Christ Church CE Primary share tips to enhance children's vocabulary

Thanks to Ruth Duckworth, Year 6 teacher and Writing Lead from Christ Church CE Primary School, for the following article.

Enhancing children’s vocabulary continues to be a whole school improvement focus for us. We put new systems in place at the beginning of last academic year: ‘word of the day’, increased vocabulary-focused questioning in guided reading, vocabulary (especially tier 2 words) input on planning in foundation subjects…to mention just three.  Following Year 5 teacher assessments in reading and grammar before Christmas, we realised that there was further need for focused vocabulary teaching, particularly in upper Key Stage 2.  From Spring 2019, we trialled the Rising Stars Vocabulary Upper Key Stage 2 resource in both Year 5 and Year 6 – using the teacher’s guide, resource sheets and PowerPoint materials in several ways.

Daily, unit -by-unit teaching in Year 5

We chose to implement a more structured, daily programme of vocabulary teaching - in both Year 5 classes.  Rising Stars Vocabulary ensured this was at an appropriate, upper Key Stage 2 pitch, with high expectations made of learners. The engaging activities provided quality language-rich tasks which could be delivered at any time of the day (not just in a structured morning lesson for example).  Children could work in pairs and groups, be set mini challenges with sentence completions and scaffolds and be given tasks acting-out scenarios using new words/ terminology. Teachers could regularly address specific weaknesses in children’s ability to explain and orally answer language-based questions in less formal situations before expecting children to cope with formal written assessments. 
In the Spring term, Year 5’s over-arching topic is Rainforests, so we chose to start using Unit 3 ‘Can we talk about hope?’  Words related to climate (and a storm) matched ongoing work describing the layers and areas in the rainforest, as well as the animal and people inhabitants.  Following activity ideas in the Teacher’s Guide, children could look up, define and match words and then explore synonyms in the context of rainforests. The poem ‘Hope’ gave a new context so children could focus on feelings words for the ‘Act it out’ activity - about a gale building in ferocity during a storm.

Moving on further, unit-by-unit, children could continue to build on their use of feelings language, with easy links to class PSHE themes and to whole class guided reading – we use ‘The Jungle Book’ novel in this term, which is full of interesting characters who face challenging situations. In Unit 4, which is focused on friendship, children enjoyed exploring idioms and creating their own questions (Deepen understanding) using the unit’s key words to pose to their friends.  Work exploring suffixes and prefixes was also undertaken in context (e.g. non-fiction texts), including using the Zanzibar text provided in Unit 8.

Use of units to consolidate learning in Year 6

A selection of the Rising Stars Vocabulary units were chosen by the Year 6 teachers to push-on children’s vocabulary, but to also consolidate grammar and spelling concepts. The vast range of NC prefix and suffix spellings, which need to be understood and applied accurately, are a challenge to pupils leading up to end of key stage two SATs. Moving on past the Y3/4 NC programmes of study teaching, there are still many more concepts to understand and secure, e.g. oc-, op-, ob- (Unit 11); ‘habit’ used as a root word (Unit 27).  Our busy Year 6 teachers (including myself) welcomed engaging, well-resourced materials to help move pupils forward as many of the more challenging concepts from the Y5/6 programmes of study are covered in Rising Stars Vocabulary.  The meaning of prefixes, for example, are taught before addition to the root word/s; so often children add these to words because they ‘sound right’ – not knowing the definition and how this contributes to the meaning of new words. As with all units in the resource, there are many different, engaging activities – which include drawing, acting-out, partner work, oral challenges…and not just expecting written recording of words into sentences. The glossary in the back of the Teacher’s Guide is an invaluable quick reference guide.

An intervention trial using Unit 5 – Can we describe emotions and conflict ?

Previously in Key Stage Two, children (then in Year 6) had read and enjoyed the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ novel. When asked about themes for a new (additional) writing project, a small group of still quite reluctant readers and writers, remembered work they had enjoyed before. They could also speak confidently about the dragon films, like ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and ‘Eragon’ and internet games they enjoyed playing. 

Unit 5 proved to be an engaging resource for this group - who showed quite limited vocabulary at the start, including words relating to feelings and emotions.  They also had poor spelling and grammar when writing – so the resource was a bonus on several fronts.  Using the text ‘Stoneheart’ in this unit gave new ‘dragon’ context for these pupils’ improving vocabulary.  The PowerPoint slides were printed off for use with the withdrawal group (in a room without a projector) – to use for text-marking and closer focused work on types of words/ word classes. A teacher assistant, who had not taught this type of group previously, had ‘ready-to-go’, engaging materials and planning to follow.

This group greatly enjoyed their work on Unit 5, producing some fantastic mini-dramas, oral reports and writing about the white dragon. Their confidence to discuss and ‘play’ with words in context developed tremendously over the half term.  All children were also encouraged to borrow books about dragons for home reading – to really spur them on to read for pleasure more regularly.

Links with Progress Tests

In addition to other assessment materials, we use the Progress Tests series of resource books to provide ‘quiz’ type snapshots of children’s progress in reading and grammar. With a full six tests per book there is plenty of material to use as whole tests or, as we also do, break up into mini assessment check sheets with a few questions to attempt (similar to using Question Bank).  In this way, pupils throughout Key Stage 2 begin to acclimatise with the format and style of SATs questions.  In Year 6, we use a few questions two weeks after each teaching unit to check retention of new material and to ascertain which concepts need to be revisited.  It is a challenge at times to move new learning over into pupils’ long-term memory with so much material in the GPS curriculum being taught at pace. We need regular AfL to keep track of how pupils are doing with regards to retaining new information.

Last year, we used more of the language and vocabulary questions from GPS Progress Tests to give us feedback as to how children were coping with such questions in a formal test format.  In Year 5 at the beginning of the summer term, children demonstrated very few strategies for working out word meanings, synonyms or how ambitious words were being used in context. By the second summer half term, however, after undertaking daily vocabulary work since spring, our pupils showed more self-assurance in tackling questions.  They had experienced ‘playing with words’ in a wide range of games and activities, had developed more confidence to break words into root/ prefix/ suffix to decipher meanings and had explored using ambitious words in a wide range of contexts. As a result, when faced with multiple choice and completion questions in the summer assessment cycle, children were able to score much higher scores on the language (and spelling) based questions on the GPS paper.
And now, the SATs year has begun for the classes who used Rising Stars Vocabulary daily in Year 5 last year.  With a rich knowledge base and many, many vocabulary, language and spelling activities behind them, our new cohort already shows greater confidence in ‘having-a-go’ – talking about meanings, exploring different variants of root words, spelling ambitious words etc. They have great ideas for creative writing (even if we still need to focus them on making appropriate word choices to fit the style or formality of pieces).  We are now just beginning to reap the benefits of using Rising Stars Vocabulary in Upper Key Stage 2… and certainly recommend this versatile and engaging resource to other schools.

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