13 minutes of fame (or vocabulary acquisition)

I have been thinking about words and vocabulary acquisition over the last half term.  For those of you who have read my blog before, you might remember my Words on Wednesday initiative.  Whilst I still love this activity, I have found recently it has been somewhat lacking.  It seems students need a more repetitive exposure to language, rather than my spatter-gun approach of introducing new words every week.  Where I want them to embed vocabulary forever, I need to commit to more than just one attempt at introducing it.

There is a great deal of research out there on the required ‘number of encounters’ with a word before it is truly acquired.  Saragi, Nation & Meister, 1978 (Vocabulary learning and reading, System 6) found that words presented to learners fewer than six times were learned by half their subjects, while words presented six or more times were learned by 93%, suggesting a threshold of six encounters; whereas Herman, Anderson, Pearson, & Nagy, 1987 (Learning word meanings from context during normal reading in American Educational Research Journal  24) estimates this number as 20 times.

The contexts of these research studies were wide and too varied for me to draw specific conclusions that would apply in my South Croydon bubble.  But I am confident at least in this – with language that I need embedded in my students’ minds, one encounter or even two is not enough.

So, after half term, as my year 12s and I begin the annual pilgrimage that is the On Chesil Beach / Streetcar comparative essay, I would like for them to acquire fully the following language – and this is just the week 1 list.


Hour1 – Introduce the vocabulary (word encounter #1)

The visual word wall:

Students match up the terms, definitions and images for our word wall.

visual word wall

Hour 1 – Vocabulary frames (word encounter #2)

Students then select the 4 words they are least familiar with and make vocabulary frames for them.  See here for more info on how to use vocabulary frames – http://learningtasks.weebly.com/vocabulary-strategies.html


Hour 1 – Thesis statements (word encounter #3)

At the end of our first hour, and discussion on the opening of On Chesil Beach, students work together to write a series to thesis statements using our ‘not-yet-acuquired-but-getting-there’ vocabulary.  Some of last year’s statements are available as examples:

  • The role McEwan forces the reader into is both voyeuristic and unsavoury.
  • The intimate surroundings of the inn are at once satirical and quintessentially British.
  • The subjectivity of Edward’s and Florence’s narrative ramblings are neither revelatory nor pleasurable.
  • Consciousness and the subjective revelation of personal consciousness versus relational consciousness anchor McEwan’s text.

You can see, that after 3 encounters, my students are getting there.  Their outcomes are somewhat clunky, but in all honesty, they hate the first few lessons on the text as they haven’t yet found the humour in the text and it is still too awkward for them.

Hour 2 – Vocabulary spat (word encounter #4)

Our first 3 encounters with the vocabulary are quite full on, so the next couple are more relaxed.  First up is splat.  Hour 2 tends to be on a different day, so we play a quick game of splat so remember the words and definitions.  As I also tend to be in a different room, this means students can’t rely on the word wall to help them.


The words are on the whiteboard, two students have their weapon of choice – normally a ruler or some rolled up newspaper.  When I read the definition, they have to splat the correct word. Splat!

Hour 2 – lino (word encounter #5)

I don’t use masses of technology in my lessons, mostly because it’s not available.  Sometimes a post-it is as high tech as I can get.  It was a great joy to discover that I can now have online fun with post-its.  Lino allows you to create free online post-it note boards, it’s great for short quick homeworks.  And as I have to get through the book and not just focus on vocabulary, lino is one of my quick fire homeworks for Hour 2 vocab acquisition.


lino 2

Hour 3 – Question ball (word encounter #6 – threshold 1)

As we are comparing On Chesil Beach with A Streetcar Named Desire, hour 3 is usually spent reading Streetcar.  This allows us the opportunity to apply our almost acquired language to a different text and a new set of ideas.

I have a question ball – similar to the one below, with question words written in sharpie on it.  Students chuck the ball around the room and as they catch it, they frame a question using both the relevant question word and a word from our new list.

Question ball

Examples from last year were:

  • Is Williams’ representation of marriage in 1950s America quintessential?
  • Which text presents the most unsavoury and voyeuristic journey for the reader?
  • How does Williams’ portray his revelations about human consciousness?

You get the idea.

We have reached the lower threshold of 6 encounters and it feels like I have done nothing but vocabulary work.  The texts we are studying have become an aside.

By reducing the number of words I introduce, I have the potential for seeing them overused.  I made this mistake with the word ‘misogyny’ last year.  I nearly didn’t survive.

So we take a break from our vocabulary until the very end of the lesson, when I force myself beyond the threshold of 6 and we have our final encounter, before I start all over again next week.

Hour 3 – Snow storm (word encounter #7)

snow storm

Students are asked to write a comparative thesis statement using one or more of our new words, however they have to leave the word out.  Do you get what I mean?  For example, the thesis statement “For both McEwan and Williams the revelation of human consciousness is unsavoury and extreme.”  would look like this – For both McEwan and Williams the ____________of human _________________ is ______________and extreme.

These are written on bits of paper, scrunched up and in true year 7, I mean year 12, style chucked around the room.

We then pick one up and complete the missing words.  Discussion and disagreement follow.

What have I learnt from this?

Firstly, that language acquisition, especially scholastic or academic language, is time consuming but necessary.  One or two words big words thrown into an essay, does not an A grade make.  Yet, my students are clever and articulate.  They cannot be blamed for the lack.

What I need to think about now is how I tackle this ‘time consuming but necessary’ skill in a busy week.  I need the balance between pushing for the scholastic language my students’ ideas are worthy of, without losing those ideas in the midst of teaching vocabulary.

I refuse to give up, even though it’s a tough nut to crack.

I am always on the hunt for new word acquisition activities that suit KS5, if you know of any, please let me know.


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