Embedding Vocabulary into the Curriculum: Romeo and Juliet

Words are everything. But how to embed them coherently into a whole unit of work?

Vocabulary has been the focus of much discussion and how we apply this to our lesson planning is essential. We have a moral imperative to introduce our students to a wide array of vocabulary because in word poor environments if we do not do so, how will they be exposed to them?

We cannot anticipate that all students will, of their own accord, seek out challenging material out of a sheer love of a subject. Of course, we will always have exceptional individuals but I know that as a student, I myself was like water in that I found the path of least resistance through my studies. I avoided difficulty where possible but had excellent reading and vocabulary modelled for me both at school and home. We must consider carefully how vocabulary awareness is taught and not just rely on independent reading alone. Vocabulary awareness and cultural capital has the ability to transform academic potential and in the right environment allow our students to thrive.

Vocabulary lists, word banks, even key words broken down to their etymological roots all form valuable parts of clear and robust vocabulary instruction. However, I have been reflecting on how this ‘zooming in’ approach into words translates to our wider curriculum. We musn’t become so fixated on exploring the depth of vocabulary in lesson silos that we do not consider how this interweaves with the wider web of the students’ topical narrative. How does this feed into their threshold concepts necessary for the next unit in the literary canon? Or texts in the year after?


The impact that embedding vocabulary into the curriculum in our context has had is staggering. As a result of our international context many students are transient and therefore we are tackling low levels of literacy from their prior education sometimes in other countries. In conjunction with this we have a high proportion of our cohorts as EAL/ESL learners who often need to translate the material into their home language before processing. Both of these contextual obstacles serve to leave our students with less academic vocabulary than their British counterparts through no fault of their own. We also refuse to see EAL/ESL as a barrier that inhibits progress and make explicit connections to their home language by translanguaging our vocabulary. This encourages connections and champions their multilingual approach. Students with robust vocabulary instruction and reading support made 10 months reading age progress in 5 months measured; outperforming native-english speaking students in rapid progress which fits the profile of an EAL learner. Boys only within this group made between 19 and 13 months improvement in the same 5 month period. With one Year 8 student with a reading age of 5 years making 52 months progress over the course of this academic year so far which highlights that the longer students are in our curriculum, the more successful they become despite their low starting points. This accumulative impact is a result of tutor time reading intervention; Literacy intervention groups; much focus on Tier 2 vocabulary and building a research-informed curriculum that is both rigorous and supportive for our students.

Starting with the Scheme

As Head of English, I have spent a great deal of time considering and evaluating our curriculum: the order in which we approach texts and concepts and how each ties into the helix of Key Stage 3, 4 and 5. Here I’m focusing on sharing how we have built vocabulary into the foundations of our study of Romeo and Juliet to go beyond key word banks and the impact it has had.

Our Scheme of Work for Romeo and Juliet has a ‘front page’ with a concentrated version of the course on one page for teachers to clearly see the mapping of the unit over a number of weeks. Each column represents a learning cycle which can be one or two weeks long. Within this I’ve outlined the rationale and thread that tracks through the SOW therefore any teachers new to our school or approach and clearly follow the patterns as they emerge in the text study. We have pre-planned exploratory and comprehension questions which act as a starting point for teachers to take and expand. I feel the addition of this ‘front page’ to our schemes allows the planning process to be more organic whilst also offering timely points of reference as we move through the text. The rows ‘Terminology, Context & Intertextuality’ and ‘Tier 2 Vocabulary’ are the most important. These complement our knowledge organisers, and ensure there is a basic expectation of the key concepts and vocabulary which teachers will address as they move through the unit with their students. The concepts and vocabulary are chosen to support understanding of major themes within the text in the order which they are addressed. For example: Chorus, Violence, Shakespearean Tragedy, Genre and Subversion, Exposition, Explore contrast of Fate and Fortune in Contemporary Beliefs and Superstition’ are all within the first learning cycle as they lay the foundation for understanding the reactions and motivations of characters later in the play.


Our approach and resources are always under review and as the majority of our cohort is EAL we found that with straightforward vocabulary lists for spelling and definitions, students were using the correct vocabulary but their morphology was incorrect and hindered the clarity of their arguments. A character might be described as ‘innocence’, the abstract noun, rather than using the adjective innocent or even the noun, an innocent. To this end, we addressed our next group of selected vocabulary to explicitly state the word class, discuss and model these to the class to ensure correct usage. We chose to highlight the difference between abstract nouns and regular nouns as this supports our grammar work with EAL cohorts in conjunction with their literacy interventions.

Tiered Vocabulary

The next stage was vocabulary lists 2.0

We focused on ten words a week and revisited the vocabulary throughout the term rather than giving students a more extensive list. Each word had its word class (in grey); the Arabic translation to support our weakest students; a concise teacher-created definition and synonyms. See where I have posted previously on our vocabulary lists and translations. The definition is more important than is initially given credit. Isabel Beck discusses the limited quality of dictionary definitions as, by nature, they are very much limited by the space on the page. I also firmly believe the time spent searching for a definition in a, let’s face it, sub-standard school dictionary is dead time. Teachers are the gate-keepers of this knowledge and to withhold it in such a manner seems self-defeating. We can ensure all students have the same definitions across the department and this coherence is especially important when taking on a new class; we can be confident of their prior knowledge. Finally, the synonyms allows our students to explore relationships between words as well as stretch and challenge as they are encouraged to apply these to their single word analyses for much more in-depth analytical responses. We test these once a week and then revisit in a random mixture to ensure that they are retained and used frequently.


Vocabulary Case Studies

“Make a case study of words” – Doug Lemov

Since reading Reading Reconsidered this phrase above all else resonated with me. It highlighted the importance of really unpacking a word’s meaning both in relation to a text or character, but etymologically and to other ‘word families’ which are linked to it. Out of the ten standard spellings and definitions from the vocabulary lists each week, we focus on high utility words and unpack their meaning to a forensic degree using the model below:


I have written about this format previously here: Word of the Week Case Studies and an example from our Great Expectations Unit. Here are some of the Romeo & Juliet Key Vocabulary Case Studies. Students have ‘Magpie Books’ which we adapted from the ‘Magpieing’ of vocabulary in Talk to Writing into books that students carry through with them each year to their new teacher. They build up a bank of vocabulary and terminology which chronicles their journey through our curriculum and acts as a reference point almost every lesson. I have kept the format simple and it has become embedded as part of our routine. For Malcontent for example, we read Tybalt’s lines within the play and explored his tone and intentions. Once students had a solid grounding of his characterisation I introduced ‘Malcontent’ framed by his character to act as an anchoring point in their understanding. We always begin with the etymology and morphology and then explore synonyms and antonyms. This is always a perfect opportunity to deal with subtle permutations of words and address misconceptions and non-examples. We have applied Dual Coding here with the silhouetted chess pieces to visually reinforce the meanings of synonym and antonym. Beck explores this in her book, Bringing Words to Life: “students have to identify the word’s semantic field…whether [a word] has to do with” another. Consequently, on the whiteboard in class we might place the synonyms and antonyms on a continuum with the focus word in the center as not all are direct synonyms but add colour and depth to the definition by exploring the relationships.

For stretch and challenge, this offers a perfect opportunity for a comparison to other Shakespearean characters such as Don Juan in Much Ado about Nothing and Iago in Othello, how are they similar or different? It was interesting as it helped to dispel misconceptions that ‘Malcontent’ meaning moody, sulky or sullen as Iago is an excellent manipulator and jovial character when he needs to be.

Other words we approach slightly differently. Abstract concepts we address with synonyms, translations (both in Arabic and phonetic Arabic for EAL) and Dual Coding of images to best represent their purpose in the text. After much unpicking of these two words in particular and their link to the Prologue, we can refer back to the image as a trigger for students’ memory. The icons support wider links to other parts of the texts such as Romeo’s reference to “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” in Act 1 Scene 4 and allows our students to start connecting quotations together on a thematic level. Which, with an EAL year 8 class is certainly something. With this support, many quickly leapfrog from “star-cross’d lovers” in the Prologue to “O! I am Fortune’s Fool!” in Act 3 Scene 1. This allows them to confidently make structural comments on the play through the language used by Shakespeare. I have used FlatIcon.com for these images and found it a strong bank to draw from as long as they are accredited. The simplicity of icons is ideal for Dual Coding. In a recent discussion with Oliver Caviglioli he put me on to the TheNounProject.com with over 2 million curated icons which is incredible.


Reinforcing Vocabulary: Vocabulary Jumble

Revisiting learned vocabulary in starters and ‘Do Now’ tasks are crucial for embedding a word into long term memory. A Key Word Jumble appeared on my timeline not long ago and it seemed like a perfect way to revisit definitions of words but also to address grammatical errors in the sentences of English Language Learners. It had a second useful impact: during spelling and definition tests students were trying to condense the definitions down to the smallest possible versions of their original. Much like my own water analogy for study, they were sacrificing meaning entirely at the altar of reduced sentences. By ensuring students rebuilt the sentences in the correct order from the original definition it solidified the full and correct definition in their minds.


Words as anchors for Analysis

Lastly and most simply, we use the key vocabulary both from the Tier 2 vocabulary that surrounds the text and that found within the text itself to anchor their analysis to. We use the Dual Coding image of the Magpie to reinforce words that need to be defined in their Magpie Books and key words that we have addressed previously are always highlighted within questions on the board to highlight their significance. Words are not learnt once and forgotten about but rather dusted off and trotted out repeatedly within a sequence of lessons to solidify it within the students’ memories. It also builds confidence in students in their own verbal and written usage of words that were once unfamiliar to them.



Linking Vocabulary across Topics

When deciding which words will be our focus on close examination from a text or that would illuminate a text, we consider the utility of these words. Are there any key terms or Tier 2 Vocabulary from our previous topic which could be reapplied in a new context? How can the concepts we explore now within Romeo and Juliet support student’s understanding of the topics coming after it? This is where simply highlighting these key words for emphasis draws students’ attention back to words which they have embedded previously and are confident in using. By applying them to a new context with guidance and structure, we have found that students are more ready to apply challenging vocabulary to new contexts and even draw upon words and connections that offer a fresh perspective for the teacher. It is always moments like this that make me burst with pride at the sophisticated use of language our students can offer when given all the tools to do so.

Image credit: Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

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Jancke Dunn

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