This much I know about…why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success

I have been a teacher for 28 years, a Headteacher for 13 years and, at the age of 52, this much I know about why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success.

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The following are all based upon genuine post-exam conversations with Year 11 students at Huntington:

You might know what the word “theme” means in relation to English Literature, but you cannot answer the question, “Was Lennie and George’s dream always futile?” if you do not know what the word “futile” means.

You might know what the word “provenance” means in relation to the reliability of evidence in history, but you cannot answer the question, “Was the second World War inevitable?” if you do not know what the word “inevitable” means.

You might know what the phrase “high tensile steel” means in relation to Construction, but you cannot answer the question, “How do contractors liaise with the customer?” if you do not know what the word “liaise” means.

ray-2

Build from the ground up. We are working with our partner primaries on small scale enquiries about the best ways to teach hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. If you struggle with hand writing, you will find spelling a challenge and so you will settle for short, simple words. Consequently, your vocabulary – your word-hoard – will always be limited. Here are three research papers, sourced by our Research Lead, Alex Quigley, aka @HuntingEnglish, which explore that relationship between hand writing, spelling and vocabulary. They are well worth reading:

About johntomsett

Headteacher in York. All views are my own.
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3 Responses to This much I know about…why subject specific key words are not enough for academic success

  1. Phil Stock says:

    Hi John. This is a nice short post with some helpful links to wider reading.

    I think you are absolutely right to be focusing on developmental work with primary schools, as this is where you have the best chance of making a genuine difference with developing students’ ‘word-hoard’ . At secondary, however, I think it is more tricky to significantly improve students’ wider, tier two vocabulary. Unless you invest a lot of time and resource into a consistent, coherent whole school approach, I don’t think you will really make any kind of meaningful dent in students’ vocabulary breadth. This is why I tend to think that, particularly in the first instance, leveraging a full understanding of subject-specific vocabulary is the better approach. Done correctly, this will, in my opinion, make more of a difference to students’ academic knowledge and therefore academic success.

    My other point, which I have been thinking a lot about recently, is that if you teach tier three words properly, you are likely to come across many of the examples you cite above anyway. Whilst I would agree with you about ‘theme’ not making a great difference in itself, if you taught ‘The American Dream’ (whether in English or in History lessons), you would more than likely tackle the idea of futility. In this context, I think an understanding of the word ‘futile’ would resonate more because it is connected to the concept of the American Dream – it actually means something. Likewise, if you teach World War II properly, with all its attendant sources and interpretations, you would probably come across the idea of inevitability? The terms in exam questions are often intrinsically bound up in the knowledge and understanding being tested: in these examples, the ‘futility’ of dreams, and the ‘inevitability’ of WW2.

    I agree with you about the construction example.

    Anyway, great read as always. Thanks for sharing.

    Phil

  2. Pingback: Key words – a useful guide | Kesgrave High School

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