Challenges of specialised vocabulary and technology in schools: Henry
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School
In a follow-up to the aforementioned study, I interviewed ten teachers about their subject areas and vocabulary in their teaching. Next are notes from an interview with a teacher of technology in a secondary school (Henry; not his real name) in a large New Zealand city. Henry taught at a low decile school. In the New Zealand system, the decile level of the schools takes into account the socio-economic status of the community where students come from. Approximately 10% of all schools in New Zealand are in each of ten decile levels (see www.minedu.govt.nz/Parents/AllAges/EducationInNZ/SchoolsInNewZealand/SchoolDecileRatings.aspx for more information about decile ratings). The decile levels are used to allocate government funding with lower decile schools getting more funding. It should be noted that even mid-decile and high-decile schools have some learners from low-income families. The purpose of including Henry’s interview notes in this chapter is to share concerns around language, teaching and learning specialised vocabulary.
This teacher, Henry, was a trained language teacher who had migrated to New Zealand from South Africa around five years before the interview. He was experienced in industry before moving into education. His classes were normally almost 100% male, with one or two girls. The students spoke a variety of first languages, such as Tongan, Samoan, Te Reo Māori and English. One of Henry’s main concerns is that students were regularly pushed into Technology as a subject because they were not doing particularly well in their academic studies, and Technology was seen as a practical or hands-on subject.
Henry reported that vocabulary is ’a big part of what we teach in tech. Students need the vocabulary to get credits in tech’. Henry said he focused on teaching the names of materials and objects that the students needed to know for class, such as car parts, joints in woodworking, such as tongue and groove. He would actively teach the names for all the tools, including what a tool was used for, its maintenance and name, at the same time. There will always be some [health and] safety usage and vocabulary as well. This point was important, and Henry was keen to see that in the next class, if he saw students getting a tool out for woodwork, he would like to know the students know when to use a chisel not a screwdriver.
One of Henry’s key techniques with vocabulary was to teach what he called ’concrete words’ with the actual parts in front of students. He talked through what students were doing as they were making objects in their class. For example, when the students were labelling car engines, he told them what the parts of the engines were, asked students to repeat the words, checked on their memory of the words the next day in class and sometimes had verbal or written assessment activities on the target vocabulary the next day. For example, he might have had students labelling pictures or picking out a word from lists. A bilingual himself, Henry often explored vocabulary in his students’ languages, for example, when identifying a tool, but he mostly taught in English. He learned early on that the distinction between a concept and its label is interesting for students and it can build confidence for students with low self-confidence.
Henry pointed out a range of challenges for vocabulary in Technology classes. The most challenging aspect of vocabulary was that the assessment materials were not understandable for the students. The assessment was set by industry and was targeted for people in the workplace, rather than students in secondary school, so the students struggled to understand the assessment questions because the text contained too many words which the students did not know. The local polytechnic prescribed the assessment material, which came through the motor trade organisation and the building trades. The effect of this load of vocabulary in assessment meant that Henry found himself teaching towards assessment. He checked every year that the terms in assessment questions and items that his students might possible use in their answers were explicitly taught.
Another challenge was that students were introduced to many new terms each day in Technology, for example, health and safety vocabulary: precautions, hazardous, projecting, assigned, and codes of practice. Having been through a course of study on Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), Henry learned about collocations, and was developing a list of common collocations for his students, for example, legislative regulations and maintaining adequate room. He also kept ahead of the class, preparing lists of vocabulary which would be coming up in class and making lists of what he thought his students would not know. Henry could not count on students who were interested in being mechanics knowing anything about cars.
When deciding on the amount of vocabulary to focus on per class, Henry found that for most of the students, ten new words would be too much of a learning stretch for them. He decided that a lesser number, perhaps five to eight words, would be fine for them to work on. Students needed to be able to use the words as part of their learning. Henry found that if words were concrete, and if students actually handled the tools or other objects related to the vocabulary, the students remembered these words quite well. Maintaining interest was also a challenge: Henry found he often had only a few minutes of class time before students might begin to lose interest.
The final challenge, from Henry’s perspective, is the most heartbreaking. He reported that Technology in higher level schools was moving into thinking, reading, writing and solutions for a modern world. This shift meant that there was a gap developing between lower and higher level schools in Technology, as the lower level schools were focused on hands-on skills rather than higher level problem solving. This gap would have major consequences for the students in Henry’s classes in his lower level school. As he said, ’It’s likely that you will not get employed if you are good with a chisel, unless perhaps in the arts. It’s important to not only earn a salary but to have something to live for.’
Henry’s recount of his experiences with teaching Technology in a lower decile school gives us some insight into the concerns and approaches of teachers in vocabulary and other parts of education. Interviews such as this one with Henry present an opportunity to find out more about the challenges, needs and opportunities for vocabulary in schools. This kind of data can challenge or expand the data gathered through computer analysis of texts.