Looking at closing the vocabulary gap in Geography

Ethiopia imageA couple of years ago, after a prompt on Twitter, I revisited the idea of having a banned words display to try to improve the geographical vocabulary of our students – back in 2006 in my first classroom I’d had such a display on the back wall. Rain was banned, you had to say precipitation. Stuff was banned, you needed to actually say what it was. Saying Africa on its own was banned, it needed to be qualified with continent, compass directions or country names (we rarely lump all of Europe together so why do it for Africa?!).  An updated version of this banned words display went back up in the Geography classrooms last academic year. 

The focus on vocabulary has seen a resurgence in the last couple of years. Alex Quigley’s book ‘Closing the vocabulary gap’ in 2018 reminded us of what we already knew – vocabulary matters, especially for disadvantaged students. New ‘tougher’ qualifications have increased the vocabulary and reading demand on our students in a way we’ve not seen for a few years.  I’m glad they have and, in geography especially, it feels like we’re back teaching our subject and not a watered-down version. But the challenge of improving students’ vocabulary and reading abilities is even more crucial to address – after all who sits at home and says ‘you’ll never guess which sustainable resources we used today’ while eating dinner or ‘have you seen the exfoliation on those rocks?’ when watching a nature programme!

There has always been new subject specific vocabulary we’ve had to teach in Geography – geomorphic processes always spring to mind here.  And I’ve always been a big fan of spelling and definition tests on a Monday morning (my Year 11s less so!) to promote their geographical vocabulary. But I’ve been giving it much more thought since we’ve been evaluating our curriculum with all the changes over the past few years. Some of the ideas we’re working on have come from Alex’s book, some from digging out old resources, some from twitter, some from conversations in the staff room, etc…and many a combination of all!

We have updated our geography curriculum dartboard so that the themes we teach every year gradually build up to the different units of the A level.  Each theme has a core vocabulary that builds up over the years and we’re working on making ‘must know, should know, could know’ word lists for each topic in each year group.  The idea being that at the start of each new topic students are first tested on the must and should know words from the topic on the same theme the year before, building their vocabulary over time.  Common definition lists are in place across the department so it doesn’t matter which teacher a student has they learn exactly the same definition wording – makes running revision, intervention, changing student groupings all so much easier.

The basis of all these word and definition lists is Beck’s work on a three-tier hierarchy of words – our geography word lists focus on tier 3 subject specific vocabulary. Yet, as we’ve been focusing on vocabulary we’ve found that it’s the tier 2 words, the words that cross the school curriculum like exam command words, that are one of the biggest vocabulary barriers to success for our students.  Words like assess, evaluate, illustrate are common across the curriculum but there can be both subtle and not so subtle differences between their meanings in different subjects.  Just teaching definitions of tier 2 words doesn’t help – students need to be taught what they explicitly mean in each subject and not given generic command word lists.

But back to developing students’ Geographical vocabulary.  It’s unrealistic to assume we can teach every geographical word they may come across.  So what can we do to help students decode words? 

I’ve been focusing a lot on word roots with my Year 9 class – a group with a habit of saying ‘I don’t know that so I can’t do the work’ whenever they come across a difficult word!  We’ve looked at different word roots whenever I’ve introduced new (or revisited old) vocabulary and started to pick this out to decode the definitions of terms together. Yesterday I gave them information on goods and services of the rainforest and waited with baited breath for the first person who asked me what biomass was (I’d never used that word with them before) – but I soon realised from circulating the room students had started to break it down and work it out together – a little win as it’s not the most complicated geographical term but it would be giving them the confidence to try again the next time they come across a word they don’t know.  My next job is to make word root and prefix lists for use by all in the department so we approach decoding words with the same consistency as we’ve been teaching definitions.

Another idea I am playing around with came from a primary-aged resource.  On one side of the page is an illustration to encapsulate the term and then on the reverse the term is surrounded by synonyms and antonyms. This exact layout won’t translate well but the idea of having a term with words around it and students having to work out how they are linked is something I’m pondering.

Over the next few weeks I’ll post the different resources we’ve been using on my resources box page and if you’re at the Geographical Association Conference in April I’d really encourage you to come to the workshop session on ‘The language of development’ @GeogMum and I are running as we share some of the strategies we’ve been using when teaching about development (in conjunction with the GA International Special Interest Group).

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