Vertical vocabulary

One of the great things about working at Michaela is the symbiosis that happens between colleagues. Inevitably for me, this exchange of ideas is most keenly felt between the Humanities and English Departments and, specifically, between the essays that our pupils write in English and history. As Katie has written here, she and the English Department have developed the ‘show sentence’ in order to combat the problem of what happens after the classic sentence starter ‘This demonstrates that…’

A similar problem afflicts history teachers. We can drill pupils all we like on significant dates, people and places, but that does not, on its own, give our pupils the vocabulary to express what these dates, events and people mean. Unless history is to become ‘just one damn thing after another’ we need our pupils to be able to know what I call ‘vertical’ as well as ‘horizontal’ vocabulary. If the names of dates, people and places help our pupils to describe the ‘horizontal’ narrative of history, our ‘vertical’ vocabulary expresses the themes that link seemingly disparate periods of history together. This is the vocabulary that we need to express change and continuity, cause and consequence, conflict, power, economy and ideas. Crucially, this vertical vocabulary is always domain specific: the causes of the First World War and the causes of the Enlightenment will require different explanatory toolkits. An how are our pupils expected to master this vocabulary if we are not the ones to give it to them?

The big mistake that I made when I first started teaching was to presume that this ‘vertical’ vocabulary would just be discovered over time. I think there are many of the ‘enquiry’ bent who still think that this is something that just appears via osmosis. But I now see that this is as much as a nonsense as presuming that pupils will discover any other form of knowledge. Words like ‘tension’, ‘consolidated, ‘exacerbated’ which express historical ‘analysis’ are as much a form of knowledge as ‘King John’, ‘1215’ and ‘Runneymede’. Pupils must be explicitly taught such vertical vocabulary (and even occasionally make mistakes with it as they use it in different contexts) so that an initially inflexible concept bends and flexes over time.

Over the last two years, we’ve toyed around with various different ways to teach our pupils what a good paragraph looks like, each time desperately trying to get away from the straightjacket of PEEL and towards an understanding of paragraph formation that actually concentrates on what it is that the pupils find most difficult. As the English department have found, ‘this demonstrates…’ is not the part of the paragraph that pupils find the most challenging; it’s what comes next. The challenge for history teachers is not just making sure that our pupils remember the ‘horizontal’ vocabulary of dates, people and places, but to remember the ‘vertical’ vocabulary, too. This is exceptionally difficult, not least because the vertical vocabulary pupils need to express themselves with sophistication changes between periods of history and therefore from unit to unit.

What we’ve tried to do is break down paragraph construction into its component parts:

Point: What is your answer to the question?

Information: What dates, people and places have you remembered (we use this term deliberately) that support your point?

Explanation: Why are these dates, people and places significant? As my colleague, Mike, puts it – ‘So what?’

So if we were preparing our pupils for a question on the causes of the English Civil War, we would use an example show them the sort of structure and vocabulary that we’d expect to see in a good paragraph. We broke this essay down for our weakest pupils so they had to write an essay which included paragraphs on religion, power and finance as well as a conclusion. Have we had to over-simplify it as a consequence? Yes, of course. That is the price we have to pay to give them the foundational knowledge that they will critique as they learn more. I haven’t here got into the debate about long and short-term causes, although colleagues teaching more able pupils certainly would.

Here’s how we structured one of the model paragraphs on the religious causes of the Civil War for our weakest group in Year 8 (bottom quartile). The vocabulary that I’ve emboldened has been written into the booklets we use in class so that, by the time I get to the lesson, they should already be familiar with it. We need to be as confident that our pupils know the vertical vocabulary before an assessment as we are that they know the horizontal.

Question: Why did the English Civil War break out in 1642?

The English Civil War broke out in 1642 because of religious tension/enmity/division/animosity/hostility between the Puritan Parliament and the Arminian Crown.

In 1625, Charles I married the Catholic French Princess Henrietta Maria. This was important because the Parliament was predominantly Puritan and it increased suspicion that Charles was a secret papist.

In 1633, Charles appointed William Laud, an Arminian, Archbishop of Canterbury. This created further division because Laud attacked Puritans and banned their books.

Finally, in 1639, this tension escalated into violence after Charles attempted to impose his English prayer book on Scotland. It was this final act that led to a Scottish rebellion which forced Charles to recall Parliament and sparked off the civil war.

These events show/illustrate/demonstrate/reveal/emphasise that war broke out in 1642 because of increasing religious tension between the Arminian Crown and the Puritan Parliament

How is this different to how I used to teach paragraph construction?

  1. We’re not presuming that pupils will just discover words to express ‘tension’ and the changing relationship between Parliament and the Crown in the period – we’re explicitly giving them to the pupils. We create drills so that the vocabulary they need to express this changing relationship is automatized.
  2. We’re deliberately structured the evidence which supports the point in chronological order to help them remember the examples and to encourage them to think about how this relationship changes leading up to 1642.
  3. Each time they use an example, it’s followed by one sentence of explanation. When we’re constructing this paragraph on the whiteboard we’re saying ‘Yes, but why is it significant that Charles appointed Laud as Archbishop? How does that support your point? SO WHAT?!’

This essay was completed by a pupil in our weakest group in Year 8 at the end of last year (from memory). The pencil mark in the corner is the mark 15/25. What I was most pleased to see was the inclusion of the ‘vertical’ vocabulary that we’d be teaching in the lessons preceding the assessment. We’ve still got a long way to go on this, but I think it shows we’ve made a start.

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