“It’s like ra-a-a-ain on you’re wedding day – that’s only ironic if you’re marrying a weatherman and he set the date.” Ed Byrne on the Alanis Morissette song ‘Ironic.’

As Ed Byrne points out Ms. Morissette’s grasp on irony is at the very least debatable. Somewhere her English teacher is either devastated, or extremely proud. Alanis seems to have missed the point of that key term. Alternatively, she has understood it so well that she was able to create a song about irony which contains only erroneous examples, ironically.

Given the frequency with which she likely encountered this word it seems odd that she had not mastered its most fundamental concept. Irony is an ever present feature of narrative, humour and daily life. It is mentioned four times in context in the film ‘Treasure Planet’, which I watched with my friends and their kids (aged 6-10) the other night. Yet Alanis is most certainly not alone in not understanding. Having taught A level English language a few years ago I was shocked to see how many students did not know the key terminology of the course. Frustrated, I resolved to teach this terminology to all my groups, including Year 7.

The effect was some fairly awkward observations, whereby the students used the terms either constantly or incorrectly, or both. The observers commented on how they didn’t need to know this yet. Maybe they were right but how else are they to know it by A level. My colleague Bridget Norman, introduced us to the research of McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople recently.  They found that ‘children did not really know and understand words they had only encountered four times, but they did know and understand words they encountered twelve times. ‘ Twelve meaningful times in a two year course is near impossible- the journey to having the requisite language for expression is obviously going to be far longer than that.

Year 7 need to experience the language they need for the subject. Language is a concept and without concepts they cannot possibly articulate their views on the text being studied. There is nothing fundamentally more complex about some words than others, we feel we can rank but these rankings are almost certainly arbitrary. I did not understand the word ‘adverb’ until my undergraduate degree, yet I had the words ‘hamartia, semantic fields, and etymology’ at my disposal. The only difference was that I’d been taught those words. Being asked to analyse a text without the appropriate language is, after all, somewhat like having ‘10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.’ If the target terminology needs to be encountered twelve times then that needs to begin as soon as possible. It needs to be revisited and it needs to be expected in all of our students writing and verbal responses.

However, it is not just key terminology I am targeting, I want to expand their vocabulary too. All aspects of my subject are underpinned by the size of a child’s vocabulary. Low vocabulary, low comprehension and limited expression. Each group will have fifteen key new words to learn this half term. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, found that children from “higher income families were exposed to around 30 million more words than children from families on welfare”and the  achievement gap between PP and non-PP is a gulf nationally, it seems logical to suggest that there may be a link and something needs to be done. If only so students can understand the texts they read, “In order comprehend a text we need to know an estimated 95% of its vocabulary” ED Hirsch Jr Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World. Without a broad vocabulary students WILL be left behind, and in being left behind likely to continue the familial cycle of poverty.

As a result all of my lessons this term will be starting with a vocabulary activity. I’ve planned to use a mixture of progressive disclosure and bulked approach in teaching this key vocabulary. The students have been given a half-termly vocabulary list which they can revise from. I’ve also set homework so using the app ‘memrise’ to support this key knowledge. In addition I’m using the language regularly in lessons and having terminology analysis as a key focus across many lessons.

The vocabulary activities at the start of the lesson are planned out over the course of the half term. They begin with matching exercises, before progressing to antonym/synonym recognition and finally using the words in sentences. For example, I frequently ask Year 9 to describe a character from the text using one of the fifteen words, before justifying their selections. It is a really neat starter which hopefully should support excellent depth analysis. In addition to this, I use the words in my language as a focus- this is difficult to remember to do and the top end are finding it quite annoying, but in dropping these words in (plus a synonym or two) I’m hoping to make it stick. In the future, I may need to think about stretching the top end but I need to be certain that they’ve secured this language first and that these methods are working.

I am still in the earlier days of this practice but I am already seeing results. Students know begin responses with phrases like “Roylett is shown as ruthless here, his medical background indicates his obvious knowledge of the writhing agony Miss Stoner will experience.” Previously, I know for a fact they wouldn’t have used this type of language. I’m interested to incorporate ‘Slow Writing’ (detailed here) and Katie Ashford’s ‘Show Sentences’ discussed here.

How to teach them, and make them stick:

  • Memrise and similar apps.
  • Erroneous examples.
  • Antonyms and synonyms.
  • Using target language.
  • Regular quizzing with progressive difficulty.
  • Application to text/work studied.
  • Cloze sentences.
  • Student created examples.


Over the next year I am going to make this a key focus in my lessons and really zoom in on getting analytical data for the mot effective methods.  I will gather plenty of data and vary the methods across a broad group of students, and based on that I’ll try to cement some good practice. I intend to read a little more on the subjects and Andy Tharby has already recommended Isabel Beck’s book ‘Bringing words to life’ and I intend to delve into this for some strategies and deep thinking.