Playing With Words

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Identifying Core Disciplinary Vocabulary

When considering vocabulary in subjects across the curriculum, we make decisions about which words are essential and need to be taught for a new topic or subject. For example, when teaching about the Roman Empire and its impact on Britain, the (non-statutory) examples given in the National Curriculum in England are:

  • Julius Caesar’s attempted invasion in 55-54 BC
  • the Roman Empire by AD 42 and the power of its army
  • successful invasion by Claudius and conquest, including Hadrian’s Wall
  • British resistance, for example, Boudica
  • ‘Romanisation’ of Britain: sites such as Caerwent and the impact of technology, culture and beliefs, including early Christianity

Distinguishing Content and Concept Words

Some words, such as Claudius, Julius Caesar and Roman significant to knowledge about this period. However, arguably the most important words are those which we would expect to occur and reoccur and are essential for understanding historical concepts. I would select invasion, conquest and resistance as three key terms which children will benefit from having a deep and rich understanding. Considering where we begin to seed that language and revisit it so that it is spiralled through our work and really understood is key. When and how children have opportunities to revisit and build on previous learning is a worthwhile subject for whole school training or a series of staff meetings.

Revisiting to Consolidate Understanding

Once we have identified key disciplinary terms, the next consideration is how to support children embed their understanding? One important principle is to consider how the vocabulary is revisited and not just attached to one topic. Keeping track of specialist vocabulary which has been taught is a useful record. One of the approaches that we use is to create a word-hoard. Simply obtain a desktop size chest, a decorative tine or some other fancy receptacle to keep your word-hoard in. Whenever your pupils meet a new word, ask them to write it on a piece of paper, along with a definition. Add to the word-hoard throughout the year. You will quickly build up a collection of words which can be regularly revisited throughout the year. Dipping in and play games with the word hoard is an enjoyable way to support acquisition.

Games are fun…

Here’s one game that we introduce on our Word Awareness training, but there are many different examples of games which can be added to your repertoire. 

This is a Pictionary-style game and the format will already be familiar to many children. The class can be divided into two teams. One member of the team selects a word from the hoard and draws it. It goes without saying that this is all about process and not about artistic ability. Simple representations are best and you may need to model. Their team attempt to guess what it is. If they are able to guess, talk about what the elements were that led to guessing correctly. Here is a picture drawn by a Year 6 pupil to illustrate the concept of invasion: 

I shared this during a recent training session. Some of the guesses are listed below:  

  • repetition
  • bees
  • germs
  • fear
  • swarm
  • crowd
  • surrender
  • cheering

… but talk is crucial

This led to a discussion about what could have been added to the drawing to make the concept clearer. What is interesting is how many of the suggested words have an association with the idea of invasion, so a discussion about the connections will serve to deepen understanding. For instance, when might we talk about germs ‘invading’ our bodies? Could we use the word ‘swarm’ to describe an invasion? Can you picture what that might look like if it was an army of invading soldiers?

Key questions to ask the child doing the drawing

  • What were you trying to show? – invite them to talk about how their drawing fits the concept.

To the rest of the group

  • What else could be added?
  • How could you make that clear?
  • Can we think of another way we could try and represent this idea?

There will be times when the children are able to work out the word with relative ease but it is still an important part of the process to ask the questions:

  • What did Theo draw that made it easy for you to work it out?
  • Do we have any other ideas about alternative ways to illustrate this concept? Would you like to show us?

As with all ‘games’ type activities, the children may derive pleasure from the gameplay and even a competitive teams element. Games may well motivate learners and provide pleasure. However, the teacher has additional learning intentions that are explored through pertinent questioning and follow-up responses. This is where the powerful learning lies.

At Just Imagine, we advocate a blended approach to vocabulary development, where the emphasis is on language in use rather than learning isolated words. To find out more, join us for our Word Awareness training. For more information, visit Online Course: Word Awareness for Comprehension (5 sessions) — Just Imagine