Teaching content-rich lessons

Posted on 16-10-2013

I recently read this in a blog post by Doug Lemov.

One of the challenges of Hirsch or Christodoulou if you’re a teacher is that many of the requisite actions–a curriculum that prizes and emphasizes knowledge development in a systematic way, are beyond the purview of the individual teacher. Those tend to be school- or district-level decisions. So how do I take individual action?

This is an important question with no easy answer. Lemov is completely right to note that what you teach is often a school, district or (in England) a government and exam board decision. This is particularly the case for exam classes. Individual teachers have very little freedom to decide what to teach in years 6 and in year 10-11.

So, if you are individual teacher looking to make your lessons more knowledge-rich, what can you do? Are there any simple tactics that you can slot into lessons and texts that you have to teach? Here is one suggestion for English: focus on explicit vocabulary instruction.

Often, explicit vocabulary instruction can seem pointless. For me, when I began teaching, the biggest problem seemed to be that there were so many words that my pupils needed to know. Even if I devoted all my lesson time to the explicit instruction of vocab, I couldn’t have taught them all. Self-evidently, there were adults with large vocabularies who hadn’t been taught all these words explicitly. That led me on to the following assumption: the best thing to do was to expose pupils to text so that they could pick up valuable vocab as they went along. However, this strategy didn’t seem to work either. First, pupils would struggle to pick words up from context. Second, even if they did manage to pick the meaning of the word up from context, they’d forget it when we came across it a few weeks later.

Fortunately, there was a brilliant book out there which made sense of all these problems. It is Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown and Kucan. It has the answers to all the problems I’ve raised above, and it offers a series of fun and challenging activities that you can use to teach vocab. These methods are the ones used to teach vocabulary in the US Core Knowledge Language Arts pilot.

Here are Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s responses to the problems I outlined above.

Problem one: My pupils need to know so many words! I can’t possibly teach them all!
Beck et al. note that we don’t need to teach pupils every single word out there. They divide words into three tiers. Tier One are basic words that occur in everyday life. Pupils know these anyway. These are words like warm, dog, tired, party, walk.
Tier Three words are subject-specific and highly specialised. Pupils typically won’t know these words, and they won’t typically meet them outside subject specific contexts. Examples: filibuster, pantheon, epidermis.

Tier Two words are words that occur across a range of domains, are characteristic of written texts and occur less frequently in oral language. These are words like contradict, circumstances, precede, auspicious, fervent. Beck et al. argue that we should focus vocab instruction on this category of words because understanding them will have the most impact. How many of these words are there? Beck et al. draw on research by Nagy and Anderson to suggest there are 7,000 Tier Two word families. If you teach 400 words a year from kindergarten to 9th grade (year 1 – year 10) you can make a significant contribution to a pupils’ vocabulary.

Problem two: Why can’t pupils just pick up the words they need to know by reading texts?
It’s hard to learn words from naturally occurring written contexts. They identify four types of context in which words occur: misdirective contexts, in which the context gives you the wrong idea; nondirective, in which the context gives you few clues as to the word’s meaning; general contexts, which allow you to put it in a general category; and directive contexts, which do lead you to the correct meaning. In naturally occurring contexts, only a proportion will be directive contexts that will help you learn the word. The other contexts will either not help you to learn the words, or – worse – they will give you the wrong idea about the word. Beck et al. also reference the famous Miller and Gildea paper on the difficulty of learning words from dictionary definitions.  Finally, I would add that there is a broader cognitive load issue here – if you struggle to decode, or if you come across a sentence with difficult syntax or lots of unfamiliar words, then it will be difficult to learn what the word means from context, even if the context might appear to be directional.

Problem three: OK then, what activities can I use?
They recommend finding Tier Two words in class readers, and then, when you’ve read the chapter in which the words occur, doing some specific work on those words. They recommend that instead of using dictionary definitions, you use longer definitions that could be more accurately described as explanations, and that you present pupils with the word being used in different contexts.

Here’s how Beck et al. recommend you can get from a dictionary definition to a more useful explanatory definition.

Illusion – dictionary definition: appearance or feeling that misleads because it is not real.
This is a good example of a vague definition. An ‘appearance that misleads’ is rather hard to make sense of. Might it be something that looks good but isn’t – like a stale piece of cake? Or considering ‘feeling’ – how does a feeling mislead? How is a feeling not real? The core of illusion is something that looks real but isn’t, or appears to be something but isn’t there at all. Those ideas could be put together in a definition such as ‘something that looks like one thing but is really something else or is not there at all.’

And here is one suggestion for an activity – this activity is called Example/non-example.

If I say something sounds precarious, say ‘precarious’. If not, don’t say anything. Students should be asked why they responded as they did.
Walking over a rickety bridge that spans a deep canyon.
Exploring a new tall school building.
Standing on a tall ladder on one foot.

So, if you are a teacher who has little freedom over the texts and content you can teach, but some freedom over how you can approach these texts, one thing you can do is to find the Tier Two words in your set text and create activities like the above to help teach them. I would also recommend that you buy Bringing Words to Life because as well as fully explaining all these issues, it has lots of really excellent classroom activities.