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.


3 thoughts on “Vertical vocabulary

  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for posting this. It made an interesting read. I am always interested to see how other teachers approach the perennial challenge of getting pupils to write effectively. I have never been a huge fan of PEEL or its derivatives because, so often, this is not the way real historians write, so definitely sympathise with your starting point.

    I have picked up on one or two bits of the blog with the aim of offering some comment. I hope they are constructive.

    “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.”

    I am not sure that an enquiry focus in history automatically leads us to believe that the “vertical vocabulary” you talk about will simply be absorbed over time. In fact, I think specific enquiries which focus on the use of explanatory language by historians can be very beneficial to pupils in developing their own subject and domain specific responses. I am sure Rachel Foster has done something along these lines, and I know there is a great section on this and historians’ use of modal verbs in Counsell’s “History and Literacy in Y7” from 2004.

    More than this, I think the enquiry focus is pivotal to helping students to write more effectively, as every part of their learning on the topic helps them to develop their answer to the given question. As such, a good teacher can keep them puzzling about why Hitler took 14 years to get into power, or how significant the French Revolution really was. The work and discussions they do throughout an enquiry help develop students’ argument and therefore helps them to write their own without the need for restrictive writing frames. Again, there is a lot written on this approach.

    “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.”

    Here I would agree with you much more. The question is whether that explicit teaching needs to be direct input of words and their meanings, or contextual reading of words being used effectively by real historians. I would probably argue that the more we expose children to the work of historians, the more likely they are to emulate the approaches and language they use. If we then put a specific focus on language use, this makes the process even more effective. A good example of this I tried with Year 9 was to focus on historians’ explanations of Stalin’s rise to power. Pupils were asked to identify the language used by historians such as Peter Kenez and Orlando Figes in describing and analysing the process of consolidation. They then used this same language when writing about Stalin’s consolidation of power.

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

    I actually don’t mind a basic paragraph structure: hamburger, PEEL, PEEEEL, PEDEL, PIE, whatever, as long as it doesn’t supersede the thinking. I see why you have modified the PEEL approach and come up with a useful alternative. However, I fear you may find the same issue with this as with PEEL. Jim Carroll has written on this much more eloquently than I, but the generic paragraph structure can often be a hindrance to pupils expressing their reasoning in historically specific ways.
    In the same way, getting them to delete a word in a sentence will certainly ensure one of the chosen pieces of vertical vocab is present, but it does not necessarily follow that the child has considered that word choice carefully, nor that it advances the argument they want to give.

    “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.”

    Again, I can see the purpose of doing this, but is this actually what historians do in the case of the outbreak of the Civil War? One of the hallmarks of really effective historical writing is for students to be able to draw together examples from across temporal divides and connect them effectively. In terms of the outbreak of the Civil War, one might sensibly begin with the prayer book rebellion, connect this back to Charles’ marriage as an inauspicious start, before going on to explain how the Laudian reforms caused such divisions over 6 years.

    In many ways it might be better to look at how an historian of the Civil War has tackled such an explanation. Pupils might explore a Peacey, or a Worsley. Even a Starkey might suffice for the purpose.

    Some reading I have found particularly helpful on this thorny issue (including some which makes the case for a good enquiry question) are:

    J. Carroll (2016) “Grammar. Nazis. Does the grammatical ‘release the conceptual’?” in Teaching History, 163
    J. Carroll (2016) “The whole point of the thing: how nominalisation might develop students’ written causal arguments.” in Teaching History, 162
    C. Counsell (2004) History and literacy in Y7: building the lesson around the text (especially the chapters on Causal Reasoning and Eileen Power)
    R. Foster & K. Goudie (2016) “Shaping the debate: why historians matter more than ever at GCSE.” in Teaching History, 163


  2. Yes – interesting blog post! Glad you are writing again as I had learnt lots from an earlier post on teaching geography.

    1. For some reason I can’t see the essay.

    2. Please forgive my questions if they are quite basic but there are a few things I wonder when reading your blog and as I’m a primary person it may be that the answers are obvious to secondary people.

    a) Why do you say the vertical knowledge is more difficult than the horizontal? Maybe you have defined the vertical and emphasized it but you haven’t defined the horizontal as clearly.
    For example, KS2 pupils (Y3/Y4 aged 8/9) will remember Tarquin the Proud was the last Roman king. They also remember that Alfred was the first King of all England. By Y6 they know that Macbeth was a fictional thane/war lord and he became a tyrant king.
    Now, I want KS2 to be able to talk about the change from war lords to kings to emperors. So I have to define war-lord, king and emperor and talk about these ideas as often and with as much colour as I tell the story of Tarquin, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Offa, Alfred and Macbeth.
    So, the kids think of the word king and they have as much of a story around that word as they do around the people. They think of a definition (person who has the power to make others do things, particularly to make others pay taxes, go to war and buy/sell/trade goods) and of examples of kings and how they fit the definition. Over their time in KS2 they get the chance to meet many kings (weak and strong) and non-examples. They even get to understand that there are two types of Queen – one who is the wife of a king (wife of most kings – they have no power) and one who is a female king (Elizabeth 1).

    What do you think? Have I missed something?

    b) What are the great themes in history that you personal would love it if Y7 arrived having a rough idea of. I personally like the idea of power, war, clothing and society.
    (Clothing seems trival but it’s such and easy way to get the little-ones out of history being ‘a long time ago’ and help them to understand that:
    1980s – people wear trainers, t-shirts, jeans and tracksuits
    1960s – men wore hats
    1820s – men wore breeches
    1700s – men wore wigs


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