Your back-to-school vocabulary checklist

The new school term is here! Teachers are once again donning their teaching caps. We’re starting to think about what new ideas and strategies we can bring to our schools and classrooms. And if a vocabulary curriculum is one of the ideas topping your agenda, then you’re on the right track (and if it isn’t, there are a lot of reasons it really should be). Understandably, however, building a new curriculum from scratch might seem like quite an overwhelming task. So, to help you get the ball rolling, here is a back-to-school vocabulary checklist, made up of key questions you should be asking yourself about how you and your school are teaching vocabulary.

Have I chosen my words carefully?

A major roadblock to building an effective vocabulary curriculum is the fact there are so many words out there. It’s impossible to teach all of them with detail and care. But teaching every single word isn’t really the aim here. We want to teach students as many useful words as possible, so as to provide them with a substantial lexical foundation to build on. That way, when they encounter unfamiliar words in the future, they will have the tools to intuit their meanings based on context and word structure.

For these purposes, tier two words will always be the most useful, due to their difficulty and the fact they are used in such high frequency. But you should also be thinking about their relevance to your students; how likely are they going to need this word or similar words, either in school or in daily life? Do they already know basic synonyms or antonyms of this word that will aid their comprehension? Your answers to these questions may vary depending on subject.

A science teacher might have more use for words like ‘reliable’ or ‘validity’, while a history teacher might find ‘conquest’ and ‘campaign’ more applicable to their classroom. For all teachers though, I would recommend focusing on academic verbs that will always form the basis of instructions and exam questions; words like: “analyse”, “evaluate” or “assess”.

Am I teaching words in context?

Now you’ve selected your list of words, you should reflect on how you’re teaching them. Here, context is key. Simply asking your students to memorise the words by rote is never going to work. They might remember them in the short term, but they won’t have the deep, long term understanding required for your students to be frequent and effective users of this new language.

Vocabulary should be taught through the use of engaging, high quality texts. This is about moving beyond a purely definitional knowledge of words and, instead, helping students to develop a relationship with the language around them. Students need to explore words in action so they can really see how they’re used. Not only this, but as Biemiller asserts, when recalling newly learnt vocabulary, students are “often aware of the specific context in which word meanings were first learnt.” To this day, I always think of Dr Seuss when I hear the words ‘dexterous’ or ‘deft’, thanks to this quote from Oh, the Places You’ll Go!: “Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left”.

Am I using a variety of engaging activities?

When we talk about context, this isn’t exclusive to extracts of prose. As the National Reading Panel concluded, words need to be encountered in many contexts, with more than one single vocabulary instruction method being required for optimal learning.

There should be an emphasis on multimedia strategies that necessitate active engagement. This provides them with multiple reference points to relate new language to, as well as providing them with varied opportunities to consolidate their knowledge and understanding. If you can get students to draw an image based on a word or create a metaphor that captures a word’s meaning, you’ll be able to assess how deep their understanding of the language is; it will demonstrate that they have truly processed what the word means to them and what thoughts and images it conjures in their minds.

Most importantly, it makes sure that learning new words is a fun experience, the way it should be! We want students to build positive relationships with language, not negative ones.

Is my school or classroom a language-rich environment?

As well as the active methods you use to teach your students, the environment in which students are taught new language can help to enhance the learning process. Are your walls and hallways painted in ambitious, tier 2 language? As Kress and Van Leeuwen suggest, “visual displays and the arrangement of the classroom can…be understood as a teaching tool, a medium to communicate desired qualities and expectations, in a manner that is to be lived by the students”.

The language you decorate your school and classroom with, therefore, sets the standard for the vocabulary we want our students to use. Plus, with some creative design ideas, you can transform inert walls into opportunities for interactive engagement with language. Why not encourage your students to help you build a roots and affixes tree, for example?

Am I tracking my students’ progress?

This is a tricky step but an important one. You need to know if the efforts of your vocabulary curriculum are having a genuine impact. Are you testing to see if a student’s understanding of a word has improved since before they were explicitly taught the new language? Are you collecting word-level date to inform your future teaching, so you know which words your students now firmly understand and which words require more attention?

Moreover, are you remembering to assess a student’s long term retention of a word, long after they were initially taught? Understanding the best ways to do this can be tough. You might want to use a variety of formative assessment strategies, or you might want your students to peer asses each other’s knowledge as a starter activity. Technology can also be useful, such as online test apps.

And that’s it! If you’ve thought carefully about each of these steps, then your class should be on the path to a language rich future. But if you want even more information on how you can introduce an effective vocabulary curriculum to your school, book an online demonstration with one of our curriculum consultants. And if you have experience of teaching vocabulary at your own school, we’d always love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter. Have a great new term!

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