Using Key Vocabulary

The late J C Best, former headteacher of Christchurch School, North Finchley, used to say, ‘every lesson is an English lesson’. In many ways this is quite true. Regardless of the subject, every lesson will have is discrete key vocabulary (KV). In planning a lesson, key vocabulary is a significant element. If nothing else, it could get you past a learning focus you can’t quite pin down.

There are six rules for making the most effective use of KV:

Rule 1 – stick to the conceptual

This is important so try to make the KV conceptual every time if you can.  The new national curriculum is predicated on conceptual development so choose the conceptual words or phrases that will help your pupils to understand the learning. So, in a lesson about floating and sinking, for example, ‘upthrust’ and ‘density’ will really help. If, by the end of the lesson, pupils can explain what these terms mean, there’s a fair chance they have a better overall understanding of floating and sinking.

Rule 2 – keep it simple

Our brains are pretty good at picking up new things but we need to make it stick. That’s why KV should be up to five words max in any lesson. I might be able to remember five words; I’ll forget the bulk of ten. Three key terms are ideal. And, focus on the important and the new. Thus, in a Year 1 lesson on shape, the teacher had displayed ‘pentagon, hexagon and octagon’, which were perfect: simple, new and learnable. Then she’d added ‘shape’. That was unnecessary; it was a term the pupils already knew and it kind of diluted the importance of the new stuff.

Rule 3 – teach it

This vocabulary is not a secret so pupils should not be left to discover it for themselves. Make a point of teaching the key vocabulary at the beginning of the lesson. You won’t be arrested by the maths police for teaching them words! Teach them and pupils will better understand them when they are encountered in the course of the lesson.

Rule 4 – display it

Having taught the words, you want the pupils to know and use them so keep them on display. That way pupils can learn the spelling without asking you and they are available as reminders and for use in pupils’ work. There is a little visual memory trick to where you display them. That is up and to the right of the visual focus (ie the whiteboard etc). This is because, when we think hard to remember stuff, most of us move our eyes up and to the right (some go left, but they are fewer). So, when the words are not there and pupils want to recall them they will use visual memory and ‘see’ them where they were originally displayed.

Rule 5 – use it

Having introduced the key words, use them. It sounds obvious but it’s quite easy to fail to actually use them as we teach. Any response from pupils should carry the expectation that they will use the KV correctly and appropriately – and they need not ask you how to spell them; they’re on display!

Rule 6 – reinforce it

When you summarise the learning, you will already have populated your plenary with the learning question(s) you used to focus your teaching. The KV enables you to check pupils’ learning and, if these are key concepts, you can test understanding through your questioning.

So, the key vocabulary, rather than being a minor aspect of the lesson, suddenly becomes an important tool. Here’s an example of effective use:

The lesson is Year 4, art. It is about drawing a landscape in charcoal. The teacher has written ‘We are learning to draw a landscape’. This is not a great LO as it’s a bit task-focused but it works because the learning is reasonably clear. However, she has also identified the following KV:-

vanishing point



Now, these are clearly conceptual. If you understand the concepts of vanishing point and perspective and can apply them, then you are halfway to drawing a landscape. Her pupils may not have been able to remember the spelling of chiaroscuro but all remembered it was about light and shade so they could use their charcoal to create effects. At the end of the lesson she returned to the KV; who can tell me what vanishing point means? etc and so anchored the learning. Good teaching.


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