I know! I know! I know! Its been a while but I’ve been busy don’t you know? To which I can almost hear you, dear reader saying “Haven’t we all?” …

This is the first of two three four blog posts about the language used in exams … I’ve split it because otherwise it’d be one mammoth post! This initial post acts as an introduction, looks at the language of exams, specifically “command words” and includes some analysis I’ve done of some of the Summer 2019 papers; the second post will explain more about tier 1, 2, and 3 words and will include some further analysis in relation to the higher tier papers and the third will look at some of the current trends (including maybe some controversial views on how best to use Frayer models!) about how we can deal with maths specific vocab in lessons. That’s the plan anyway!! … but hey! Let’s see how it goes …

On my travels around the country (with my Pearson/Edexcel “Credible Specialist” hat on) I’ve noticed that the language used in maths exams seems to be a topic of concern amongst teachers and a tweet recently about tier 2 words got me thinking. It got me thinking because I had never heard of the idea that vocab could be considered to be split into “tiers” … that’s not to say that I don’t take the time to discuss the origins and explain the meanings of subject specific words in lessons – I like to think that I’m pretty good at knowing which words or phrases we use as adults that my students won’t be familiar with, so we take some time to discuss them.

At least I’m honest about never having heard of the concept. This has however, led me to do some reading. I started with the idea of what “Vocabulary” means, how we accumulate it and the implications of having a limited vocabulary. There are words that we understand when we hear or read them, known as receptive vocabulary and words we speak or write, known as expressive vocabulary.

We build vocabulary by picking up words that we read or hear and through direct instruction from teachers, friends, parents and the people around us. According to Hirsch (Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge— of Words and the World) adequate comprehension of a text “depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95 percent of the words” in it. It seems obvious when you think about it but the more words we know, the easier it is for use to “guess” the means of unfamiliar words. This seems to lead what is called “The Matthew Effect” … basically the greater your vocabulary, the easier you’ll find it to read and so your vocab grows. I am no expert and will never profess to being an expert about language acquisition but I am certainly better informed than I was. Note that the term, Matthew effect can be attributed to Robert Merton (1968 .. I think!), who also gives credit to his wife! and was not originally used in the context of reading. Keith Stanovich, in 1986 wrote about the Matthew Effect in reading in great detail to describe how new readers acquire the skills to read … in short … early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading.

As someone who was an avid reader as a child I have never thought about language acquisition … it just happened. One of my proudest moments was being allowed to have a “grown up” ticket at the local library, when I was 7 or 8. This meant that I could borrow more books every week than a child ticket allowed. My mam and I used to have a weekly outing to the library and I vividly remember walking home so excited that I’d been allowed to take out more than one book. To be honest, thinking about it now they may have just been on my mothers “ticket” and it may have been a ruse to make me feel all grown up. I’ll never know as my mother is no longer with us. She devoured books – my dad used to go to the library for her later in life and whilst he couldn’t read (he was literally a goat herder in his village in Yugoslavia in the late 1920s/early 30s and then WWII broke out and he ended up fighting with the allies so didn’t have a traditional (any??) childhood) he used to look for a little mark in the back of the books that my mam would put in the same place to indicate that she had read them and he just picked 4 or 5 books at random. The odds that she’d enjoy at least 1 or 2 of them were in his favour! Its funny how things spark memories … my dad had ways of hiding the fact he couldn’t read (he did learn to recognise certain words like “Man Utd” but was never fluent) and if he was ever given a menu in a pub he would always say to whoever was taking the order that he fancied fish and chips and hoped that it was on the menu as he hadn’t had a chance to have a look at it yet. Very clever.

AND there we go …. That last paragraph is a tangent if there ever was one!!

Looking at the Summer 2019 papers, I think it would be hard to argue that they are, in the main, very different to the ones that we originally saw in the first set of specification papers before the boards got their specs accredited by Ofqual. There was a lot said at the time about language and even word count came up in discussions … but all that is in the long distant past and it would appear that we now have papers (I know they’re not all perfect) that appear to be more accessible. However, language still comes up in discussions and so I’ve been looking initially at “command words” – I intend on looking at the other language used throughout the papers in later blog posts. I initially wanted to compare the command words used by the different boards so very simply, I did a count of the different types for the three main boards and the below shows my findings for AQA and Pearson/Edexcel. Note that whilst I have done the same exercise with OCR papers I do feel it could be misinterpreted as it’s based on word count and their papers have 100 marks per paper compared with 80 marks per paper and so the counts seem higher, so will add a fourth blog post to this series of posts specifically looking at the OCR papers!

The below table shows the frequency of the command words found on the Pearson/Edexcel Summer 2019 Foundation papers:

From this I have produced a word cloud which you may want to use as a poster (the same for the Higher tier papers will be included on the 2nd post in this series!). The marvellous maths team at Edexcel have also produced a “A Teachers Guide to Command Words” that may be of use and there is also a fab poster that I’ve seen on their Pearson/Edexcel stand at exhibitions so keep an eye out for that too!

Edexcel – Summer 19 Command Word Posters – F only

The below table shows the frequency of the command words found on the AQA Summer 2019 Foundation papers. If you aren’t aware AQA includes multiple choice questions, hence the high incidence of the word “circle”:

Again, from this I have produced a word cloud which you may want to use as a poster.


AQA – Summer 19 Command Word Posters F only

I have also pulled both lists together below (in alphabetical order) that puts the word frequencies against each other:

… I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Will be back later this weekend, with more gumpf and nonsense!

PS: I have saved this analysis and posters in the grade boundaries & data folder in the essentials tab of JustMathsOnline for those of you that have access to it!