Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Making Matthew rich: practical strategies for building word wealth

This blog could also be titled ‘An Ode to Geoff Barton’ as, like many other English teachers, his elegant and emotive speeches are how I first came across ‘the Matthew effect’. However, the concept, as far as I’m aware, originated in Daniel Rigney’s book of the same name.
‘The Matthew effect’ is the idea that those who are bought up in 'word-rich' environments ultimately become part of the ‘literacy club’, reading/writing and getting more ‘word-rich’ as a result. Whilst, conversely, those who are 'word-poor' become doubly so due to a reticence to read and inability to enjoy ‘word-rich’ texts. There’s a much more eloquent and extensive synopsis by David Didau here.

This blog post – whilst recognising that what happens in one classroom will not change the ‘world’ of a school alone - is not an attempt at address the Pandora's box of whole school literacy. If you’re interested in that then I recommend visiting Chris Hildrew’s blog.
Instead, it’s an attempt to pull together some ways I’ve been attempting to address building word power in my own classroom over the last term. All of these strategies require minimal planning, but used together have maximum effect. However, they all start with one important proviso: the world of language is not a democracy; some words are more valuable than others. It’s therefore important to take a moment to define which words are at the top of this autocracy: what makes a ‘rich’ word?
As a starting point, for me, ‘rich’ words:
  • have not been heard or read before
  • unlock more sophisticated concepts
  • build self-esteem and aspiration
  • create autonomy and power in the user
And, yes, least importantly, achieve more marks in a GCSE English Language exam…

‘Big yellow box’ them

Increasingly nowadays my Powerpoint is my lesson plan. With one group, I've made sure every lesson there is a yellow box on the right hand side with 'rich' vocabulary in to scaffold their ideas and discussions. It also acts as a useful aide memoire for my future planning as I can see words they have previously been exposed to.

Drop them (in)
It's a truism that the simplest ideas are the most effective: ensuring rich words are part of your day to day communications with students is a perfect example. It may be tempting to ‘dumb down’ our vocabulary when talking to 'little people', but students who are ‘word-poor’ must be exposed to the richness of language in order to become 'word-wealthy'.

To secure understanding the 'rich' word needs to be followed by a pithy explanation of the meaning. The best definition for encouraging confidence has to be the single word summary - see above. There's plenty of time for refining that definition once the word has gained some familiarity.
(Interactive) display them

If you don't yet follow @ChrisMoyse, you need to start following @ChrisMoyse. This is my 100% plagiarised version of an awesome display of his creation. Each fry packet from a well known food chain, contains 'rich' synonyms for the word underneath. In my Faculty, we've also got paint colour charts that do the same job, but any Twitter search will reap a plethora of other imaginative ways to display these words in a way that shows just how exciting they are.
Hook them

By this I mean find a way of making them memorable. Here's a simple method from a lesson this term: words that start with the letter 'D'. This slide was introducing students to the relationship between Curley and his wife in that educational pariah 'Of Mice and Men'. We then divided them into three categories: male stereotypes; female stereotypes; the effect of these ideologies. This vocabulary framed the lesson and ensured that, at all points after this, students were using vocabulary sophisticated enough to articulate concepts related to gender roles, misogyny and patriarchy.

Return to them

It's one thing to walk out of a lesson proudly (and metaphorically) clutching a new word, but it's quite another to return on a new day still brandishing that word like a verbal blade. Making the next lesson's pre-starter remind students of their wonderful new word-y weaponry will make all the difference.
Cover sheet them

With the coming of the new National Curriculum for English from September (that some of us still have to adhere to, Academites) we've introduced a standard cover sheet for all of schemes of work that will clearly identify 'rich' words that students should be exposed to over the unit. As Wayne from Wayne's World once said: 'Plan for it and it will happen'. Or at least I'm sure he said something to that effect.
Debunk them
One of my favourite phrases to teach students is 'the dominant ideologies associated with' as it can simply be explained by 'the main set of ideas linked to' - e.g. stereotypes - and is directly applicable in a variety of literary and non-literary discussions related to text, audience and purpose. Watching young people play with the phrase, using it to show-off to other teachers and students, is a joy. I always leave them with the challenge to go home and when their parents ask them what they have done at school today to reply, not with a grunt, but with "Well, mother dearest, we have been analysing the way that Curley's wife both adheres to and rebels from the dominant ideologies associated with femininity in 1930s America."
WOW word them
On the door of my office I have a WOW ('Word of the week') word which also gets printed on the weekly Faculty bulletin. Soon to go whole school, if nothing else then this initiative will flag up the importance of vocabulary for accessing and engaging with any aspect of both the curriculum and the wider world.
Reward them

Be it scrabble or Sports Day, I love a bit of competition - and so do students. Whatever your reward system, ensure that no use of a 'rich' word goes unnoticed, acknowledged and praised. For us it's Vivos with points literally meaning pennies to spend in the Argos catalogue. We also have rather lovely 'Literate learner' stickers (and any teacher worth their salt knows the power of a good sticker).

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