Word Power: Powerful Vocabulary Instruction (Part 4: Language ‘Coding’)

LogoThis is the fourth in a series of blog posts about vocabulary development.

Part 1: Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 1: Starting point)

Part 2: Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 2: Choosing words)

Part 3: Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 3: Word-attack!)

A lot has happened with the development of #WordPower since its creation in 2017.  Since then, Word Power has been selected as a core CPD programme to develop approaches to the teaching vocabulary as part of the Real Writing: Writing Across the Curriculum in Science SSIF project (DFE) with @NorthStarTSA ,@PolarisYorks ,York St John University and Focus Education.  You can follow along with updates and information on the project’s dedicated Twitter page @RealWriting2017.

I’ve also enjoyed delivering Word Power to different schools locally (in North Yorkshire) and across the Tees Valley.  Thank you to Roseberry School in Billingham for inviting me to work with you and the other schools in your cluster.  I look forward to hearing how things develop!

bigger boat.PNGThis fourth instalment of ‘Word Power’ blog posts is about exploring the idea of ‘language coding.’  In September, I discovered Alex Quigley’s (Director of Huntington Research School in York) @HuntingEnglish blog post, sharing information about his presentation at ResearchEd 2017 ‘50,000 small solutions to the big problem of the new curriculum.’  You can watch a video of Alex’s presentation here Alex Quigley – ResearchEd 2017 presentation

In his ResearchEd talk, Alex suggests that we need to ‘recalibrate our teaching and better help children to crack the academic code.’  This got me thinking about this idea of an academic code. What does this ‘code’ look like in primary education?  Alex shared an example of a secondary pupil he had ‘shadowed’ across a week, sharing experiences of what he observed as this pupil had skilfully shifted within and between language codes from lesson to lesson, conversation to conversation.

I then started to think about primary pupils’ experiences and ‘language codes’ – how do pupils effectively manage and choose language to suit the purpose for communication and the intended audience? How skilfully do pupils ‘code-shift’ from subject to subject and do they understand how words are used differently in different domains?  How do pupils’ experiences with language change and develop over time?  At what point do pupils begin to have POWER over the code?

Pupils need to effectively engage with a range of meta-languages in the primary classroom:

  • Phonic meta-language for word reading (decoding) and spelling (encoding) – How can I segment the sounds to write…? If I blend these sounds together, I think the word is… Which grapheme might I need to write the word…? I can see that the word ‘rake’ has a split digraph (the a and the e are split by the k) so that will help me to read it r-ay-k instead of r-a-k-e.
  • Grammatical meta-language to edit and improve writing – What happens if I change the position of the adverbial this sentence?  Which version do I like best and why? Which conjunctions have I used in my writing?  How do these help the text to flow and aid in cohesion? Are there any other conjunctions that I could have chosen?
  • Feedback meta-languageI like the way that you… Have you thought about how you might… Why did you… I think this could be even better if…
  • Mathematical meta-language –  Can you explain and justify why you’ve used…?  Tell me about how the sum shows us that…
  • Metacognitive meta-language to talk about how I learn the best? What are my feelings about school? What do I think about my own learning capability? What do my teachers think about my learning capability? What is my preparedness for learning? What is my work ethic?  How resilient am I?  How do I address challenge? What do I do when I get stuck? How confident am I? Which strategies do I need to work independently? Click here for my thoughts on Metacognition and Writing.
  • Scientific meta-language and historical meta-languageThe water cycle is also known as the hydrological cycle. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Reading meta-language – I enjoyed reading this book because…; I think that the author meant… when…; I wonder what might happen next?  Click here for further thoughts on Reading Habits.

In considering all of these different types of codes that pupils need, we can plan opportunities to help pupils to think about and categorise these codes, helping them to use language more effectively.  It’s all about the appropriacy of language – which vocabulary is most appropriate for this particular context?  Which register do I need to access in order to communicate effectively in different situations and with different groups of people?  Am I clear about my intended audience and the purpose for communication? As teachers, we need to recognise that pupils need to shift effectively within and between codes and teach them the skills to help them to do so.

Here is me, on my first day of Kindergarten at Trinity Lutheran School in Boynton Beach, Florida further stressing this point. (Yes, I know I look like little orphan Annie – one has to ‘own it’ I suppose.  No, I will not say what year it was.)


At that age, I was learning the ‘meta-language’ of dance (plie, time step, first position) in my ballet and tap dancing classes.  I did not think of any of these words outside of the specific ‘domain’ of dance, nor did I think about the significance or transferability of knowledge of these words.  If I had word ‘depth,’ I might have considered how ‘first position’ related to the ‘position or place’ that one placed their arms or feet in ballet.  I might also think about ‘time step’ relating to ‘timing and rhythm’ made with steps such as hops, leaps or jumps.  I could have used these words, outside of the ‘dance’ domain, when reading and/or writing.  Understanding the ‘languages’ that pupils speak is an important step in closing the word gap for pupils.  Use this knowledge to ‘tap in’ (little dance pun there for you…) to the wealth of words that already exist in pupils’ minds and help them connect new words encountered to those that are already known.  Words are remembered when strong connections are made with existing word knowledge.

Are there any ‘curricular’ codes that pupils struggle to shift in and out of?  If the answer is yes, it might be that pupils simply don’t have the existing vocabulary in their ‘language tool box’ needed to effectively speak in this new ‘code.’  For example, do pupils struggle to explain their reasoning in mathematics?  Is this due to a lack of understanding or, might it be due to the fact that pupils struggle to locate and retrieve the language they need to explain thinking effectively?

The primary curriculum aims are clear about the use of language in a range of contexts:


We must ensure that we don’t lose sight of the ‘why’ when it comes to language development.  I had the pleasure of attending Reading Rocks 2017 at The District Primary school.  I was absolutely mesmerised by Mary Myatt’s key note speech ‘The case for the difficult’ where she spoke passionately about the importance of understanding the core curricular aims and values, avoiding, as she coined, the ‘gobbetisation of the curriculum.’  The aims show us clearly that language is a vehicle, and it should be ‘integral’ to the teaching of other subjects, but we have to ‘induct’ them into its use.  Language ‘provides access’ and is the ‘key to learning and progress.’  Teach them to be coders of language – seamlessly using and shifting within and between codes to communicate effectively across the curriculum.

At Reading Rocks 2017, I also enjoyed hearing from the wonderful Martin Galway @GalwayMr, speaking passionately about exploring language through ‘Dialogic Reading.’ Have a look at his personal blog here Quiet Fireworks and the Herts for learning blog here Herts for Learning English 

Also on the Saturday-conference scene, I enjoyed meeting the witty and entertaining Jack Phillips @Mr_P_Hillips at Lead, Learn, Lancs (September 2017).  His presentation ‘Vocabulary Extravaganza’ was full of practical ways to develop vocabulary in the classroom (maelstrom, that’s a good word – brilliant!). He spoke passionately about ‘creating a vocabulary culture’ in his classroom which has really stuck with me.  How can we create a culture of reading and writing new words, talking about words, exploring and investigating, sharing and debating new words.  How can we make word learning fun and exciting?  Take the time to have a look his blog full of fantastic ideas about vocabulary development with his KS2 pupils – Verbivore Teacher

A few final thoughts before I finish…  Years ago, when I worked as an English Adviser for North Yorkshire Local Authority, my colleague at the time, Annie Gregory, used to tell the story of that vocabulary lightbulb moment with the pupils in her class.  It’s that moment that we have all witnessed at some point in our own teaching professions – the moment when a child realises that they have the POWER OVER THE WORDS, the words do not have the power over them.  Annie used to share the poem by Benjamin Zephaniah, For Word, which links nicely to this point. Word Power – it’s all about having control of those communicative artefacts that we need to be confident communicators in a range of  contexts – choosing, using and applying our word knowledge.

If you have any questions or comments about this post or if you would like to contact me to discuss vocabulary development or training needs in your school/ local area, please get in touch kellyashleyconsultancy@outlook.com or via Twitter @kashleyenglish

Copyright 2017, Kelly Ashley Consultancy

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