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Constant Computing and Variable Vocabulary

Matthew Laight from Saffron Walden County High School considers what Computing teachers can do to positively improve knowledge, understanding and progress through the use of a shared vocabulary in KS3 lessons, as part of his CTSN/UCL IoE 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project.

Reflecting on my own practice and though observing other teachers with a focus on language development, I noted that the deliberate practice of subject specific language and terminology was infrequently planned as part of the lesson structure in Computing. This lack of a shared understanding of key vocabulary can lead to misconceptions the students then carry with them as an incorrect term, which could negatively affect their future examination performance. For example, there are a lot of specialist words in Computing that have a different meaning in other subjects. I therefore decided that this would be the focus for my project. I want to measure the impact on knowledge and understanding through the deliberate focus on vocabulary development with my key stage three classes.

Vocabulary and Semantic Wave Theory

For a while, the Computing department at Saffron Walden County High School has unknowingly been using elements of what is known as ‘Semantic Waves’ in our programming topic (Waite, et al., 2019). Semantic Waves is the concept whereby a teacher introduces a new complex concept by using metaphors, examples or analogies that link to everyday life in order to make it more accessible to students. An example of this teaching technique is when we teach variables in this topic, we use an analogy to compare the concept to a lunch box. This concept has worked successfully here as well as with “unplugged” activities for the students to understand iteration and selection that we implemented in September. Teachers must be willing to adapt when a class or a student doesn’t yet understand the relationship between the new concept and the analogy used to introduce it. In previous academic years, it was clear with some of my classes I used the analogy for too long as some students adopted this as the key word or learning. I found this to be more common in low-ability students where I had some who continued informed me the “lunch box” stored data in programming. [MVB1] [MVB2] Going forward into this academic year I felt it was important to learn from these mistakes and I intended to focus more on the relationship between the vocabulary and the analogy being used to teach. I intended to see the effect of increasing the focus on this relationship more and using the subject vocabulary more in the lessons that introduced this concept.

One crucial part of introducing the new concept using a semantic wave is that you move the students understanding from abstract to a concrete analogy and take them to back more abstract understanding. It is this repacking is the important part and is most often overlooked, leaving students with a shallow understanding. You can read more about it here.

Project Progress and the Impact of COVID

In September, our school attempted normality as much as possible during this pandemic which allowed me to implement some changes. Before the summer I had decided I would introduce subject specific glossaries into subjects. Prior to this, students were given key definitions and were asked to copy these down alongside the rest of the lesson’s activities. The result meant that the definitions were difficult to locate alongside all the other work in the book. Instead, I made KS3 students start a new topic by creating a glossary with all the key words they would be learning throughout the topic. As they go through the topic, they will then write the definitions down in the glossary. In my classes I encouraged the students to add some creativity to their glossaries to give them a bit of ownership of it.

Gathering Evidence

Attempting to gather evidence of the success of these changes has proven difficult during the pandemic. I was unable to arrange any interviews with students before or after the changes were put into place. In November, my department and I arranged a meeting to review the strategies we implemented in September we had an open discussion about what worked and what didn’t. We concluded that the lessons had proven more engaging and from our perspective the students had a better understanding. The use of analogies and Semantic Waves played a part in this.

The glossaries had a more of a mixed reception. The idea in practice was a good one as we felt the students responded well with turning to their glossaries during a lesson after getting into the habit of going to them to write new key words. Some teachers also encouraged students to look back to them during questioning and written activities. However, students spent far too long creating their own and whereas some attentive students took ownership of them made them look appealing to the eye, others did not.

Furthermore, some students did not understand the purpose of them initially and as a result their glossaries did not leave enough room for students to include definitions. A suggestion by a colleague was for students to be given a template including glossary words. They could then have the correct structure and they could add designs to it in their own time if they wanted to. Some teachers also added scaffolding when those who needed support could be given the definitions but fill in the gaps.

Looking forward, along with introducing these changes to the glossary, my aim now is to see if Semantic Waves and analogy teaching concepts can be used in other ‘less practical’ topics such as Binary and Internet Safety. This research project has been thoroughly useful in my own progression as a leader and I have found the area of my project interesting. I will consider some ideas and look to implement them this academic year or amend the schemes of work for next. I will also conduct research to see how else I can encourage teachers to use keywords throughout a lesson and link it back to prior learning. An obvious aim when making further changes (and to reflect on the previously implemented changes) is to get students opinions via interviews and surveys. Even so, I firmly believe we have seen the green shoots of progress where students are beginning to use the correct terminology more.


Waite, J., Maton, K., Curzon, P. & Tuttiett, L., 2019. Unplugged Computing and Semantic Waves: Analysing Crazy Characters.

About the author

Matthew Laight has been teaching at Saffron Walden County High School for the last five years. He has taught across the range of year groups, from Year 7 to 13. As head of KS3 Computing he has developed the schemes of work to increase engagement and enjoyment in the subject. His focus is to develop a passion in the early years of secondary so that students want to explore the subject further at GCSE and A-level.,

Matthew participated in the CTSN/UCL Institute of Education 'How do we know it works? Leading Change' project in 2019-2021.

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