#075 Alex Quigley: Closing the vocabulary gap

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On this episode of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast, I spoke to Alex Quigley.

Alex is a former English teacher and now Senior Associate at the Education Endowment Foundation. He is also the author of one of my favourite books of any genre over the last 12 months – Closing the Vocabulary Gap. As a maths teacher I was a little hesitant going into the book, with memories of failed attempts to shoehorn literacy across the curriculum into my lessons. But not only was a pleasantly surprised with how relevant the book was to me, I was simply blown away, and so I had to get Alex on the show.

So, in a wide-ranging conversation, Alex and I covered the following things, and plenty more besides:

  • I started with the same questions I asked David Didau – As an English teacher, what is Alex’s view on Numeracy across the Curriculum in schools?
  • To what extent should teachers of other subjects accept responsibility for literacy, especially us maths teachers?
  • Why is increasing a students’ vocabulary size so important?
  • Is it just the size that matters, or the words that comprise that vocabulary – in other words, are some words more valuable than others?
  • Why might talk and discussion in the classroom not be enough to improve our students’ vocabularies?
  • How big a problem is the curse of knowledge in terms of the words teachers often casually use in explanations and answers that students might not understand?
  • Why is the strategy of looking into a word’s etymology so powerful, and what strategies can teachers use to get the most out of it?
  • Does Alex have any favourite examples of maths words and their etymology?
  • What is an example of a good whole school approach to improving our students’ vocabularies – and it is a good one!
  • I then ask Alex what piece of research has most significantly influenced his thinking or his approach to teaching?
  • And finally, what does Alex wish he’d known when he first started teaching that he knows now?

I loved both reading Alex’s book, and talking to the man himself. As I said earlier, I think there is so much gold in here, both for a maths teacher like myself, oir any teacher of any subject, both primary and secondary. In my Takeaway at the end I will dive deeper into exactly how my practice has changed as a result of reading this book.

Two quick plugs before we crack on:

Obviously, if you buy one book as a result of this episode, make it Closing the Vocabulary Gap. But if you are interested in reading about 12 years of maths teaching mistakes, then maybe take a chance on my book, “How I wish I’d taught maths”, available from all good and evil book stores. And if you have read it, and you have time to give it a quick review, that would be ideal…. So long as it is a good one, of course.

And if you are interested in spreading the word about your product, service or event to 1000s of intelligent, engaged, and quite simply incredible listeners, then I am now offering the opportunity to sponsor episodes of this podcast. Just drop me an email at [email protected].

Alex Quigley’s Big 3:
1. Professor Tim Shanahan: shanahanonliteracy.com
2. readingrockets.org – Lots on literacy, vocabulary, including maths
3. readingforlearning.org – Ben Rodgers – great book on the Big Ideas in Physics – application of vocabulary and disciplinary literacy in science – really useful for maths teachers to see how this is applied

On Twitter Alex is @HuntingEnglish
Alex’s website is: theconfidentteacher.com

Alex’s books include:
Closing the Vocabulary Gap
The Confident Teacher

Examples of Frayer Diagrams in maths:



Thanks so much for listening, and I really hope you enjoy the show!
Craig Barton

My usual plugs:

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