Vocabulary Instruction on Doctor's Orders

a doctor asleep at a desk surrounded by books with one over his head

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A man is getting ready for bed when there’s a knock on the front door. He goes downstairs and there on the doorstep is a snail with a clipboard. “I understand you’re thinking about changing your energy supplier,” begins the snail. The man gives the snail an angry look and kicks him down the road. Six months later, same time of night, there’s another knock. Again, the man goes downstairs, opens the door and the snail says, “So what was that all about then?”.

Whenever a snail pops up in a joke, you’re waiting for a punchline about speed or time, right? However, with a couple of tweaks, our anecdotal snail could be starring in a modern-day Aesop fable about resilience.

Over half-term, we binged on ‘This is Going to Hurt’, the BBC adaptation of Adam Kay’s best-selling account of life as a junior doctor, so resilience has been much on my mind. Ben Wishaw is excellent at conveying the relentless pressures of the role, though I still can’t watch him without thinking of his ursine alter-ego; fortunately, Doctor Ben is a much safer pair of hands, and no marmalade sandwiches get dropped inside the patients.

In a recent interview, talking about his preparation for the part, he mentioned having to absorb a whole raft of medical jargon. Not surprising, given that medical students are expected to pick up around 5,000 subject-specific words during their training. And this fact made me think about another, possibly less obvious, group for whom resilience is key – schoolchildren.

In ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, Alex Quigley informs us that 2,000 words make up 80% of our spoken language but, to succeed at GCSE level, students need a word bank of around 50,000. Not only is this around 25 times more words than are used in everyday conversation, it is also 10 times more than the 5,000 words medical students are confronted with. Furthermore, most often these will be complex, subject-specific words which rarely appear outside their academic disciplines.

This is why, whenever we embark on a new Lexonik training session, we always include some empathetic exercises to make our delegates aware of the kind of challenges their pupils face on a daily basis, and the resilience needed to deal with them. Most teachers, though by no means all, are confident in their use of literacy; it’s good to turn the tables now and again.

Dig a little deeper, and you will find that teachers too have their own particular weaknesses. Early in my career, I attended an ICT training course. This was way back in the pre-internet days when the subject was very much in its infancy. However, things were still moving too fast for one of the learners. Frustrated by her lack of progress, she left halfway through, informing the tutor that “This is making me feel really stupid!” before storming out and slamming the door behind her. Unfortunately, it was a fire door, so we had to wait a good few minutes before the dust finally settled – not quite the dramatic exit she’d intended, but still, you get the picture. I wonder how she’d have dealt with a pupil who behaved in the same way.

Which brings us back to Quigley and the question he poses: how can teachers close this vocabulary divide, the gap between the everyday and the academic, and between the lives of students for whom, in school as at home, reading and conversation are second nature, and their classmates, who may not get the same level of support?

At Lexonik, we foster resilience with regard to understanding language in very specific ways. There is a strong etymological element to our training – games and activities which focus on the origins of language and encourage a morphemic analysis of words, both familiar and unfamiliar. This in turn develops students’ metacognitive skills, and, in so doing, provides a strategy with which to approach unfamiliar vocabulary.

Basically, it’s just thinking and linking, and often these links come from unexpected sources. This usually happens when students have attended the first few weeks of Lexonik Advance, and, as vocabulary detectives, are ready to take a risk with their ideas. The moment when their attempted definition begins with “I’m not sure, but….”

Like the student who looked blankly at the word ‘miscellaneous’ before recognising and linking ‘misc’ to a tab on Minecraft. Or another, stumped by ‘rejuvenation’, who noticed that the ‘juve’ looked very much like the Juvey-cops who tracked down the teenagers in ‘Unwind’, the class reader. Or, bringing us bang up to date, the student who worked out the meaning of ‘bilateral’ with reference to a bicycle and the line on a lateral flow test.

It’s a great skill to develop, and once you start analysing vocabulary in this way, the connections will keep on coming. One of our Lexonik teachers on the south coast shared a powerful anecdote about an ex-student who popped back from university to thank her for the lessons that had turned his life around. I’m not sure if he was studying medicine, but for him, clearly, it didn’t hurt a bit.

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.