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5 Ways to Make Sure your Students Definitely Understand what you’re Saying

Support your students towards better language use, with the help of our resident word-wizard Alex Quigley…

  • 5 Ways to Make Sure your Students Definitely Understand what you’re Saying

Teachers can sometimes suffer from the ‘curse of the expert’. That is to say, we can forget that the language of our subject is a challenge for every pupil.

We can easily take for granted the countless of words and phrases that comprise what we know of our subject.

It is helpful, as the school year careers ahead, to check ourselves and tread carefully with vocabulary we use in our explanations and the words we choose to teach, continuing to ask questions to probe our students’ prior knowledge.

1 | Try this today: Word chains

Students are taught important subject-specific vocabulary daily, alongside encountering many academic words that mark out the reading we do in school from much that we read outside of the school gates. We want to make explicit to our pupils that they should connect academic words to words they already know, to other ideas and concepts.

With ‘word chains’ we encourage students to make as many connections as they can. Those pupils who can add most links create the strongest chains. For example, in music, GCSE students who are given the term ‘pitch’ need to make links like ‘range’, ‘register’, ‘sharp/flat’ and ‘pentatonic’.

2 | One word at a time

There are some words that we would be very unhappy to hear our students using to describe one another, but are worth exploring for their etymology. ‘Moron’, for example, was coined in 1910 by American psychologists to describe people with low IQs.

However, the term quickly moved into more general use. Like most medical words, it is drawn from ancient Greek, coming from ‘moros’, meaning ‘foolish or stupid’. You can see the link to the English literature device ‘oxymoron’, meaning ‘sharp foolish’ (itself an oxymoron!).

3 | I don’t think it means what you think it means…

Take a moment to consider words that students confuse based on them having subject specific meanings that are significantly different from their everyday usage. In everyday life, a ‘moment’ is a general point in time – usually one of some significance emotionally.

However, in physics, ‘moment’ relates to a ‘moment of force’: a measure of its tendency to cause a body to rotate about a specific point or axis. Many such words in science can lead to misconceptions, and this is something we need to address in the classroom.

4 | Cracking the academic code

An ‘appositive’ is one of the grammatical features in academic English that we are very familiar with and use in our writing, yet most teachers wouldn’t know to name it as such.

Effectively, it is a noun or noun phrase that helpfully adds further information to a sentence, as in: ‘Iago, the antagonist, acts with sinister intent in every scene’.

Here, the italicised words add important detail, exhibiting the student’s knowledge of the play and common features. An appositive can add detail for clarity, or exhibit further knowledge of a phenomenon, whilst adding an academic sheen to our students’ writing.

5 | One for…Art students

In art, students need to understand many specific words and phrases about artistic methods and periods etc. One interesting term is ‘chiaroscuro’.

Italian in origin, it is perhaps most famously represented in Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic ‘Mona Lisa’. It describes an artist using both light and shadow (literally meaning ‘light and dark’) to create a vivid, three-dimensional sense in a painting or image.

Do they know?

One in five students are classified as EAL. Many such students actually have the boon of knowing and using more than one language.


Alex Quigley is the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap. He also works for the Education Endowment Foundations as National Content Manager, supporting teachers to engage with research evidence.

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