How to design a broad and rich vocabulary curriculum

Ofsted. One of the many abbreviations that can shock a teacher with a sudden jolt of anxiety. Other contenders include GCSEs for secondary school teachers, and SATs for our primary friends out there. In recent years, the sense of pressure that comes along with each of these words revolves around the same thing: Ofsted’s accountability framework, which has been weighted heavily towards exam results, performance tables, and inspections. In 2019, however, this framework has undergone some pretty significant changes and one thing now takes centre stage: the curriculum.

Back in October 2017, Ofsted released some of their findings surrounding research into primary and secondary school curriculums. At the heart of their report was a call for schools to direct their attentions towards designing “broad and rich” curriculums. According to HMCI Amanda Spielman, “[for] too long, the curriculum – the thing that should lie at the heart of educational thinking – has come second to the pressures of accountability and performance tables.” For this, Spielman admits to partial blame, stating that Ofsted “haven’t put enough emphasis on curriculum in the framework and, as a result, may have contributed to a vicious cycle.”

In order to break this “vicious cycle”, Ofsted have placed the curriculum at the heart of their new framework, potentially addressing the imbalance between ‘teaching for test’ and ‘teaching for knowledge’. Following from their research, Ofsted and Spielman seem to believe that the root of the issue has been a fundamental lack of understanding and debate about what effective curriculum planning consists of. Spielman claims that “testing has come inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety”. At the primary level, teaching of “foundation subjects” has been curtailed to make way for SATs preparation, while many secondary schools are limiting KS3 to just 2 years to enable greater focus on GCSEs. The fear is that this concentration on exam preparation is leaving students with what Spielman refers to as “a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.” They are missing out on the valuable and enriching knowledge they could gain from a longer study of subjects like History, Geography, languages or the arts.

What does a “broad and rich curriculum” actually look like?

At the Telegraph Festival of Education, Ofsted’s Sean Harford tried to lay out the ideal structure of a curriculum by focusing on the ‘three Is’: intent, implementation and impact. A school with an effectively designed curriculum will therefore know the clear and specific objectives of their curriculum; they will know how these objectives are translated into policies, processes and teaching methods, and they will know how these objectives and processes are impacting their students’ learning. And this level of planning and intent applies to every subject in the curriculum – not just Maths and English – so as to provide students with what John David Blake calls a “well-rounded knowledge rich education.”

At its simplest, then, a broad and rich curriculum is one that shows evidence of clear and deliberate consideration surrounding what is on the syllabus, how the syllabus is taught, and why these decisions are beneficial to students. If your curriculum involves cutting KS3 short by a year, are your students gaining extra knowledge as a result of this, or are they simply receiving extra time to revise the same knowledge again and again?

Where does vocabulary fit into all of this?

With so much to think about, you may think that vocabulary isn’t an immediate priority when it comes to this focus on curriculum. There isn’t enough time, you might say, to build a broad and rich syllabus, whilst also having a direct approach to teaching vocabulary. But the truth is, you’ve probably already been doing it on a smaller, unstructured scale. When students are struggling to understand a key term, you explain it, right? If they don’t understand the language, they can’t fully understand the lesson. But what’s missing is planning and intent. Instead of responding to knowledge gaps when they appear, we need to pre-empt them. Otherwise, how do we help those students who struggle in silence?

The way I see it, a vocabulary curriculum should not be seen as additional to a knowledge-rich syllabus, but as part of best practice on how to achieve one. After all, it is predominantly through our comprehension of language that we can process knowledge in the first place. A really deep understanding of words will help students to critically analyse historical texts and sources, to quickly grasp the subject-specific terminology of maths and science, and to identify the emotional and dramatic weight contained within the words of a script or song lyric.

An effective vocabulary curriculum should therefore follow the same principles of an effective curriculum. Firstly, you need clear intent. Why are you teaching vocabulary? Which words are you teaching and why? Are they words your students are unlikely to have prior knowledge of? Will they be beneficial in multiple contexts, both across your curriculum and in the wider world? Okay. Now that your intent is clear, are your vocabulary lessons being consistently and effectively implemented?Are the words just being drilled and revised in isolation? Or are you teaching them as part of language-rich texts? Teaching a word alongside a story about Roman gladiators, for example, has the two-pronged benefit of contextualising the words within appropriate sentences, whilst also providing your students with some extra cultural capital. Then, once you have your methods and policies settled, you can think about impact. This is the tricky part. How do you track the effectiveness of all your efforts? What direct, concrete data can you provide that shows your vocabulary teaching is proving to be genuinely beneficial? Technology can be extremely useful here.

Of course, none of this is easy. Designing a curriculum that caters for both breadth of knowledge and exam success was never going to be. But it will be an undoubtedly gratifying endeavour when students leave school with much more well-rounded minds. As Michael Fordham says, “the beauty of over-emphasising knowledge is that it opens up future possibilities… a knowledge-rich curriculum makes creativity possible, for one has more chance of creating new ideas if one has more raw material with which to start.” The same applies to the rawest of materials: language. With a deep and curious understanding of language, students not only gain the ability to better understand the breadth of topics we teach them, but also the skills to read widely, develop their own knowledge-bases and worldviews, and express their ideas clearly through the written word. Well-rounded indeed.

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