Consider the following sentence:
The food dye will eventually turn all of the water blue because the fluid molecules will continually move from areas of high concentration to areas of lower concentration across the concentration gradient until the fluid molecules are evenly distributed across the body of water.
And now consider:
Through the process of diffusion, the food dye will turn all of the water blue.
The difference between these two sentences is that the latter uses the expert word ‘diffusion’. This word, with its precise definition (the net movement of molecules from an area where they are at a higher concentration to areas where they are at a lower concentration) obviates the need for a longer and clunkier explanation. Of course, the second, much shorter sentence contains an element of assumed knowledge, and all of that knowledge is signified by the word ‘diffusion’. Words carry knowledge and that knowledge draws upon the precise definition associated with the signifier. Words are, essentially, shorthand for their respective definitions. The correct deployment of expert words demonstrates expert understanding.
Consider another pair of example sentences:
The repetition of the consonant sound at the beginning of nearby words in the sentence, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” establishes the rhythmic and inescapable power of the tide and the past.
The alliteration in the sentence “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” establishes the rhythmic and inescapable power of the tide and the past.
Once again, expert language allows for concision and precision. Once again, this shorter sentence depends upon shared understanding of expert vocabulary. It only works if everyone understands, and agrees upon, the definition of ‘alliteration’.
To be able to use expert vocabulary confidently, students need to develop automaticity. If writing is a laborious struggle to call the right words to mind, the student has little cognitive capacity remaining to think about the bigger concepts they are exploring, or the exam question they are answering. When you drive your car, you don’t think about changing gear, adjusting the foot on the clutch, holding the steering wheel in the right position or flicking the indicator switch. You don’t need to. Those actions have become automatic for you, the expert driver. This means that you have all of these automatised actions at your disposal to help you with the task of driving to work. If someone steps into the road unexpectedly, you can respond with the correct, automatised action – you hit the brakes. In a similar way, we need our students to be able to quickly and effortlessly draw upon the best vocabulary to get the job done. If they can’t, they must write laborious, imprecise and longwinded sentences. There is no time for this in public examinations and there is no time for this in academic university interviews.
As we strive to develop automaticity in our students’ use of vocabulary, it has become popular in education to refer to the specialist language of academic subjects as tier 3 vocabulary. These are the words that are most strongly associated with a particular discipline, for example, English has metaphor, geography has tectonic, history has anachronistic, biology has peristalsis and ICT has algorithm. These words are the jargon of the subject. They form an in-language for those in the know. When you understand this secret code properly, you understand the subject and you can properly and efficiently communicate your expertise. The importance of subject specific (tier 3) vocabulary has been long understood and teachers give due emphasis to instructing students in its proper usage. It is obvious to secondary school teachers that students need these tier 3 words in order to succeed. Increasingly, however, teachers are also turning their attention to tier 2 vocabulary.
Tier 2 vocabulary is not as specialist as tier 3 vocabulary, but it’s not as simplistic as tier 1 vocabulary. It’s not cat, dog, mum or keys. However, it’s also not longshore drift, pathetic fallacy, nucleus, leverage or ratio. It’s the in-between language. The intelligent and sophisticated vocabulary that is useful across subject domains. Tier 2 vocabulary consists of words like pragmatic, façade and interconnected. These are the words of The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 and educational documentaries. These are the words that middle class parents transmit to their children by osmosis, when the family speak at the dinner table or around the house. These are the words that are missing for disadvantaged children, because their parents don’t have those words, or the time to sit with them at the dinner table. Tier 2 words are the words that create the vocabulary gap, leaving underprivileged students without the words they need to understand new content or to express their ideas convincingly and with nuance. As a result of the Matthew Effect, these students fall farther behind every year, because words are sticky, just like knowledge. When a student knows the word ‘implicit’, it is easier for them to learn ‘imply’, ‘implied’, ‘implication’, ‘implicitly’ and ‘implicated’. From here, it’s just a hop skip and a jump to ‘explicit’, ‘explicitly’ and ‘explication’. Words work in family groups, and it is far easier to learn a new word if you already have a related word in your vocabulary. For more advantaged children, the massive web of more sophisticated vocabulary endowed upon them by their position of relative privilege makes language acquisition an almost automatic process. For those with the most restricted vocabularies, in contrast, learning new words is a massively demanding task that impacts upon cognitive load. When you don’t understand the words, you have little chance of grasping the meaning of the sentence. And please don’t believe the lazy, ill-informed assertion that you can work out the meaning of a word from the context of the sentence. You can’t. And disadvantaged students certainly can’t. At best, you can work out the function of the word: whether it is an adjective, verb and so on, from its position in relation to other words. Beyond this, it’s guesswork. Our students deserve better than the opportunity to try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary; they need proper and robust vocabulary instruction. Words are power. When we build our students’ tier 3 vocabulary, we are doing the bare minimum by equipping then with subject knowledge. When we expand this into the realm of tier 2 vocabulary, we are doing much more – we are combatting inequality by bridging the vocabulary gap. Teachers and subject leaders should give careful thought to the words that will be taught to students during each unit or scheme of work. Vocabulary acquisition, in tier 2 and tier 3, should be carefully mapped in advance and not left to chance. That way, all our students stand a better chance of understanding nuance and communicating with precision.
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