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The Vocabulary Habit

Published on: Thursday 18th June 2020

Posted in:  Blog

I recently listened to a Research ED Home webinar by Dylan Wiliam titled “Creating Schools our Children Need” and was struck by several things, in particular his thoughts around classroom habits. I’ve been teaching since 2000and in school leadership capacities for the last 10 yearsdevelopingimplementing and quality assuring countless teacher development programmes, but until last week on listening to Dylan Wiliam, I had never really considered our classroom in terms of habits and quite frankly it shook my foundations! 

In essence, a habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. 

Therefore, everything we purposefully and repeatedly do has the potential to become a habit. So, listening to Dylan Wiliam, and with this definition in my head, it led me to think about the habits we form in the classroom and then where those habits come from.  

I wasn’t born a teacher. I played schools from an incredibly early age, sat at my little orange desk writing names for my class register on the mini blackboard and reprimanding Christopher for being late again. Therefore, you could say the writing was on the wall, but I wasn’t born a teacher. 

At some point I had to learn the tools of my trade and some of these, as the definition suggests, I repeated enough times to make them automatic and therefore habitual. 

One such example clearly springs to mind… 

In my training and early years of teaching I wasn’t a natural classroom manager. I learned my trade in wonderful, yet very challenging schools and I was struggling with being able to command my environment in a way that meant I could begin to really explore and ignite my classroom. I was therefore given the opportunity to spend some time with a gentleman called Ian Mawson, who in my eyes back then was Gods gift to student relationships! He coached me through numerous situations with teenagers and filled my toolkit with countless hints and tricks to support my classroom management. I practisedI reviewed, I practised some moreI started to see progress. I use that exact same toolkit today but now I do it without even thinking. I habitually use the skills I was taught 20 years ago every time I want to develop my relationships with students. They are an automatic response to the situation and have become my classroom habits. 

This then got me thinking further about my passion for the explicit teaching of vocabulary and closing the vocabulary gap within all subjects and key stages across any school and why can’t the explicit teaching of vocabulary become one of our classroom habits? 

But what actually is a habit and how does it link to closing the vocabulary gap? 

To answer that huge question in one blog would be foolish. I have recently read James Clear’s book ‘Atomic Habits’ which carves a very thoughtful and accessible path into the world of habits which I think transcends into our classroom contexts as a way of developing our thinking on how to change classroom habits and ultimately how to close the vocabulary gap once and for all. 

In his book, James Clear speaks of the habit loop which can be summarised into its four partsCue, Crave, Response and Reward. Cue triggers your brain to initiate a behaviour. Crave are motivational forces behind every habit. “Without some level of motivation or desire – without craving a change – we have no reason to act”. Response is the performance of the habit which delivers the reward. Reward is the end goal, the feeling of elation when your behaviours have resulted in the desired outcome. Therefore, if we put Clear’s habit loop into the context of the classroom and associate it with our desire to close the vocabulary gap, we can see how altering classroom habits are crucial in creating a holistic and explicit approach to the teaching of vocabulary across the curriculum. A scenario for a school leader or individual teacher could be: 

Cue – My students are behind. Lockdown has meant some have regressed and I’m worried about the greater gaps in their vocabulary and reading abilities. 

Crave – I need them to catch up. I desire for the gap to be closed. I’m sick and tired of students from this community being behind and seen as not as worthy. 

Respond – I am activelypurposefully and explicitly going to teach vocabulary to students. I am going to seek support from agencies internally and externally and develop my own toolkit so I can teach vocabulary regardless of the year group or subject in front of me. I will keep repeating this process until it has become my automatic and default mode of teaching and until I can see recognition and progress in my students. 

Reward – My students do not have a gap. They can access all of the curriculum and are not disadvantaged due to the pandemic or social differences. 

In this scenario however, the crucial stage is repetition or what I like to call ‘Challenge and Repeat’. Anyone who has been through therapeutic services or interventions will know the importance of challenge and repeat. In other words, there’s little point in doing something once. 

It has to be challenged and repeated time and time again to strengthen those neural pathways and turn an incident into a habit, which leadto automaticity in behaviours and learning.  

Changing our habits is a long and challenging process but, with training, support, patience and time, we can do it. 

Maybe we could once and for all close or at least narrow the vocabulary gap if we invest in our teachers and ourselves and developed explicit vocabulary instruction habits within our schools and classrooms. 

If you would like more information on how Lexonik can support you in altering classroom habits and closing the vocabulary gap, then please click here. 

Sarah Ledger
Product Development Manager

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