Vocabulary: too big to ‘teach’?

Is it possible to ‘teach’ vocabulary, or is the notion to vague, complex and big to contemplate? Erin Miller looks at this whole-school challenge and offers a few ideas in SecEd.

I’ve always found the notion of “teaching vocabulary” at secondary level a bit sticky, and I’m not alone. Ask any English teacher about teaching vocabulary and you will probably be met initially with a strained facial expression, followed by a good deal of hesitancy, and rounded off with a thoroughly inconclusive response.

So, if I was being a little more sensational, I’d have to say that “vocabulary teaching” is an issue fraught with endless difficulty and complication. Why is that? My gut tells me that it is because you just can’t teach it. It’s too big.

The national curriculum at key stage 4 demands that pupils must be able to “judiciously” select their vocabulary, while ensuring that their chosen vocabulary contributes to the “coherence, consistency, clarity and overall effectiveness” of the whole text. 

This, coupled with the exam board requirements such as the use of “increasingly sophisticated vocabulary” accurately, demonstrably proves that the vocabulary used by pupils is probably the factor upon which their success in examinations is most contingent. 

After all, if you haven’t got the vocabulary, how are you going to use linguistic devices effectively? You can’t exactly create “sophisticated and impressive” writing with the vocabulary of your average five-year-old. 

Essentially, everything boils down to vocabulary, and “knowing” vocabulary isn’t a skill. It’s knowledge of words, what they mean, when to use them and how to spell them. You can then be skilful in how you deploy the vocabulary, but you can’t do that if you don’t know the words in the first place. So yes, we’ve got to support it and develop it, but why does this seem to fall solely on the shoulders of English departments?

Schools should take every opportunity to expose pupils to a broad range of erudite voices: podcasts, YouTube series, political affairs, mini-documentaries, politically inclined comedians – there is something to learn from every voice. 

Read the full article Vocabulary: too big to ‘teach’?

Do you agree that teaching vocabulary is a difficult task? How does your school broaden it’s pupils? Debates, plays, book clubs? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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