Chunks of pizza: a little thought on vocabulary.

Another aspect of my teaching that I have tried to pay more attention to this year is much more explicit vocabulary teaching. Following on from Lindsay Skinner in both her closing keynote at TENC18, and again at the PiXL conference in October, students need to be explicitly taught vocabulary before looking at the language within the context of a text in order to fully grasp what the statement means, yet along what it implies about the character.

Take Mr Birling; as he pushes port towards Eric in opening lines of An Inspector Calls. In order to be in a position to consider the nuances of this line, the student must process the following information:

  • What port is,
  • Port is also a homograph,
  • What particular traditions and etiquette are attached to when and where one has port, after a meal, in company, status attached to the merits of a wine, port or whisky.
  • The masculinity or femininity attached to drinking port as opposed to another drink.
  • The subtlety of Birling passing the port to the left, in keeping with naval tradition, indicating to us that whilst a buffoon in many ways, Birling knows his port rules at least.
  • That Birling passes to his son first – perhaps in keeping with ‘port to port’ but on some level, recognition that gives Eric an opportunity to rise to expectation.

each sector of this comprehension of the word leads to the next to an extent, although the the earlier stages are essential to a grounding of the word in context: the later stages are ‘nice to have.’

It is for this reason amongst others, that it is judicious to teach the vocabulary explicitly before within the context of the text. I’ve had many debates around taking vocabulary out of the context of a text, and it was a complete revelation to me a year ago, to the extent that as a teacher, I felt a bit silly. Of course you need to understand words in order to understand the nuances of the word within a text, (again, a PiXL breakout that explored the danger of synonyms blew my mind a little- slices are chunks are pieces, but no one has a chunk of pizza) and there’s a lot to be said for being aware that as a well-read teacher of English, you’re taking the stance from someone with a substantial word bank of etymological knowledge that you use in somewhat of a sixth sense.

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