Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Pillars of Progression: Vocabulary


This is the text of the presentation that I gave at the online Primary Languages Conference: Pillars of Progression, on October 17th.

This post will be looking at:
  • why there is currently a focus on vocabulary.  
  • how to choose vocabulary for your SoW 
  • how to present it to the children and practise it 
  • how to support its retention especially in these times where children have to help themselves more 
  • how to extend the children’s “pot of words” so they can say what they want to say 
and of course there will be lots of ideas, things that you can take away and try in your own classroom 

In the early days of primary languages, 10 or 15 years ago now, the subject was often criticised for children just learning lots of lists of nouns, but nothing else that they could use to build sentences with. Fortunately we have moved away from that now, but still when we think of “vocabulary” we tend to think of nouns, or, at the very least, single words. 

In fact, the vocabulary that we include in our schemes of work and that we teach should include single words but also “lexical chunks”. These chunks are groups of words which are commonly found together, which have a clear and formulaic usage, and which convey a particular meaning in the same way that single words do. Examples of lexical chunks from the early stages of learning might include greetings such as buenos días, and questions like comment t’appelles-tu. So for the benefit of this presentation, vocabulary includes single words and lexical chunks. Sometimes I might say “words” rather than vocabulary, but I am referring to the same thing. 

The Teaching School Council’s MFL Pedagogy Review in 2016 outlined the three threads of grammar, phonics and vocabulary. The review looked at languages in Key Stages 3 and 4, but said that “much of what we say is also relevant to pedagogy in the upper end of primary”, and indeed it is now filtering into Key Stage 2. The main points to note are: 
  • the vocabulary you choose should be informed by its frequency of occurrence in the language – children will be able to say more with higher-frequency language 
  • the “verb lexicon” is of particular importance 
  • teachers need a strong repertoire of techniques for teaching and having children practise and use the vocabulary. 
It also mentions looking at origins of words, and words shared between languages (cognates and false friends), as well as patterns like prefixes. This links to the curriculum for Key Stage 2 English. 

This intertwining of vocabulary, phonics and grammar has informed the most recent Ofsted framework, as you have heard.  It’s worth noting that without grammar, very little can be meaningfully conveyed, even with a lot of “words”, but without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.  Learning some vocabulary is the first step towards language output, hence the title of this presentation – learning vocabulary before you start building phrases and sentences equates to learning to walk before you run.

Hobson and Milton said in 2019 that “Knowledge of the most frequent 2000 words in particular is an important feature in successful communication in a foreign language”. 2000 words over a limited lesson time in Key Stage 2 is a very tall order, and grammar and structure would certainly suffer at the hands of vocabulary learning. Rachel Hawkes recommends a lexicon of 500 words over the 4 years of KS2, which tallies with level A1 of the Common European Framework. When broken down per year and per week, this works out at only a small number of words per week, 3 or 4. Alternatively, a pot of 12 words or so that you might use over a number of weeks. 

You can see from this list of the most frequent words in French that not all the words are suitable for Key Stage 2 or would make for very exciting lessons. Also these words are not of inherent interest to 7-11 year olds. We will necessarily have to choose some words which are lower down on the list of frequency, but in which children are interested. 

The box containing the most frequent animal words (including virus!) is a good example of this – chat, chien, souris etc. are lower frequency, but very interesting for young children and good for explaining points of grammar such as gender, plurals and so on. We need to make sure that our list of vocabulary will include nouns but must also include other parts of speech which will help children to build phrases and sentences, the verbs being particularly important. 

About a year ago I heard Rachel Hawkes speaking at the Northern Primary Languages Show about vocabulary, and this gave me the push that I needed to review my scheme of work for Spanish, something that I had been mulling over for a while. I had a feeling that my scheme of work had more than the 500 words, and I wasn’t happy with the sequence of the units. It was a bit haphazard, and there wasn’t a logical thread of grammar and structure or of verb forms. It had grown organically really, over the 11 years that I had been teaching primary Spanish. 

I started off by mapping out the units and their vocabulary on pieces of A1 paper. It gave me a clear view of the grammar and the progression as well as the number of lexical units. I was interested to see that there wasn’t as much vocabulary as I thought. 

I then re-organised the units so that there is now a better thread of grammar and of verbs. For example I moved family and pets into Year 3 from Year 5, as this allowed for expansion from units 1 and 2 of the verbs tener (to have) and llamarse (to be called), and the nouns followed on nicely from the previous unit which introduces gender. I moved weather from Year 5 into Year 4, as the language is relatively simple, but moved description and adjectival agreement from Year 4 into Year 5 as it’s always seemed a bit complex for Year 4 and I’ve never been entirely happy with it.  Units 7 and 17 are the only brand new units. 

The next step was choosing the vocabulary, grammar and phonics for the scheme of work units. I kept a lot of the vocabulary the same, as I already had a lot of resources and didn’t want to create too much work for myself! It was interesting to see the frequency of the vocabulary I was using. 

This is unit 4, for example. The pencil case words are low frequency (many of them outside the top 5000) but are of great importance to primary children! Using these words will motivate them, and they are good first nouns to use to explain gender and indefinite articles. The indefinite articles, which will be used with all nouns, are very high-frequency. I have used the 10 most common nouns in Spanish, listed here, as examples for identifying gender. 

Something else worth considering when you are choosing vocabulary for your scheme of work are cognates – words that look like English, often sound like English and which mean the same thing. These are easier for children to learn and remember, and provide a useful exercise in phonics – the words might look like English but they don’t sound the same! For Year 6’s first unit (unit 16) I always start with the 8 cognate places and use those to build all our sentences in the first instance.  

Another thing to think about when choosing your vocabulary for your scheme of work are your phonic objectives for that series of lessons. Are there any particular sounds that you’d like your vocabulary to exemplify? An example of this are the pets that I use in my family and pets unit. I deliberately chose two with the j (pájaro/conejo) sound, then there are two with the rolled r (perro/ratón), and one with the z (pez) sound. They also provide the three different ways of making the plural in Spanish, and there are examples of masculine and feminine nouns and indefinite articles. 

Once you’ve chosen your vocabulary, it’s time to start teaching it! When it comes to presenting and practising the new vocabulary with the children, it’s worth considering what exactly the learners need to know about the new words. They need to know:
  • the meaning
  • the part of speech including the gender if appropriate
  • the pronunciation or sound of each word
  • how it is spelt
  • how it’s going to fit in with other words within a phrase or sentence. 
This is necessarily going to influence the methods that we choose to present and practise the words. There is also some discussion about how many words or chunks you can introduce to your learners in one go. Current secondary practitioners appear to be advocating presenting 10-15 items in one go. This is too much, though, for our beginner linguists. The number of words that you choose will depend on the age and experience of your learners, as well as the nature of the words themselves – if you’re using largely cognates, you can probably have more, for example. I would use 5 or 6 words/chunks as a general rule, with a few more for your older, more experienced learners. 

For the initial presentation stage, I’m a big fan of flashcards, as there is so much you can do with them. As well as using them for introducing vocabulary, you can use them for games and to build sentences. I don’t like presenting via a PowerPoint slide quite so much – my arm gets tired with all the pointing! 

We need to be mindful of what the children’s first stored image of a new word will be. They will store an image of what the new word looks like as soon as they hear it, and, especially if they are beginner learners, will probably use their knowledge of English phonics to do that. It’s likely therefore that a child hearing una plaza without seeing the word will store that word as “platha”. We need to engage a multimodal approach as much as possible – this means letting the children access the words in as many different ways as possible.  The ideal flashcard will have 
  • an image to show meaning
  • the word to show the spelling
  • some kind of colour coding to show the gender, if it’s a noun 
  • the children will hear the word as well
You may remember the pets slide – you could see the images, the words and colour coding for gender. We used this for initial practice of the words and then removed the words for later practice. This multimodal approach offers children several different access points for comprehension, invites their participation, and motivates repeated practice of the vocabulary. It engages a number of different senses in the learning process. 

Presenting the new vocabulary and practising it on one occasion will not be enough to embed the words in the children’s long term memories or for them to recall it when necessary. We need to introduce it on multiple occasions over a relatively long period of time, allowing a gap in between each one. This spacing leads to a better long term learning of the vocabulary. It’s crucial to allow the learners to forget the words and then to revisit them. This repetition can take the form of speaking practice, but we can also repeat the words in different ways, such as word puzzles and PowerPoint activities such as can be seen here. 

Here are some ideas for practising vocabulary with a view to consolidating the meaning of the words. 

  • Trash or Treasure is a categorisation activity, where children are given a collection of words or chunks which can be sorted into various different groups. I do this activity with dates, and so there are some days of the week, some numbers and some months in the bag of words. The children work in pairs to put into their treasure the words that you are asking for. Everything else goes into the trash. So my first sort is the days of the week. Then we put all the word cards back in the same pile and next sort the numbers into the treasure. Each time they sort the words, the get quicker, as they have seen the words before and have been able to think about the different meanings. 
  • The pointing game is a simple activity where the teacher (or another child) says one of the words or chunks and the children all point to the right picture on their copy. I have a copy on the board too, so that I can point to the correct one and the children can self assess. It’s a quiet activity! 
  • Shape puzzles and dominoes are also useful for thinking about meaning and for reading the new words.
  • There are lots of games that you can play with flashcards that will work on meaning and which will oblige children to recall the words that you have been working on. "Which card?"  is my classes’ favourite, where I conceal my cards and they have to work out which one is one the top of my pile. 

Here are some ways of practising vocabulary with a view to clarifying and embedding spelling. We need to be aware of and to anticipate the sorts of errors that the learners are likely to make. They are unlikely to make the same sorts of spelling errors as native learners, although I’m always secretly pleased when my Key Stage 2s mix up their v and b in Spanish! Typical errors made by Spanish learners, for example, tend to involve silent h, b/v, g/j, c/k/z and y/ll and knowing where to put the accents.  English-speaking learners learning Spanish are unlikely to make the same kind of errors. Phonics are of the greatest importance. Oracy supports and reinforces reading and writing and learners need to be aware of the links between sound and spelling. English is what’s known as an “opaque” language – one with an inconsistent correspondence between letters and sounds – and therefore generally speaking learning to read and write is slower for native English speakers than it might be for speakers of “transparent” languages such as Spanish or Italian where there is a much greater and more regular correspondence between the sounds and the spelling. It could be said, therefore, that English speakers might find it easier to learn to spell transparent languages. 

I’m sure all our learners make spelling errors when they are writing in the new language. Some of these are a result of carelessness, but others can be explained in different ways. Some errors can be ascribed to the interference of English. By the time students start to learn the new language in Year 3, they have undergone four years of rigorous training in English spelling and phonics. The new language has different letter clusters and sequences, but the students can, often unconsciously, replace these patterns with more familiar English spelling patterns. The four formative years of learning English spelling is enough to build a muscle memory, so that it feels more natural, for example, for a student to write rough rather than rouge, as the -ough letter cluster occurs in some frequently-used English words and the -ouge cluster is unfamiliar to English native speakers. 

If we look at this example in the speech bubble (above), which I’m sure will make many French teachers shudder, we can see some of the typical errors that learners make due to the interference of English. Oui is often written as qui, as qu is much more common in English than ou on the front of a word. Deux is misspelt as ue is more common in English than eu (think of words like glue for example) and nation is more well known than natation. We assume that compain is influenced by companion

It’s clear that some focussed work on spelling is necessary, drawing particular attention to those words that might suffer from the interference of English, and those that contain specific graphemes. 

I’ve been doing this with my Year 3 classes this term. I say the word or phrase and then we use our finger pencils to spell it out in the air together.  This also reinforces English SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar). 
  • You can draw attention to certain important parts of the word by showing it with some letters missing. 
  • Another strategy that makes children think about the size and shape of the letters in a word is using word shapes. The children need to think about which letters are taller than the others and which hang below the line. 
  • The slow fade:  Display the word on the board, with the PowerPoint animation set to fade slowly. Learners look at and study the word, but aren’t allowed to write it down until the word has completely faded. This works in a similar way to “don’t repeat until I click” – the learner has to repeat the words and the spelling to themselves in order to recall it at the necessary time. 
  • Multiple choice, to see if children can spot the correct spellings amongst incorrect ones.  This would go well after some focussed work on spelling as a formative assessment. Children have to hold up for you the correct letter – I have voting sticks with the 4 letters on, 2 on the from, 2 on the back. It’s a quiet activity that provides immediate feedback for you. 

  • If you were at secondary school in the early 80s, like me, you’ll probably have had to do dictation in your language lessons. It was a scary thing (which I secretly loved!) which involved a long text and negative marking. It fell out of favour for a long time, but it’s a great way of making children think about sound and grammar, when done in a focussed way. This is an example of a Spanish dictation focussing on the vowel sounds. Children have to listen to me saying the animal words very carefully, and fill in the right vowels in the right place. They use their knowledge of grammar to get the un/una at the beginning of the words, and also to get the o / a on the ends of the masculine and feminine words where appropriate. 
  • The use of word puzzles like wordsearches and crosswords in class can be a little contentious. However, if nothing else, writing the word into a crossword makes you look at the spelling so that it will interlink correctly with the other words, and being able to complete a crossword is a good lifelong skill. 
  • Writing words without a pen, like using cut-out letters to form the words, is less threatening than committing pen to paper, as it can be easily edited. 

  • When you’re starting to think beyond individual words and towards sentences, try this activity. Children have to transliterate the sentences, putting in the capital letters, full stops and finger spaces. It makes them think about the spelling of the words and the sense of the sentence. An alternative to that activity is anagrams. With this one, children know they have all the letters they need for each word, and they know where the finger spaces are. All they have to do is put the letters in the right order to make the words. 

  • Here’s something that would suit upper Key Stage 2 as they are learning meanings and spellings. The idea here is to provide an accurate model which the learner then uses to repeatedly test themselves. First of all they look at and study the words in English and in the new language. Then they fold over the column on the far left (German in this case) and write the German in the first blank column , using the English as the stimulus. Then they unfold and check their writing. Next, they fold the two far left columns behind, so that they are using their checked German as the stimulus to fill in the English. Then they unfold to check the English, and so on. These sheets also provide evidence that the learning has been attempted. 
If we want children to spell words and read words aloud correctly, we need to ensure that they are confident in decoding and especially writing the accents and other marks that English doesn’t have but their new language does. It’s worth taking a bit of time before formal reading and writing starts, to alert the children to these marks (we can’t assume that they will automatically spot them) and to practise writing them. This is a resource I use with Year3, usually in the 3rd or 4th week of their language learning. The children trace the letters, following the arrows where necessary. This term I haven’t been able to share my laminated copies of this with the children, and so we’ve been using our finger pencils again to practise writing the letters in the air, saying what we are doing at the same time. And I think I prefer it this way – I can see what all the children are doing and I know they are all practising. As the teacher you just have to remember to write all the letters backwards! Learners need to know why these extra marks are important, and what effect they will have on the writing if they aren’t there. In Spanish especially this can be done with some humour, for example Tengo ocho anos and Me lamo. With French, there is also the issue of apostrophes. For some children, apostrophes and accents are interchangeable in name, function and appearance. We need to make sure that learners know the precise reasons why both are there. 

Next, how can we support our learners with their vocabulary as they start to use it along with their grammatical knowledge to put together phrases, sentences and, for the more experienced ones, texts?

We want them to focus on the structure without the worry of the words that are going to go into that structure. Over the last six months, there has been a lot of discussion and reflection about knowledge organisers, as well as some online events to explore them further. Knowledge Organisers appear to be becoming more prevalent across the curriculum. A knowledge organiser is a single A4 sheet containing a summary of the essential knowledge from a unit of work It needs to be specific to your children in your class, should follow your scheme of work. It shows the big picture of a unit of learning in an easily shareable low-tech format. It is characteristic of the current Ofsted and DfE focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum, and acquiring and retaining subject knowledge. There is no set format for a knowledge organiser. A languages one should probably include key vocabulary plus any essential facts or structures presented in manageable chunks. They often contain model texts and can have images as appropriate. It's important that they also contain English meanings to reduce the cognitive load and to help children to use them effectively. "Dodgy English" is often used to emphasise structure in the target language, for example J’ai faim = I have hunger". Above all, the knowledge organiser should be engaging and clear, so that the children can use them easily and regularly. They aren’t a magic solution to teaching languages - they should be seen as another tool in your kit and one of the solutions to problems of retention and memory. Having a knowledge organiser to hand means that children won't have to hold so much information in their working memory, and it enables them to constantly review their learning. They are particularly useful in the current climate, when many of us are unable to go up to the children to help them if they are stuck. 

The most commonly used format in Key Stage 3 is the parallel text approach, but I have found from experience that this approach is only suitable for Year 6 and maybe Year 5, because of the amount of reading involved, in English and in the new language. In other subjects, knowledge organisers are mostly lists of words and facts related to that unit of work. The format that I have settled on to accompany my scheme of work can be seen here:

There is a list of the nouns that will be used, and then a selection of parallel Spanish and English sentences to show how we are going to use them. There is also an explanation of the grammar that is going to be covered (plurals of nouns for this unit), and key verbs and key sounds. I have been giving them to my classes at the beginning of each unit, and the children are using them every lesson. They seem to like being able to refer to them while we are doing speaking and listening work, and I have been able to answer all questions so far by saying “look at your knowledge organiser”! They have been more useful so far than the previous “word list” or writing frame, as everything that they need is there, including the English. 

I’ve always been partial to a writing frame to support children as they start to write. In recent years, I’ve found myself needing to add in further support, such as the English translations and/or pictures to assist with the understanding. Again over the last 6 months, when we’ve all had more time to think about things a bit more (!), I’ve been exploring sentence builders and the best format for Key Stage 2. Joe Barnes Moran came up with the flowchart format, which is proving useful in the classroom. It’s very useful to be able to point out to them that as long as they follow the arrows, their sentence will be correct. Some of them were still trying to go places the arrows didn’t take them. It’s possible as well of course to use the more traditional table format. I find it’s a bit easier for the children to miss words / columns out with this format. The sentence builder is also, technically, a knowledge organiser, as it has all the language you need for a certain task in one place, and has the English for extra support. 

How can children extend their vocabulary to say what they want to say? When we are teaching a new grammar point or structure, it’s best to introduce a small pot of words with which to illustrate that point, so that the grammar doesn’t get lost in a sea of vocabulary that the children aren’t quite sure about. When we turn the children loose to be creative with the language, though, there will be some children who want to talk or write about something that we haven’t taught them. To enable them to say what they want to say, which is what it’s all about after all, it’s important that we teach them to use the bilingual dictionary. Initially we will be using “familiar” or learned vocabulary to build sentences, but the national curriculum programme of study acknowledges that children want to broaden their vocabulary, and specifies dictionary use as one way of doing this. The children need to know how to track down a word in the dictionary quickly, using the guide words at the top of the page and then the entry words. They need to know what the abbreviations for the target language words mean, and how to check the whole definition instead of always picking the first word they see! 

It’s well worth investing some time in this. I usually do it when I start teaching nouns and introducing the concept of gender, in Year 3. In French, I do this using the book un triangle by Néjib. The cover and each of the pages has a triangle cut out, and the triangle forms part of the pictures inside. The language used is super-simple. We read and discuss each page, and decide whether the word on each page is masculine or feminine. Then I give them the challenge of creating a new book called un carré (a square) (which really does exist by the way, as does un rond), so they use the dictionary to find the French words for things that are square, and using the same structures for the French, present their work in a minibook. The children are creative and find out their own vocabulary within a given framework. 

At present, with not being able to use the dictionaries, I am preparing glossaries for the children to use, which have the words in alphabetical order, with the English and the parts of speech given. 

So I’ve talked about what vocabulary is, why it is important, and the factors that should guide your choice of vocabulary to teach. I’ve outlined how you can present new vocabulary to children and practise it over several lessons until the children are confident. I have also mentioned ways in which you can support their vocabulary, and how children can extend their vocabulary to help them to say what they want to say.

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