This review originally appeared in the online supplement of my newsletter, Digital Education. Sign up for that before midnight on 28th May 2018 for the chance to win a copy of Closing the Vocabulary Gap. You'll find all the details here: Digital Education. To find out what's in the issue of 22nd May 2018, read New beginnings for the Digital Education newsletter.
This is a 6 minute read.
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As a guide to vocabulary and why it matters this book could hardly be bettered. Although relatively short, it packs in a lot of detail. It’s written from the point of view of a teacher of English, a perspective that informs much of the commentary despite an attempt to embrace other subjects as well. I’m going to review the book in terms of its usefulness for the teacher of Computing, even though it wasn’t intended as such. My reasoning is that a book about vocabulary ought to be applicable to any subject.
Quigley makes the case for teaching vocabulary very well. He points out, in a very visual way, how not being familiar with just a few words in a paragraph can render the whole text — and therefore the entire lesson — incomprehensible. It turns out that in academic subjects pupils need to be familiar with at least 95%, and preferably, 98%, of the words presented to them in order to be able to infer the meaning of the paragraph. He states that pupils need to leave school with a vocabulary of at least 50,000 words, and that the vocabulary gap — the difference between the number of words known by some pupils compared to others, — is correlated with poorer life chances on a range of measures. Indeed, according to a study reported on in 2014, by 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. (I did a double take when I read that. What it means is not that some kids have a vocabulary that comprises 30 million more words than other kids, by the age of three, which would be astonishing, but that by the age of three some children have had experience of 30 million more words than others. There's more information here: The 30 million word gap.
In this context, I don’t think that Quigley devotes enough attention to the work undertaken by Bernstein in the 1970s on restricted and elaborated codes. Put simply, middle class families tend to use much richer forms of expression with their children (elaborated), for example with explanations of why an instruction has been given, than working class families.
Quigley equates elaborated code with academic talk, which suggests that pupils who have a poor vocabulary to begin with are unlikely to fare well in the school system unless something is done to address the problem. It’s worth pointing out, though, that to some extent restricted code relies on shared values, so in some circumstances there is no need for elaborated code. One example might be a headline in a tabloid newspaper some years ago, “Mucky Jim” (cited by Keith Waterhouse in Waterhouse on Newspaper Style). This was clearly a reference to Amis’ novel, Lucky Jim, and the newspaper in question obviously expected its readership to recognise that.
There is some good advice here. For example, the author says it’s useful to focus on the etymology of words, as that can be a kind of shortcut to learning a wider variety of words.
“We may teach words like ‘democracy’, ‘plutocracy’ … but do we help students make meaningful, rich connections between those words?”
A fair question. Well, my economics teachers certainly did, and so did I when I was teaching. I suppose it’s wise to be explicit about the usefulness of such an approach, but I like to think that good teachers will be doing it anyway.
More good advice is to be found in these pages. For example, I agree with the idea of developing ‘disciplinary literacy’. Among the useful questions suggested to develop this is:
“What does a child need to know, do and understand to talk, read and write like [insert subject discipline requiring this knowledge, e.g. historian, computer scientist or mathematician]?”
I’ve always felt that my job as a teacher of Economics, and later of Computing, was not to teach Economics or Computing but how to think like an economist or a computer scientist. Apart from anything else, it tends to make learning the associated vocabulary easier because the specialised terminology is hooked onto concepts rather than presented as an abstract, disassociated, list of words.
Another good suggestion is to undertake planning with colleagues to identify the words that need to be taught explicitly. Indeed, while it’s difficult to do these days in secondary schools because of the relentless focus on grades and the need to ‘get through’ the curriculum, I found that cross-curricular planning in this context worked very well. For example, words like loop, break, run, validation, error crop up all the time in Computing, but how are they used in other subjects? Where did they come from (etymology), and how did they come to mean what they do (for example, ‘bug)?
On the subject of teaching Computing, Quigley is mistaken, I think, when he says that in Computing the perspective of the author becomes relatively unimportant. This would seem to overlook the fact that programming code is laden with the implicit biases of the people who write it. (I’ve already reviewed Weapons of Math Destruction, which explores this idea in great detail and in a variety of contexts, and very soon I will be reviewing Technically Wrong, which covers similar ground.)
There are some excellent suggestions, such as using cloze exercises, word-matching exercises and flashcards, to help pupils learn words. I wonder why word games were not included too: I have found word puzzles and crossword puzzles to be extremely useful in this context.
I also believe that vocabulary teaching can be aided by creating what I call a reading-rich environment, a topic I explored in Update Of 7 Reasons To Have An Educational Technology Library, but I didn’t notice anything about this in the book, although it is implied.
Although Closing the Vocabulary Gap contains quite a bit of detail that is (I suggest) of dubious value to the teacher of Computing, it also contains a lot of detail that will be of tremendous use, such as the groups of academic words at the back of the book, the many suggestions given to help teachers teach vocabulary, and copious notes and references. My advice? Buy it.
Check out my review of a product called Mrs Wordsmith, which may be found here: https://www.ictineducation.org/bett-2018-product-reviews.