Empowering the Word Poor: Helen Howell (@hdsharpe)

Empowering the Word Poor!

Since reading Alex Quigley’s ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and attending Huntington Research School’s excellent ‘Literacy at Transition’ course, I have become slightly obsessed with vocabulary. The cohort at our school are largely word-poor and I tend to teach the word-poorest with several lower ability KS3 classes. In the Summer term, I trialled various strategies (largely stolen; partly adapted!) to improve the vocabulary of my students. It is too soon to say whether they have been wholly effective but I can say that students’ writing has improved, particularly where they have taken risks with higher-level vocabulary.

I am running whole-school training on vocabulary in November and I hope that we are at the start of an exciting journey with this.

Here are some of the strategies my school are using to ‘close the vocabulary gap’:

  1. Faculty Action Plans: We are using Alex Quigley’s SEEC model (although I have added an extra ‘E’!) to develop Action Plans:
  • Selecting tier 2 and 3 words for each scheme that we will commit to explicitly teaching.
  • Explaining those words with student-friendly definitions, etymology, morphology, synonyms, antonyms etc.
  • Exploring those words with a range of strategies (see point two)
  • Consolidating students’ knowledge with interleaved testing, low-stakes quizzing, memory platform starters, reading challenges and word wizard competitions
  • Evaluating our action plans by providing time in the CPD calendar for us to go back to them and review what has had the most impact and what may need changing, removing or adding.
  1. Using a range of strategies to practise the words such as slow writing, sentence crafting and self-assessment where students explain why a particular key word is effective/appropriate or upgrade their writing by selecting one of the tier 2 or 3 words they have learned in place of a less sophisticated synonym. In the English Faculty Action Plan, we have pledged to constantly prompt students both orally and in their writing to select key words in order to add sophistication to their answers. When exploring the key words, testing of definitions moves to comprehension questions such as ‘Why might this character be expected to behave submissively? How would we use that word as a noun? How does this character react? Use submissive, submission, submissively or submit in your answer.’ Doug Lemov writes extensively about this kind of questioning to support vocabulary learning in Reading Reconsidered and I have used his vocabulary scripts to develop word-depth where necessary (e.g. ‘equivocation’ in Macbeth).
  1. Vocabulary notebooks: this is new to September so I cannot comment on the impact yet! The idea is that students will have notebooks where they can record the definition of each key word and look for patterns. We are hoping this will lead to some independent word-solving through linking words that share the same prefix, word family or root.
  1. The Word Wizard Competition: I am excited about this one! Students are encouraged to use the words they have learned outside of the classroom or to paraphrase times they have heard or seen the word(s) being used (on the television, radio, in a book, an overheard conversation…) for Word Wizard points. The winner at the end of each half-term will receive a prize in assembly. We currently have a ‘Get Caught Reading’ competition in school and I am toying with the idea of a ‘Get Caught Word-Wizarding’ (need a better name!) where students can be heard using a key word and receive an entry to a prize draw.
  1. Reading and Writing Challenges: Although this is specific to the English faculty, I can definitely see scope for it being used in other subject areas. Firstly, I have to thank Chris Curtis and Rebecca Foster for inspiring this one. For each scheme of work, students receive a booklet of related texts (combination of fiction and non-fiction). For homework they read a text and learn 4-8 tier two vocabulary words from the piece of writing. I like this because students get to see the words in context in a high-quality text. Sometimes the words will be used several times across the text. Student feel empowered to know the definitions of these usually that may otherwise trip them up in their reading. This confidence is then boosted even more when they use them in a writing challenge, explaining why they have used a particular word and what effect they aimed to create. I always encourage students to take risks here and tell them that using a word incorrectly is better than not using it at all and that it actually opens up opportunities for us to discuss the subtle nuances between meanings or the syntax. I feel this method goes further than providing a glossary as they focus on a set list of words which they explore. Investigate and use while being able to refer to a published model which serves as an example of writing excellence for them to aspire to.

I realise that my students are probably not as fascinated with words as I am – particularly as an English teacher – however I genuinely believe the feeling they get from using ‘ubiquitous’, ‘emasculation’ or ‘catharsis’ is overwhelmingly positive and confidence-building. It also gives them access to an academic metalanguage that would otherwise be alien to them. My ‘limits of my language means the limits of my world’ display will be at the heart of students’ learning next year.



Helen Howell is English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy at The Radclyffe School. She leads on pedagogy within English and is part of a team that leads on Learning and Teaching across the school. Helen has worked tirelessly to build a positive reading culture at her school as well as leading on the transformation of the KS3 English curriculum into a chronological ‘journey of English’ from Homer to Orwell, built on challenge, academic rigour and grammar.

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