Developing High Level Vocabulary

Reaseheath College

This project aimed to enrich learners’ vocabularies by adopting a deliberate, explicit approach to vocabulary instruction through introducing a short, finite list of high value words which learners were exposed to recurrently and encouraged to use in their own writing.

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Reaseheath College is a specialist land-based Further Education college offering programmes including Agriculture, Animal Management, Motor Vehicle and Equine studies. The English team developed a strategy for enriching learners’ vocabularies and worked predominantly with GCSE resit learners whose main programme of study was Motor Vehicle Technology. We wanted to design a strategy focused on enriching learners’ active vocabularies, thus promoting and facilitating the use of rich vocabulary in their writing. The strategy involved the English team researching a range of high-value words that could be used in different contexts. This was then refined by staff and subsequently, collaboratively with learners, to produce an initial list of ten high value words. Learners were exposed to the words through a miscellany of bite-size activities during each lesson and encouraged to use the vocabulary. We wanted to discover whether this approach would help to establish the vocabulary to be there implicitly as part of their active lexicon.


In a largely vocationally orientated learning environment, motivation is low for many GCSE resit learners. In-house data and figures from the Department for Education show that 77.3% of students in England do not attain a grade 4 in English when they re-sit the exam post-16 (Belgutay, 2019) and remain stuck in a cycle of non-attainment and ever diminishing self-confidence. Our learners are word poor and as such, struggle to cope with the demands of GCSE English Language. It is an accepted premise that extensive reading helps develop a wide vocabulary (Quigley, 2018), however, our learners are predominantly reluctant readers; often the only reading they encounter is in the English classroom. Given the characteristics of a typical cohort and the inevitable time constraints, it is challenging to convert reluctant into avid readers, so, in our department, we have previously sought to redress the issue of limited vocabularies by exposing learners to as many unseen texts as possible. Words we perceived to be difficult were highlighted, and everyone encouraged to record the new vocabulary in a glossary. Once recorded, however, the words are seldom revisited and consequently forgotten. At best, some learners acquired a wider passive vocabulary; at worst, they were overwhelmed by the myriad vocabulary which only served to hinder their learning. Subsequently, their limited lexicons remained virtually unchanged, which may have an adverse effect on performance in main subject areas.


Initial 'Word Up' List

The initial Word Up list was compiled from past exam papers, mark schemes and exemplar answers.

Stage 1: Finalising the project outline and selecting the test groups
Three groups took part in the research, a total of 50 learners, whose main programme of study was Level 2 Diploma in Light Vehicle Maintenance and Repair. Two of these groups had achieved GCSE English Language Grade 3 and the other Grade 2. We decided to focus on a single curriculum area for ease of communication with vocational teachers and also to facilitate direct comparisons between the different classes. Once the groups were established, we proceeded to create an actionable timeline and design materials.

Stage 2: Formulating the word list
Our priority was to compile a list of multi-functional sophisticated vocabulary. We did this by trawling GCSE past papers, marks schemes and exemplar responses. This initial list comprised 50 words (see Appendix 2) which were presented to the wider English team for discussion and refinement. The resultant reduced list was presented to our learners for further screening; familiar words were removed leaving us with the final ‘Word Up’ list to use with our learners (See Bookmark, Appendix 6).

We also interviewed a number of learners about their understanding of sophisticated vocabulary, encouraging them to express their views in relation to GCSE English. Some of these are included in a video designed to publicise the project (Appendix 3). We also conducted a vocabulary survey (Appendix 4) to ascertain learners’ starting points.

'Word Up' activity using Microsoft Form

Example in lesson ‘Word Up’ activity using Microsoft Form to accommodate online delivery

Stage 3: Planning & implementing the assessment & learning activities
We developed an initial set of activities suitable for remote and face-to-face delivery using student engagement platforms such as Nearpod and Wordwall – the thinking behind the rapid introduction activities being regular exposure to the words and their meanings. We also implemented consolidation tasks focused on embedding the vocabulary which required more complex understanding (Appendix 5).

Throughout the project, learners were presented with printed bookmarks – a portable, discreet, visual aid without an overtly educational feel (see Appendix 6). A Word Up slide was presented at the start of each lesson and copied into the chat feature (in remote lessons) serving as a prompt to encourage learners to use the vocabulary in their writing.

Stage 4: Parental engagement
We recognised that parental/carer involvement was likely to play a crucial role in supporting our learners and we sought to encourage their participation by inviting them to become involved by taking part in weekly fun activities and receiving regular progress reports (see Appendix 7).

Stage 5: Reflection & Evaluation
Throughout the project, the leads have held regular meetings to evaluate and reflect on the success of the project and its implementation. Learner feedback has been a priority and focus groups have been conducted to give learners the opportunity to respond and reflect on their progress (see Appendix 8).

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Activities we initially planned for the classroom had to be adapted for online delivery. As a result, our expertise in digital pedagogy has improved significantly, so much so that we continue to use the new technology in our face-to-face teaching, recognising the considerable value it brings to learning and engagement.
The project has highlighted the texts chosen by AQA (our current Awarding Body) are mostly inaccessible to Further Education learners and we intend to trial a new, alternative specification in the autumn term. This new specification reflects the diversity of the learners and texts have been chosen with an awareness of gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.

We did not anticipate such overwhelming and consistent evidence of poor vocabulary within our trial groups. We usually focus on teaching exam technique but have recognised limited vocabulary is key barrier to success in GCSE. This project sought to redress this by incorporating an initial vocabulary survey (Appendix 4) and using vocabulary building activities to improve learning.

Fundamentally, the project has led us to recognise the power of courage and collaboration, both internally and externally. We have created an FE chat room to foster a collegial way of working and have been speaking to practitioners from other colleges about their scheme of work and action research with a view to continuing with our project next year with an external partner. We would like to extend the project to other curriculum areas in college making it possible for as many learners as possible to be empowered by developing a richer vocabulary.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Unfortunately, effective collaboration between Motor Vehicle and English teachers was restricted by the second lockdown. Conversely, with the transition to digital teaching in January, collaboration between Inclusive Learning Practitioners (ILPs) (who provide learning support in our classes) and teachers was strengthened. Digital teaching and learning provided opportunities to communicate discreetly with one another during lessons which benefited many learners. ILPs reported they have felt more valued during online lessons, and as teachers we are more aware of their potential contributions. We intend to embrace the opportunities for internal networking more fully in 2021/22.

“I have been able to chat to students that are falling behind and use the bookmark to help them discreetly with their writing” (ILP comment)

Historically, communication between learners’ parents/carers and English teachers has been ad hoc and reactive, as it generally falls within the remit of learners’ Curriculum Course Managers. However, the project presented us with an opportunity to proactively engage with parents/carers, and we did so by inviting them to participate by signing up to receive weekly fun language teasers. The response rate was low (7%), so there are lessons to be learned. However, those who responded and engaged did so unreservedly and we were able to build positive two-way relationships. The learners, whose parents/carers engaged in the project, have benefited the most and demonstrated greater depth of knowledge of the new vocabulary.

Parents have reported positively,

“As a parent, the bookmark was a fantastic tool that my child and I used in day-to-day conversations. I was able to focus on using these words more in my vocabulary which I believe has encouraged my child to use them more openly, frequently and understand them and the context in which they can be used.”

“I found the bookmark to be a great way for the teacher to let me know what kind of vocabulary would be helpful. It was a very easy way of keeping the words close by, but not an intrusive form of revision like a bulky textbook which can be off putting to the child and parent.”

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learners have been extremely positive about Word Up and reported that using the words in their writing has improved and boosted their overall confidence in English. Learners who fully engaged with Word Up understood that including the words in their writing helped to boost their levels in both ‘Content and Organisation’ and ‘Technical Accuracy’ specifications. There was a clear correlation between learners using the vocabulary in their written responses and their rate of progress.

A focus group and individual interviews were held in May where learners were invited to discuss the impact of Word Up. Learners spoke positively about being presented with a lexical set of words which they all found helpful rather than limitative. Feedback and written responses from our learners validated our thinking that ‘less is more’ when it comes to enriching our active vocabulary. It takes a lot of practice and a long time to fully know a word, so by focusing on a few, rather than many new words, consolidation took place. The new words are retained and committed to long-term memory which builds confidence quickly. Learners reported having the bookmarks to hand encouraged them to experiment with the words which they found empowering. Conversely, there were some negative comments about turning off and shutting down when faced with unfamiliar and overwhelming word lists. They want clear, simple and effective tools to help them pass the exam which we will take forward into our whole teaching practice.

Learners’ comments:

“They boost your grade up because they are more nicer words than standard words.”

“The more you get, the more you fret and you won’t remember it.”

“It builds up time and makes you memorize it more.”

“It makes you feel more confident like you’re using words right.”

Learning from this project

It was a challenge to convey the underlying principle and our aims however the success of the project justified our approach that ‘less could be more’ and that we were stretching and challenging learners. We have actively and successfully created a culture which is about creating an ethos of ambition and aspiration, and all learners have been encouraged to move beyond their comfort zones which is completely in keeping with ‘stretch and challenge’.

We were surprised by the results of initial activities to test learners’ prior knowledge of the ten words we selected: We had seriously underestimated how word poor our learners were, whereas in all three participating groups, learners overestimated their knowledge of the words. When they were presented with activities requiring them to use the words in context, they were unable to do so with any degree of accuracy. We have learned that we must never make assumptions about our learners.

Our results indicate continually inundating learners with new, challenging vocabulary has no positive impact and in fact only serves to maintain the deficit. Although exposure to the Word Up vocabulary has been less than we would have liked, we have seen clear evidence that reducing the number of words, whilst simultaneously increasing their exposure to learners, has a positive impact on vocabulary retention, usage and confidence. This is further supported by comments made during focus groups with learners: They enjoyed the fact the words were fit for purpose and manageable, and found active repetition and usage increased their confidence. Many verbalised the buzz they felt when they mastered the words.

When motivation is low, ‘quick wins’ are valuable. Learners have been able to experience success and see the clear link between using the Word Up vocabulary and higher scores. Small gains have resulted in larger gains in confidence.

We have learned that, whilst we clearly recognise the needs of the learners in our setting and try to adapt, we find it hard to move away from textbook principles around reading for meaning and improving writing, and have become increasingly aware the hurdle to both these issues and therefore the GCSE, is poor vocabulary. Primacy must be given to vocabulary and it should not simply be an add-on.

Historically, contact with parents has been limited within the English department, but we have learned parental engagement has a positive effect on learners, regardless of age. We have learned that parents want to know exactly how they can support their children and welcome input from practitioners. We will continue building connections with parents/carers and exploring how to do so more effectively.