by Benjamin Strawbridge, Hughes Hall, Cambridge
Technical or ‘tier 3’ vocabulary presents a significant challenge in the secondary classroom: as students become older the breadth and specialisation of vocabulary in their lessons increases.
The traditional method for learning these words involves the rote learning of dictionary definitions. This may enable marks to be obtained in recall-based exam questions, but will only leave students with what Umberto Eco suggested would be an impoverished understanding compared to a deep, interconnected, encyclopaedia entry type definition (which might be seen in Wikipedia today).
These challenges exist for all students, but are most strongly felt by those with language disadvantage. The main groups I have identified include students with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN), students for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL), and those from Socioeconomically Disadvantaged backgrounds (SD). It is perhaps no surprise that much evidence suggests that these students (or sub-groups of them, in the case of EAL students) are at risk of underperforming in GCSE exams compared to their peers.
In the classroom, the scaffolded support of an experienced teacher or teaching assistant (TA) can help a student develop their knowledge of a word. However, it is not possible to have a one-to-one teacher or TA for all students. Having seen this problem, I asked myself: what if students could work together to practice vocabulary use and support one another’s learning during lessons?
I realised that Talking Points (the use of provocative statements, rather than questions, as a stimulus for discussion) could form the basis for a structured, supportive environment where students could practice phonology (sounds), explore semantics (meanings), and reinforce orthography (writing), while still receiving expert input from a teacher. This seemed to be both efficient and compatible with secondary teaching.
My MEd project, undertaken through Hughes Hall, used Talking Points in groups and pairs (with TA support) in lessons, as part of a vocabulary support package for all students in a Year 7 physics class. I particularly focused on SLCN students, as students who would have some of the greatest language needs in the class. Results were overwhelmingly positive and revealed many points to consider when using Talking Points with SLCN students. Highlights specifically relating to Talking Points included:
- Talking Points supported the work of the TA with SLCN students and enabled some students to emulate aspects of the TA’s use of language even when the TA was not present.
- Talking Points promoted positive learning behaviours and engagement.
- The SLCN student sample was too small to give significance to test data, but three out of four of those students had notably higher test scores in the intervention topic compared to the pre-intervention topics (they scored in Q2 compared to Q4).
- The vocabulary test scores for my intervention class (which tested encoding, spelling and definition) were significantly higher than comparison classes.
- Group work may not be suitable for some SLCN students, who may prefer to work in pairs. Under these conditions the Talking Points activities may still work.
- A phonological-semantic-orthographic approach was compatible with Talking Points activities and may support students with limited working memory capabilities.
- Comments made by some students suggest that Talking Points may support students with ASD by providing a rule-based framework where roles and expectations are clearly defined, thus reducing stress, and improving participation in social situations.
My PhD study, which is just beginning, builds on this work by exploring how SLCN, EAL and SD students respond to an improved intervention, still using Talking Points in the classroom, with a small number of case study classes across a range of schools. Through understanding how students’ knowledge of vocabulary changes over time, how attitudes to vocabulary change in different contexts, and how dialogue changes (with peers and with teachers) in lessons, I can refine the intervention package and support guidance before assessing its efficacy through a control trial (which will happen after completing my PhD).