Academic vocabulary and the new English spec


The first 20 lines of the only specimen Paper 1 that English teachers have to work with at the moment contain these 10 words. There are obviously other words in the 20 lines, but these are the ones that I think most of my Year 10 class will squeal at and/or ignore. And that would be fine, they might be able to get the general sense of the text without knowing this academic vocabulary, but then in the first question, they’re asked about the weather and now it turns out that pallor, penetrated and mizzling are all pretty important words to know if you want to get those 4 marks. Those 4 marks that your English teacher has told you should be the easiest marks you’ll earn in any GCSE exam.

And that’s before we even get to Question 2, where the exam board asks you to explain the effect of ‘mizzling’ and to analyse in perceptive detail how the ghastly Cornish weather makes even the horses ‘dispirited’ and plod ‘sullenly’ along those country paths. If your understanding of this language isn’t pretty nuanced, by this stage you’re in for a struggle.

And maybe we’re not helping that much either, after all, we’re entering uncharted territory ourselves at the moment. I wonder how many English teachers have recently made the same mistake I did this week when marking some first attempts at Q2. The same problem was occurring in most of the students’ books – they weren’t analysing the effect of the word choice – so far, so standard. Feedback followed, ‘you need to analyse how this word choice conveys an atmosphere of death/romance/fear etc,’ students tried again. No change. Then it dawned on me, the students who were struggling had quite hazy understanding of the words in question and so it was little wonder that they couldn’t describe the effect of their inclusion in a text.  You can’t analyse the effect of mizzle if you don’t know what mizzle is!

So is there a solution? Obviously we can’t explicitly teach the students all of the language that is going to come up in their exam, but we can help them not to baulk when they come across a word they are not sure of. Context is key obviously, but I think most English teachers can already talk about that with confidence and at length!  I think what does become vital at this point is the time we give to new vocabulary in our classrooms. When a text is so dense with unknown language it is tempting to whizz quickly by ‘obscured’ and ‘dispirited’ because there are other things you want to focus on. But imagine you are sitting in a class and you haven’t got a clue what ‘obscured’ means, but no-one’s saying anything, not even your teacher is pausing like they normally do when the class comes across new language, do you put your hand up and say ‘what does that mean?’ Never! Everybody else clearly knows it! And so by ignoring the new language, a teacher is actively putting up more barriers between the student and this unfamiliar word.

By dedicating precious classroom time to new language, students will begin to value the acquisition of vocabulary too. By spending time and energy on new language every single lesson (and we’re going to be coming across a lot of it over the next two years), students will be exposed to unfamiliar words on such a regular basis that by the time they get to the exam, maybe they’ll actually remember what you said about context, or maybe that word will look a little bit like one they remember from back in February and they’ll take an educated guess…

If you need to liven up vocab teaching in your classroom, have a look at these vocabulary games!

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