The place of vocabulary building in your history lessons

I get a lot of phone calls asking why there are no vocabulary lists on the website. Teachers are asking because OFSTED is expecting it of them. They want to see not only pupils’ mastery of key terms but also how this mastery progresses across the key stage For that reason , you deserve an explanation for why I have not made this a priority.

Before I give my reasons, might I sound a note of caution about dancing to OFSTED’s tune. Why has vocabulary suddenly surfaced on schools’ agendas? Hasn’t it always been something we need to take very seriously? How can we teach history without pupils understanding what key words and terms mean.So what’s new? Well, to put it bluntly OFSTED has now placed this issue on their criteria for observation of learning. Whilst I have no issue with this, what is happening is that non-specialists are simply looking at the terms on their list and then checking that all pupils understand them. Again, this seems fair, except for one key point. At what age and stage, should pupils know these terms?

As you will see from some of the recent OFSTED reviews I have featured on this part of the site, there have been some pretty shocking incidents of teachers of pupils in KS1 being criticised for the fact that pupils didn’t know what empire meant. Likewise in Y3 teachers were upbraided because pupils did not know the meaning of the word ’peasant’. Having only studied Ancient Egypt this is hardly surprising! So, you see we are in danger of trying to teach pupils words out of context just to keep OFSTED happy when we know it is fundamentally wrong to do so.

Here are the educational reasons:

Reason 1

Vocabulary lists have, by their very nature to be highly context-specific. This raises a massive issue. When you teach the Romans to Y3 you surely use different terms than if you teach it in Y6? So if I were to issue a Roman vocabulary list at which age group would I pitch it? Different schools would then teach different topics after the Romans so rendering the progress OFSTED is expecting to see in vocabulary meaningless. What does progress mean anyway? Take forms of government for a start. If you teach Ancient Egypt in Y3 do you use the word ‘dynasty’. Is this easier than the word empire in Y4 when you teach the Romans or city state in Y6 when you teach the Ancient Greeks.

Reason 2

Just having the word on a vocabulary list doesn’t mean it is being understood at the appropriate level. Learning words without meaning is pointless. Empire might be on your Y3 list but it would also be on my Y9 list. Does that mean there is no progression??

Reason 3

What do we mean by historical vocabulary. To my mind there must be at least two strands; the words we use for first order concepts and those we use for second order concepts.

First order are concepts such as: parliament, kingdom, empire, civilization.

Second order historical concepts are actually more important when showing progression as they are less dependent on context. When for example do you introduce the idea of bias? Motive in writing? What about propaganda: hardly a Y3 concept but certainly teachable in Y6, given the right context. You will want to ensure that all pupils know what is meant by:

– Cause
– Change
– Consequence
– Significance
– Version
– Interpretation
– Chronology

Such as AD ,BC BCE CE: Before Century Decade Millennium Calendar Long ago Ancient Nineteenth century (e.g. for 1845) Duration Period Era

But can’t you help us with at least an example?

Well, here goes. Let’s say I was teaching the struggle between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings to my Y4 class and wanted a 20-word vocabulary list to put on my knowledge organiser, which would you select and why?

Agriculture? pupils certainly need to know what is meant by the word farming

1.Archaeology. Given the wealth of evidence that comes in this form, this is a prerequisite
2.Artefact. It is unlikely that pupils will not have come across the word before in their history learning but if not it is a must here
3.Century. This is crucial here f pupils are to get a ense of duration and interval as well as sequence.
4.Church. It is possible if pupils have studied just the Ancient Egyptians and the Romans previously that they may not have come across this term except as a building
5.Christianity: Essential
6.Conquest: essential though likely to have come across it with the Romans
7.Court:important if pupils are to fully appreciate the work of King Alfred and how we know about his achievements
8.Danelaw. You can’t talk about second half of the period without pupils understanding it
9.Dark Ages. Whole question on this so key
10.Invasion. Should already be embedded but if not, then now
12.Missionary. Crucial
13.Monastery/Monk. Crucial
Museum. Should be taken as read
14.Nation. Crucial as this is the period when England and Scotland emerge as separate distinct nations
15.Pagan. What else do you call pre-Christians?
16.Pillage. Important to understand early Viking attacks
17. Raid. Crucial

Rebellion? Pupils should already have come across this in terms of Boudicca. Likewise with revolt

18.Settlement. Key to pupils understanding contrasting interpretations of the Vikings

19.Stereotype: such an important issue when dealing with the Vikings, even if its nota historical term.
Wergild? If you are focusing on Saxon justice (see the great lesson on what should we do with Edgar), then this is important.
20. Treaty. Impossible to talk about Alfred and the Danes without knowing that a treaty was signed. But what does it mean to Y4 pupils?
So we have left out?
Gods ( surely covered in Ancient Egypt)
Longship? Surely self-evident?

Where do we go from here?

I will be updating and extending this article over the coming months in the light of OFSTED’s comments to breathe an air of reason into the debate.

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