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Addressing the vocabulary gap using the Pattern Grammar approach

Written by: Ela McSorley
9 min read

As teachers, we know the importance of vocabulary for accessing and meeting the demands of an increasingly challenging secondary curriculum. One way that schools are addressing the vocabulary gap is through explicit teaching of, and reference to, not only subject-specific (Tier 3) words but also general academic (Tier 2) words, as the glue that helps students to communicate fluently. This article examines how Pattern Grammar research, which explores the relationship between words and patterns of grammar, can support the teaching of academic vocabulary in a way that encourages coherence in expression across the curriculum. We describe the early-stage impact of collaboration between the Nishkam High School and the University of Birmingham, and detail two examples of classroom application.

A challenging context

Our school community, like many in the UK, comprises students who speak a number of languages. In many cases, English is neither routinely spoken nor read in the home. For these students, their interaction with written and spoken English occurs during their brief time at school. Our school is in the top 20 per cent of all schools for the proportion of students with English as an additional language. It also stands in a deprived area, with over 30 per cent of students qualifying for the pupil premium; it has been well documented that low socioeconomic status contributes to the vocabulary gap (see Hoff, 2006). Our teachers see the challenges to this community of learners through students lacking the confidence to manipulate the English language to suit audience and purpose, and finding it difficult to decode meaning in texts from across the curriculum.

From ‘words’ to ‘how words behave’

Seeking to address the vocabulary gap problem, we introduced etymology and morphology to our literacy lessons (following Quigley, 2018) and included words from the Tier 2 academic word list (Coxhead, 2000) in each subject’s planning documents. However, while our teachers are confident in teaching their subject-specific vocabulary, we recognised the need for more guidance on the teaching of general academic vocabulary. But how best to teach these words as the glue that helps students to communicate fluently and coherently?

Through collaboration with the University of Birmingham, we began exploring the potential in utilising Pattern Grammar research to inform our pedagogic practice. Together, we identified the following goals. We wanted to:

  • train teachers to examine how words behave (the patterning of words)
  • support teachers to better articulate why certain words operate most effectively in a given context
  • encourage teachers to attend to aspects of language alongside curriculum content.

What do we mean by language patterns?

While we often think of a word’s context in quite broad terms (e.g. whether a word is associated with a particular genre or subject area), a Pattern Grammar approach encourages us to attend also to the local context of a word within a sentence. For example, the verb focus commonly occurs before the preposition on, followed by a noun group, as in example (1). We can refer to this grammatical pattern using the shorthand label V on n.

(1) He is currently focusing on assessment and development.

A pattern then is a recurring local context for a word or group of words. For instance, in example (2), the verb concentrate appears in this same pattern.

(2) It was up to him to concentrate on his studies and make something of himself.

As these examples show, ‘pattern and meaning are connected’; that is, words that occur in the same patterns often have similar meanings (Hunston and Francis, 2000, p. 83).

On the Pattern Grammar approach to teaching vocabulary…

  • Students are repeatedly exposed to a variety of examples of words in patterns
  • Students are encouraged to ‘notice patterns wherever they are met’ (Hunston, 2002, p. 176)
  • Words and their meanings are explored within the patterns in which they are found to occur (Hunston, 2002; Holme, 2010).

This approach reflects the interrelationship between words and grammar that exists in natural language. Vocabulary is taught using materials that encourage ‘grammatical consciousness-raising’ (Hunston and Francis, 2000, p. 262) – that is, students learn vocabulary through attending to aspects of language structure, and learn more about how language is structured through vocabulary.

This means that teachers can address gaps in vocabulary alongside a focus on communicative coherence. Neither learners nor their teachers need to be especially adept at using grammatical terminology (teachers can choose whether to refer to pattern labels or not); what is needed is an openness to explore and attend to aspects of language structure.

The research background

This pedagogic approach stems from a long tradition of Pattern Grammar research conducted at the University of Birmingham, which began with a pioneering analysis of authentic language data. From this came the observation that natural language comprises recurrent patterns that combine information about words and grammar, and the resulting insight that words are best described in terms of their use – that is, the grammatical patterns in which they occur (Hunston and Francis, 2000).

Subsequent research has explored the relevance of Pattern Grammar for language- learning contexts, including English language teaching and the teaching of English literacy (see Hunston, 2002, 2007). There is now considerable evidence in support of such approaches from studies showing how language is acquired and stored in the mind (e.g. Ellis et al., 2016) and from an emerging body of literature on pedagogic construction grammar. As argued in Patten and Perek (forthcoming), teaching materials and resources based on Pattern Grammar are key to operationalising this body of (applied) linguistic research.

Bringing research into the classroom

Teachers from across the curriculum were interested to learn about the Pattern Grammar approach and undertook some preliminary training. Following this, a working group, comprising representative practitioners (‘champions’) from different subject areas, began to engage with the project. These volunteers designed materials and trialled them in the classroom. From this work, several distinct approaches evolved, two of which are explored here.

Application 1: Examining Tier 2 words that behave as Tier 3 words in maths

Our maths champion uses language patterning to help disambiguate subject-specific uses of words from their more general English usage. This simple starter exercise focuses on the word significant.

(3) Rewrite each of these sentences and replace the word significant with a synonym:

  • Do you think it is significant [that he didn’t turn up on Saturday]?
  • She explained the significance of the poppy symbol at remembrance.

In this exercise, students experiment with substituting different words into a given pattern (see Holme, 2010). They explore the productivity of the patterns it v-link ADJ that (an adjective preceded by it and a linking verb, followed by a that-clause) and N of n (a noun followed by the preposition of and a noun group), by producing other academic vocabulary items that can occur within these local contexts, such as important/importance and relevant/relevance.

This sense of the word significant can then be contrasted with its subject-specific meaning in the unique patterning of example (4), providing a nice opportunity to decode exam questions.

(4) Give/write/round X to Y significant figures.

Application 2: Examining patterns in students’ work in English

Champions in English and the social sciences use materials based on students’ writing to highlight associations between words and patterns. One exercise from a post-16 lesson features sentences extracted from essays that contain ambitious vocabulary and sophisticated concepts, but which include words used in the wrong contexts. The task involves a close textual analysis of both the meaning and structure of these sentences. In discussion with the teacher, the students observe that while the use of the word irreverent in example (5) is entirely appropriate, suggesting a lack of respect for a concept generally taken seriously, the relationship between the narrator’s attitude and the concept of death is missing from the sentence.

(5) I lived, I loved, I quaff’d

The use of the tricolon phrase creates a lofty tone… suggesting that the narrator is irreverent death.

The teacher provides other sentences containing the word irreverent, such as example (6), and encourages students to notice the different patterns associated with this word. These patterns are comparable with those of the more familiar synonym disrespectful. The students conclude that inserting the word towards improves the sentence in example (5).

(6) No novelist since Dumas has been more irreverent of the conventions of well-made fiction (Victor Hugo) ADJ of n.

At this advanced level, patterning draws students’ attention to the relationship between word choice and grammatical structure, with the aim of improving clarity and precision in written expression (Hunston, 2002). As Beck et al. (2018) note, instruction that requires students to ‘identify and explain appropriate uses’ through ‘reflective and analytical activities’ encourages deep knowledge of vocabulary.

Early-stage impact

While it is still too early to identify impact on attainment, it is clear that the Pattern Grammar approach increases student and teacher engagement with language, and that students find this linguistic consciousness-raising to be enjoyable and insightful. One A-level student ventures, ‘Before, teachers didn’t really explain what was wrong with my writing; now we spend time looking in detail at the words and the best use for them.’

The approach has influenced teachers’ practice beyond these focused lessons. Feedback on writing is more precise and actionable using the Pattern Grammar approach; students are shown why their wording is wrong rather than simply knowing that it is wrong in some way. Teacher confidence in attending to aspects of language is also growing; the diversity in how Pattern Grammar is being implemented is testament to this, as is the willingness of teachers from across the curriculum (even in ‘hard to reach’ subjects) to embrace and contribute to the approach.

Pattern Grammar has also had a further impact on teaching across the Nishkam School Trust. Colleagues in primary phases, who have also received training in the approach, are moving away from decontextualised ‘wow walls’ towards ‘enable tables’, which situate words within sentences and phrases, demonstrating how they behave in a given local context.

Embedding Pattern Grammar into the curriculum

Our next goal is to embed Pattern Grammar more fully into the secondary curriculum, with subject champions leading the way. Dr Amanda Patten is assisting us in customising the academic word list (AWL) in ways informed by Pattern Grammar research. Typically, the AWL is segmented into 10 groups, ordered by frequency, but the words within these groups have nothing else in common.

The pattern-informed AWL groups together words that have a shared meaning and which occur in many of the same patterns. It draws on a reference work (see Collins, 2018) that catalogues the recurring patterns of English, and provides a list of words that occur within each pattern, sorted into ‘meaning groups’. For example, the AWL words in example (7) approximate to the meaning similar. One pattern in which all of these words can occur is ADJ to n (an adjective followed by the preposition to and a noun group).

(7) The ‘similar’ group: analogous, equivalent, identical, parallel, related, similar ADJ to n The accident was similar to one that happened in 1973.

The words in each group can be taught together, as a coherent teaching point, using the Pattern Grammar approach. We see this as helping us to action, manage and monitor the teaching of general academic vocabulary across the curriculum, with different subjects focusing on particular groups of words and their patterning.


Research on natural language shows that word and grammar information is intertwined, which in turn suggests that words are best described in terms of their use – that is, the patterns in which they regularly occur. We believe that it is this that will help our students to better understand, and gain ownership of, the words they learn and use.


Beck I, McKeown M, Hunton J et al. (2018) Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning. Impact 3. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2019).

Collins (2018) COBUILD Grammar Patterns. Available at: (accessed 1 March 2019).

Coxhead A (2000) A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly 34(2): 213–238.

Ellis NC, Römer U and O’Donnell MB (2016) Usage-Based Approaches to Language Acquisition and Processing: Cognitive and Corpus Investigations of Construction Grammar. Malden MA, Oxford and Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Hoff E (2006) How social contexts support and shape language development. Developmental Review 26: 55–88.

Holme R (2010) Construction grammars: Towards a pedagogical model. AILA Review 23: 115–133.

Hunston S (2002) Pattern grammar, language teaching, and linguistic variation: Applications of a corpus-driven grammar. In: Reppen R, Biber D and Fitzmaurice S (eds) Using Corpora to Explore Linguistic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 167–186.

Hunston S (2007) Grammar patterns and literacy. In: McCabe A, O’Donnell M and Whittaker R (eds) Advances in Language and Education. London: Continuum, pp. 254–267.

Hunston S and Francis G (2000) Pattern Grammar: A Corpus-Driven Approach to the Lexical Grammar of English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Patten AL and Perek F (forthcoming) Pedagogic applications of the English Constructicon. In: Boas H (ed) Pedagogic Construction Grammar: Data, Methods, and Applications. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Quigley A (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Routledge: London.

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