Pedagogy Postcard #16: Learning the language of learning

A series of short posts about specific elements of teaching practice that I think are effective and make life interesting. Some are based on my own lessons and others are borrowed from lessons I’ve observed.



This post is about the need to give students the basic  vocabulary and linguistic tools to communicate about the concepts  and skills they are dealing with in each subject.  I’ve seen excellent practice in my school where teachers take time to teach the language of learning in the subject, in parallel with teaching the subject itself.  Very often students appear to be struggling with a concept when, actually, they are just struggling to find the right language to express their understanding.  Here are a few examples.

In science, a recurring issue is with describing relationships between variables that are captured on a graph.

It 'goes up' every time - but can you describe exactly how?
It ‘goes up’ every time – but can you describe exactly how?

A simple question about the relationships shown will often yield the obvious response:  ‘it goes up’.  A better answer might suggest that as one variable increases, the other variable also increases.  But even if students can see that the shapes are different and have an intuitive sense of what that means, it’s not so easy to put into words.  It is important to invest time in giving students the language to use:

the gradient of the graph is shallow at first, rising slowly until a point at which there is a sharp increase in the gradient;  the gradient is constant;  the graph is initially very steep but then  the gradient decreases until there is only a slight change in variable y as variable x increases; the gradient increases but not as rapidly as the previous graph

Associated with this is the language of change and of scale.  Students often find it easy to say things are ‘different’ or ‘change’ without stating something more precise.  Instead of ‘the temperature changes’ or ‘it gets hotter’ they could be saying ‘the temperature increases’.  Instead of ‘it goes faster’, they could be saying ‘there is an increase in velocity’.  Rather than suggesting that ‘the beakers have different sizes’ they could say ‘this first beaker has a much larger volume than the second beaker’.  I find that even very strong students can be reluctant to go for the more formal expressions; they feel inhibited even if they know the terminology.  The use of precise, formal language like this needs to be modelled continually; normalised by the teacher so that students feel comfortable using it and do so spontaneously.   A simple request for students to re-phrase their responses can be very effective – and much better than accepting and praising the more basic responses and moving on.

In Languages lessons at KEGS, the teacher will often use the target language for the entire lesson – or at least 90% of it. This requires students to learn to understand the basic instructions for activities in the target language:

Besprechen Sie die Antworten mit Ihrem Partner und entscheiden, welche wahr und welche falsch sind.. (Discuss the answers with your partner and decide which are true and which are false ..)

Écoutez attentivement le dialogue et répondre aux questions de compréhension. (Listen carefully to the dialogue and then answer the comprehension questions. )

Several teachers at KEGS have introduced these table mats that give students all the phrases they need to engage in the lesson using the target language.  I’ve seen them in action and they have a superb effect:

German Placemat
German Placemat

At a basic level, if students gain confidence with phrases like “comment dit-on” instead of “how do you say” then they can engage even when they’re stuck.  Teaching these practical phrases is a precursor to learning the language of grammar where cases and tenses are altogether more complicated.   A balance is needed.  I tried to learn Russian once but was crushed under the weight of the variants for nominative, dative and accusative cases. It felt as though nothing I said was ever correct.   The problem was that I didn’t really know what those things meant in English, never mind in Russian.  It obviously pays to invest in teaching the vocabulary of grammar for many reasons – not just to get to grips with learning a new language.

In history, I’ve seen a superb lesson recently where Year 7 students were learning about the difference between ‘narrative’ and ‘analysis’ in relation to their writing about historical events.  They’d produced an extended piece of writing about King John and, after swapping work with a partner, were using different coloured pens to highlight the narrative and analytical components.  There were excellent discussions about the different language used in ‘telling the story’ as opposed to explaining cause and effect between events or evaluating the relative significance of different events.   Later in their history curriculum, students talk about narrative and analysis with confidence; they know that the narrative should be kept to a minimum in an analytical essay.    But it doesn’t happen by accident; they are taught to understand the terms explicitly.

In subjects such as Graphics and Art students need to learn a vocabulary that allows them to express intuitive ideas more explicitly. In Art, there is the vocabulary of line, form, tone, composition, texture and so on and this is usually taught throughout the course.  But that’s not always the case. For example, a GCSE Graphics question may ask students to evaluate various logos and to articulate which is the most effective.  I saw a lesson where students were struggling to get beyond ‘this one’s kinda cool but the other one is boring and more serious’.  The teacher realised that they needed to work harder on developing subject-specific vocabulary and they spent some time on the language instead of the actual design work.

In RE students are often asked to compare different perspectives.  In common with debates in general, they are often drawn towards opposing poles, however subtle the issues are!  These people are FOR; they people are AGAINST.   In doing this, it is helpful for them to have a number of different ways to describe different schools of thought appropriate to the issue in hand.  This could be Liberal vs Traditionalist; moderate vs fundamentalist; Protestant vs Catholic; contemporary vs orthodox; official vs personal – and so on.   All too often students get stuck in a pattern, believing that there are two camps in every debate so it helps to give them multiple ways to express alternative perspectives.   It is often safer simply to say ‘some Muslims believe that … acceptable whereas most others believe that it isn’t except in special circumstances’.  The ‘some’ or ‘most’ here are better than ‘all Muslims believe that…’ which is rarely true.

Finally, linking from RE to debates in general, I find that a very common area to develop is giving students the tools to express the nuances of any comparative analysis.  All too often they reduce things to black vs white; on vs off; all vs nothing.  For example in biology they may be talking about food chains:  The rabbits run out of food and die OR the Foxes take over until they’ve eaten all the rabbits  – and so on.  Students need to learn to talk about relative changes in population size and the language needed to convey that idea:  if the rabbits’ food supply reduces due to bad weather, then fewer rabbits will survive and the population will decrease.   This in turn will have an impact by reducing the population of foxes unless they can find alternative sources of food. 

The same is true with something like comparing power stations.  It’s common for students to want heroes and villains:  wind power is a goodie; coal is a baddie.  It requires explicit modelling to get students to recognise that, say, both nuclear and coal have major advantage and major disadvantages:  Although the energy output from nuclear power stations is around a million times greater per kg of fuel, and there are no greenhouse gas emissions, the set-up costs and risks from storing radioactive waste are significant and arguably pose a greater long-term threat than the dangers of running a coal-fired power station.   Here the use of language to convey relative positions will be more difficult than understanding the science for some students.

I sometimes use the football team analogy as I have done in this post about essay writing. We don’t need to say that City is a good team and United is a bad team.  They are both excellent teams.  However, if we need to work out which one is better, we need to find the right language. It might go something like this:   United’s defence has been more consistent whereas City has had some games where they’ve conceded far too many goals; in attack, United have several individual stars who make an impact but City plays better as a team and have ended up scoring more goals.  Overall, City’s superior attack has been more important than their inferior defence, so, on balance, they have been the better team.

To wrap-up, in teaching our subjects, we need to identify areas where teaching students the most appropriate language to use needs to take centre stage. To quote from literacy legend Geoff Barton, we need to ‘make the implicit explicit’. Subject specific literacy is something we’re all responsible for and it’s very often the key to learning the subjects themselves.


  1. Really, really enjoyed this post, Tom! Stimulating, practical and underpinned by a real understanding of effective strategies that can be used to embed literacy across the curriculum. I am writing just to mention another really interesting blog post on embedded literacy support written by a science teacher that you or others perhaps may not know
    Apologies if you already know of it.
    And thanks for continuing to write a blog that is of such consistently high quality and which is a source of great information and inspiration – very much appreciated!


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