“Once you learn how to read, you will forever be free”

Frederick Douglass

As a trainee I distinctly remember a tutor saying to me “You are a teacher in English so you are a teacher of English”. I was wildly impressed by their philosophical view, until years later I found out this was a common phrase and not something that was especially thought of to give me nugget of inspiration. That disappointment aside, the saying has stuck with me throughout my career.

I have embraced every literacy initiative thrown at me, it was going to be the silver bullet to all of our woes. Alas, as each initiative has come and gone, I have seen little impact and then, onto the next.

I remember a particular time in my career when ‘Word walls’ were THE answer to all of your literacy woes. So much so, a previous colleague had a particularly creative one (I think they had used Jokerman font and pastel printer paper) and they were presented with a certificate and box of chocolates at the end of term awards (don’t get me started on this!) along with a wonderful speech about the impact their resource made to the children in their class. Now, I am not taking anything away from that colleague , they were hard working, had the very best intentions and had their students at the forefront of what they did. But, the reality of a word wall is multi-fold: at best it is a superficial, irremovable crutch that gives students and teachers a false sense of security, without students truly ‘knowing’ a word. At worst, they are a distraction in the lesson, providing a platform for wondering eyes and decontextualised word use.

Having worked in some challenging contexts this is a massive concern, needless to mention the Matthew Effect; “The word rich get richer, and the word poor get poorer”. Research reveals that Low levels of literacy undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer £2.5 billion every year (KPMG, 2009). Whilst the economy is a concern, as teachers, we tend to have more a philosophical approach to improving vocabulary, reading and literacy as a whole, at least we should, in my opinion. According to the National Literacy Trust:

Children who enjoy reading and writing are happier with their lives


We know that literacy levels have a lasting, lifelong impact, for example:


If we are not unlocking access to key vocabulary, the language of learning, the ability to decode, comprehend and analyse texts, then we are locking up their potential, and with all the drama intended, imprisoning them to a lifetime of missed opportunity, fewer chances, lower earnings and limited experiences of the world. Every child has a right to this, however they may choose to use it later on. And that’s the point, isn’t it? The choice.

A Non-English Specialist

In a  recent twitter poll, 75% of whole school literacy leads were English specialists.


As as a non-English specialist this has always been tricky for me. When literacy training was delivered or initiatives initiated, for all departments bar one, this was seen as not their issue. Literacy is fundamentally an English department issue. Right?

Of course, I am playing Devil’s Advocate here. Literacy is everyone’s issue. If a child cannot access the language of your subject, they can’t access your subject. This is not just that highly subject specific vocabulary of photosynthesis, globalisation, acceleration, andante, or assonance. These are words of our everyday experience, as educated professionals, with an extensive word wealth. Words such as define, explain, describe, annotate… the list goes on. Words, that even with a glimmer of understanding of assonance, if asked to define it, would have little clue about the task they were asked to perform.

My role encompasses a whole host of CPD issues, our theme for the past 12 months, and likely to continue for at least 2 years is developing vocabulary, literacy and reading ages for those below chronological reading age. This is a daunting prospect for someone with a thick Brummie accent, who relies far too heavily on spell check and is a massive fan of a semi-colon; regardless of its relevance.

I was fortunate enough to see Christine Counsell deliver CPD at a very generous coastal school, not too far away. For anyone who has heard Christine speak, you cannot fail to be drawn into the beauty that is language, and curriculum design for its schematic acquisition. And yes, I am completely fan girling here. If you don’t, have a word with yourself!

English language GCSE is a whole school problem:


In the session, she used examples from a year 6 SATS reading tests. Specific examples aside, it is apparent that for many, the reading tests delivered to our 10 and 11 year olds, have as much to do with knowledge as they do with reading. A wonderful English teacher colleague remarked on the similarity to GCSE English language, which, beneath the surface, is again, a test of knowledge.

“I cannot teach them all of the words”

They argued that English GCSE should not be a measure for the efficacy of the English Department: A reading test at KS2 , or the outcome of English Language GCSE is a measure of your curriculum, not your English teaching.

Reading, in whatever guise it takes, from beautifully narrative literature, to newspaper articles, exam commands, or a job application form,  should not be the preserve of the wealthy (choose whatever prototype you would like for that word). Literature, access to language, newspapers, online articles, allow us to extend our world beyond our own home, school, town or country.

For a student a grade 4 in English language is their key to the future. We should all be invested in this.

Developing a common, functional approach to literacy within school:

I am a huge fan of the EEF Implementation Guidance Report. Paraphrasing Jonathon Sharples, “it ain’t sexy” but it is invaluable when establishing an initiative within school. Therefore, using the cycle of implentation will give your initiative the best chance for success, identify potential pitfalls, and clarify what your actual aim is.

Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan. There is no other route to success.

Pablo Picasso

Vocabulary is your curriculum design. Having this at the heart of the curriculum for each subject area, phase, topic is key.

A question we asked our colleagues to work on were ‘what are your key concepts?’ i.e. what is the key vocabulary that needs explicit instruction?

Once departments had decided upon a their concepts, they focused on:

  • Consistent approach
  • A method for unpicking the word
  • Revisiting vocabulary (including assessment)


In order to embed vocabulary as the fundamental principle guiding your curriculum, having a whole school approach is paramount.

Involving a non-English specialist as a literacy lead: This is a strong move to highlight this as an ‘everyone problem’. Disconnecting the language of literacy from your English department is powerful.

Invest in some high quality literacy training: This does not have to mean someone attends a course (it might do if it’s appropriate). But it does mean that dedicated CPD time is invested in implementing a school wide approach to teaching vocabulary. Ensure departments are implementing your approach with fidelity. That they are given time to think about it in a subject specific way, and time to implement it. This will involve approach points for effective collaboration and evaluation.

Cross curricular planning: Where appropriate. Not as an add on, to fulfil an arbitrary criteria. Where are there overlaps between English and History,?Are you teaching language in a consistent way? Is there opportunity for exploiting retrieval practice if it has been taught in another discipline, therefore reinforcing concepts?

Strategies for teaching vocabulary

Once you have decided upon your key concepts / vocabulary needing explicit instruction, how do you provide that instruction?

  • Frayer model
  • Examples and non-examples
  • Explicit teaching of etymology and morphology
  • Appropriate assessment

This may involve using a disciplined inquiry model to identify those strategies which work best for your context, subject and concepts, and is not an exclusive or definitive list.

Vocabulary and language acquisition is an ‘us’ problem. Alongside the busyness and business of teaching our content, make sure the words are part of that too.