. Because the texts are linked to the scheme, the words will always be relevant to their current learning, but as the texts are also high-quality and challenging (e.g. articles from The Guardian, extracts from writers from Dickens to Margaret Atwood) this means the words are too!

They will be tested on the definitions at the end of the week, questioned to assess understanding of the words in context (e.g. what would a formidable enemy look like?), encouraged to use the key words in discussions (I plan to have the week’s vocabulary on display at all times for quick & easy reference during lessons and as a homework reminder!), and finally required to use them in a weekly piece of extended writing. Each lesson will also feature 2-3 key words linked to the lesson’s theme (e.g. ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchal’ and ‘oppress’ in a lesson on women in Shakespeare).

This is where the ideas of Lemov, Driggs and Woolway come in. They state that ‘explicit vocabulary instruction includes five steps’:

  1. Careful and intentional selection of high-value words (see the ambitious vocabulary homework)
  2. Framing of a definition that students can use and apply (I have used an English Language Learners’ Dictionary to help with this)
  3. Guidance on when and how a word occurs in language
  4. Active practice – time spent using the word in different settings and applications
  5. Maintenance and reinforcement

They assert that number four is the most important and this is where our planned questioning comes in. Students will be questioned on the week’s words in a way that demands not just learned definitions but comprehension too (see below examples based on year 7’s study of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). As the words link to the scheme being studied there should be lots of opportunity to use them in class discussions and also to go back to them in order to maintain and reinforce.

In what way is Hermia expected to be submissive? How does this link to society at the time and the submission of women?

What assumptions does Egeus make both about Hermia’s attitude towards marriage and Theseus’ punishment for her?

Why do you think Hermia feels compelled to rebel? Why do Hermia and Lysander feel compelled to elope? Why might Egeus feel compelled to punish his daughter so harshly for her disobedience? Consider the context.

My hope is that students feel empowered by their use (and eventual mastery!) of complex vocabulary, enabling them to access challenging texts while demonstrating a new level of sophistication in their writing.

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