A few years ago, I was presenting a workshop about the importance of the depth and breadth of children’s vocabularies for helping them express their ideas and for supporting their reading comprehension. The topic of the day was SPAG, so when key speaker, David Crystal responded to the myriad of grammar questions by saying, he wished more people would ask about vocabulary, I was delighted. Crystal reminded the audience that Words ARE the building blocks of language. As Steven Stahl (2005) writes, ‘Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition but also implies how that word fits into the world’.

 Recently, vocabulary has transformed from the Cinderella of literacy teaching and is now having its moment in the spotlight. The work of Isabel Beck, Bringing Words to Life (2013, 2nd edit.) has come to the fore and there are some helpful recent publications for teachers. I’ll mention here Kelly Ashley’s evidence-informed Word Power (2019) which is the product of some genuinely searching work and presents a way of conceptualizing the multifaceted nature of vocabulary learning for teachers and children. Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap (2018) is an accessible read, an introduction that won’t overwhelm the non-specialist.

 Inevitably, some ‘quick fix’ approaches, which appear to offer time-saving benefits, gain traction. However, routinely listing synonyms and antonyms, featuring a word of the week, having a vocabulary teaching focus on one day a week, isn’t the answer. Even drawing up a list of words from your class novel isn’t helpful, if the subsequent teaching then decontextualizes the learning.  Such approaches conjure up the nightmares of my own primary education, the monotony of daily vocabulary exercises and Schonell Essential Spelling Lists. Lengthy lists of words to be learned, ignore the important element of Stahl’s quote (op. cit.): possessing word knowledge means having a deep understanding of how words are used and that derives from rich, meaningful, contextual learning. The tick box approach provides a false sense of security, convincing us that we are ‘teaching’ vocabulary. Ritualized teaching is the enemy of learning. Mantras such as, ‘we teach vocabulary on Monday’, or ‘we just teach Tier 2 words now’, are accompanied by the risk that we stop thinking about why we are using a particular strategy and crucially what we need to teach in the moment. Identifying words which have the greatest currency in everyday language and spending more time ‘teaching’ them, as Beck advocates, is a good use of time and resources, but there are occasions when other approaches are more apposite. 

 Here’s one instance which illustrates how teaching has to be tailored to the specific needs of readers and texts. Just Imagine’s Take One Book resource aims to introduce a wide range of literature to primary pupils, including classic poetry. Read the beginning of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which is currently in our year 5 & 6 offer, and then consider these questions:

What vocabulary challenges does it present?

How can we make the vocabulary more accessible?

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
       To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
       The island of Shalott. 

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
       Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
       The Lady of Shalott. 

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
       Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
       The Lady of Shalott? 

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
       Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ” ‘Tis the fairy
       Lady of Shalott.” 

It is immediately apparent that there are many words that will be unfamiliar to most modern readers. Some are archaic: ‘clothe’, ‘imbowers’, ‘flitteth’, ‘isle’, ‘hath’. A large number of nouns evoke the cultural connotations of a pastoral idyll, which is removed from most children’s experience: ‘wold’, ‘barley’, ‘rye’, ‘lilies’, ‘willows’, ‘aspens’, ‘sheaves’, ‘reaper’, ‘uplands’. Some words have a modern form but are made strange by abbreviation: ‘thro”, ”tis’, ‘veil’d’, ‘sail’d’, ‘tower’d’.  And some words remain in modern usage but are used infrequently and have specialized meanings: ‘casement’, ‘shallop’, ‘barge’. These lexical challenges exist before we even begin to consider the poetic usage of words, such as dusk, used here as a verb rather than the more familiar noun: ‘little breezes dusk and shiver’. Furthermore, words are not read as isolated units of meaning, each word is shaped by the surrounding semantic context. Take the line, ‘willows whiten, aspens quiver’ if you don’t know what ‘willows’ and ‘aspens’ are, then the entire line is rendered incomprehensible, even if you do know ‘whiten’ and ‘quiver’.

The point is that the vocabulary challenge in this poem comes from words that are not common currency. They are not frequently occurring Tier 2 words, rich in a multiplicity of meanings. Therefore, following Beck’s advice, it is notproductive to spend a long time on deep vocabulary instruction, when there are other words to be discovered which will be more useful. This presents a problem if we are going to introduce classics like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, because the concentration of unfamiliar vocabulary undoubtedly inhibits understanding of the poem, to the extent that we cannot gloss over the unknown words, or hope that children will work them out from the context. Neither do we want to labour through the poem, stopping to provide definitions at each new word and destroying the musicality of the verse and what could be a delightful first encounter.

 To solve this problem, we devised an approach by responding to the essence of the opening section of the poem. It is a highly visual rural scene and contrasts the landscape with the forbidding tower. The unfamiliar language is mainly describing this setting with a large collection of unfamiliar nouns. We planned an introduction to the poem using narrative combined with teacher-in-role and an audio-visual presentation. The narrative allowed us to create an engaging dramatic situation, which drew the children into the story. We foregrounded the mystery element and invited the children (also in role) to help us solve it. 

 The teacher-in-role aspect was loosely scripted to ensure that the challenging vocabulary was introduced verbally. The role created was Matilda, one of the reapers in the field. A few props – a worker’s lunch tied up in a cloth and a sickle – helped to add authenticity, but props were kept minimal and ordinary speech was maintained so that ‘acting’ didn’t distract from the purpose of the lesson. It wasn’t necessary to read the script during the lesson, but the process of writing script notes made us pay attention to the language and cemented the vocabulary in our heads.  The teacher’s voice, expression, and gesture made it possible to introduce vocabulary, as swiftly as possible, and to provide explanations seamlessly as asides, without breaking the illusion of the role. This simple technique allowed the teacher to aid interpretation, making the language of the poem more accessible.

 Finally, the audio-visual component meant words could be concretely attached to images and sounds. A willow is obviously a willow when it is shown pictorially. The image of bearded barley is easily grasped when a high-quality close-up photograph is shown and contrasted with a stem of rye. The aural quality of the quivering aspens is easy to understand when listening to a sound file imposed on a photograph. In other words, the vocabulary of the poem was introduced stealthily into an engaging dramatic situation. It took just 10 minutes to ensure a literal understanding of all the unfamiliar words in the first four stanzas. The success was evident when we read the poem and asked the children which words needed clarification. Most had been immediately grasped, which made it possible to move quickly to interpretive responses.

 Here is a short extract to give a flavour of how it works: Slide 10

  ‘In the summer, we rise early and are in the fields to catch the first warmth of the sun. I use my sickle to reap the barley. The sickle has to be kept sharp or it won’t cut through the barley stems. Sometimes we laugh and joke that the barleylooks like a wispy bearded man. Reaping with a sickle is hard work and your back feels bent and broken at the end of the day. Yes, the work of a reaper is not easy.    

  This is just one approach from a large repertoire of strategies for teaching vocabulary that is embedded in our practice. A blended approach underpins Just imagine training and resources and at the centre we place teacher subject and pedagogic knowledge. Vocabulary is a strand that is woven through our planning and teaching.  Words are explored, revisited and revisited again, each new spiraling encounter adding depth to understanding. We aim to foster a love of language and an enquiring mindset, so that learners build knowledge, rather than randomly collect scraps of word information.

 To find out more about Take One Book visit takeonebook.org

 To enquire about our Word Awareness training email assistant@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk