The Essential Role that Vocabulary Plays in Children’s Learning, with Published Children’s Author, Sheena Ager: Podcast Transcript

Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?

***

Ludo Millar 2:06
Hello and welcome to the 115th episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. My name is Ludo Millar, the host of this podcast. Welcome back to regular listeners, welcome to any of you for whom this is your first time listening to the Qualified Tutor Podcast and of course a huge welcome to our guest today Sheena Ager. Welcome Sheena.

Sheena Ager 3:18
Thank you so much for inviting me onto the show, Ludo. It certainly is really exciting.

Ludo Millar 3:24
So we’ve got a great conversation in store. For listeners who haven’t heard of Sheena, I imagine many of you have because Sheena is in lots of the online tutoring groups that many of you, our listeners, are in too. But as a little background for those of you who don’t know Sheena, Sheena hails from Manchester, England and then onto Anglesey on the northwest coast of Wales and is a self-proclaimed ‘podcast addict’ which can only help for this conversation. And she is the author of five ‘Vocabulary Novels’, a term that she coined, as well as five accompanying workbooks with more of both sets of works, novels and workbooks, coming over the next few months. She wrote the first book Tangled Time, part of the Cadwaladr Quests serial, with and for her reluctant reader son, we’ll be getting into that a little bit more over the course of next 20 minutes or so, back when he was studying for for the 11+.

Now, off the back of the success of this book. Sheena then turned the Cadwaladr Quests into a trilogy aimed at Year 4 and Year 5 students, that’s 8 to 10 year olds for those of our listeners abroad, and in collaboration with both teachers and tutors, some of whom have appeared as guests on this very podcast Jemma Zoe Smith and Agness O’Brien being just two of them, Sheena has since produced comprehension and creative writing workbooks, along with her standalone Verbal Skills workbooks. And by popular request, Sheena has penned a series of vocabulary novels aimed at younger readers. So she wrote the Cadwaladr Chronicles, which is a four-book series aimed at Year 4 children, so that’s around 8 years old, with, as I mentioned, other exciting works to come, which we’ll talk a bit about at the end of this podcast. So this episode will be about the power of vocabulary and the progress of children’s literacy skills, creativity, and confidence. I cannot wait to get into the conversation. Sheena, how are you doing today?

Sheena Ager 5:35
Good, thanks. I’m got a daughter doing A levels, so it’s all quite busy in our house at the moment. No, but I’m very good, thank you. And that was a an amazing intro. Thank you, Ludo. I’m very impressed.

Ludo Millar 5:51
For regular listeners of this podcast, including yourself, Sheena, you’ll know that we like to kick things off with a new segment, a popular segment that I introduced so that you could get a better understanding of our guests. Now, Sheena, I gather that the location of school reports was not quite so successful but you do have a tale or two for us.

Sheena Ager 6:17
Well, yeah, unfortunately. I mean, I’m quite old. [LAUGHS] So school reports are buried somewhere, but they were lost in a messy parental divorce. However, and this is not great testament to my English skills, the only thing that I have is a wonderful letter that my PE teacher, the lovely Mrs Lloyd, sent to me after I left school, basically saying that I could be her right-wing at any time, because my hockey was clearly better than [my] English. So that’s the only thing that I have left over from actual school reports. I think I’ve still got certificates somewhere. But yeah, that’s it, I’m afraid. But I was quite a good student, really. I did my work. And I did toe the line. I wouldn’t say I was stellar but, you know, I was a pretty good student. I didn’t cause anybody any trouble.

Ludo Millar 7:14
Were you a better hockey player than you were a student?

Sheena Ager 7:18
Hockey was a- hockey was my life. Actually, I played some county hockey for Gwyneth. So yeah, I enjoyed hockey. And yes, I think I was better at PE than the more academic things, but I’ve always been a big reader.

Ludo Millar 7:33
Well, maybe your teacher was right. And so how do you think then then that that’s informed what you do now as an author?

Sheena Ager 7:44
So I guess, if I start with the how I became an author, it might feed into your listeners of maybe what my why is as an author, if that helps. So I’m a bit of an accidental author, if I’m truthful. So I was an avid reader as a child and my family, although we were very, we were quite a poor working class family, my mum, she was a reader. And she took us to the library every single week. And I used to love going to the library, you know, the library cards, just looking through all the books, and I’d come home with a big pile. So I’ve always been a reader. And when my son wouldn’t read- well actually, there’s a little bit of the story I’ve missed and we start when I was about 30. I’d have to, you know, I’ve not told anybody this before, so nobody in public or Facebook or my parents know, I did write sort of three chapters of a book. And then like many authors, the middle bit got hard. And I just left it languishing on a PC somewhere.

So my daughter did the 11+ successfully, she was a reader. We did lots of vocab, she wasn’t a problem, but my son, he literally would only read the Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which are great books, but they’ve not got the vocab in. And because they both did the CME test, which is very vocabulary heavy, I kinda had done it with my daughter, I knew what was coming so with my son, to try and make it interesting, you know, and to try and keep the vocabulary in context, we’d start writing sentences, and those sentences became paragraphs, and so on. Then I thought, hang on a minute. I remembered that book. And literally, we got this old PC out of the garbage, I dug the three chapters out of the book, I read them and thought, I wonder if I could do something here. And basically that book, very different, but it did become Tangled Time. And I kind of wrote it with my son for my son. He became my beta reader for a while, he was my alpha reader, really. And so he would read it And then he actually started editing it with me and he enjoyed it. And that became Tangled Time. So that was kind of how I became an author.

But the why is like it is now is- I actually really enjoy liaising with the parents, and the kids. I think I’m quite sociable. So I mean, I didn’t realise how much I would need to be involved with social media at first, but then it kind of just fell into place, you know, and it’s like, I became friendly with people like Agness who’s also very sociable as well. So I really enjoy helping the parents, but also I like kids. And recently, because it’s four years ago nearly since Tangled Time was published. But recently, I’ve started running weekly, free weekend sessions, they’re not classes, they’re not lessons, I’m not a tutor, I don’t purport to be a tutor. But I run these free Zoom lessons with the kids. And all they need is a copy of the book. And they come on, we all get on a Zoom call, they all take turns in reading, and then we all discuss the text. And I really focus on teaching them inference, because that’s where they tend to struggle. And then we talk about the vocabulary and I mean, obviously, nobody knows the books as I do. But the kids like it and we have a good laugh. And it’s really casual, and I’ve met lots of funny faces, and made lots of noises. And that’s how they remember the vocab. And that’s really my why. So the kind of writing has more come out of, it sounds really cliché, but I actually quite liked the teaching part, although I’m not a teacher. But I enjoy that. And I guess that’s my why really, and why everything’s fed into what I do.

Ludo Millar 11:55
So continuing the why theme, and given that that was a wholly complete answer, Sheena, why then is vocabulary such a key part of a child’s skillset?

Sheena Ager 12:09
So obviously, I can only talk from my experience as a parent putting these kids through these tests, as an author or writer for them, and from my own experience. I can’t speak from being a teacher in the Key Stage One to Key Stage Two system. But what I would say is, vocabulary is so important because of comprehension. Without comprehension, children can’t learn any subject well, and without vocabulary, they can’t comprehend.

They’ll always be on the back foot in the classroom, without vocabulary. And, you know, I’m sure a lot of them would sit there and not put their hands up because they’re embarrassed and so on. I don’t think that’s so much the case for kids, certainly 11+, because obviously, their parents are coming from a different angle in that they know what they need. But yeah, I think it’s all about comprehension. And just recently, I was reading Alex Quigley’s Closing the Vocabulary Gap book, which is for teachers a great book. And he does an exercise in there where a Year 6 SATs, reading comprehension has quite a lot of the words redacted, and to prove how much a child needs to understand, to be able to comprehend comfortably, and they worked out that it was 95% of the words.

So a child needs to understand 95%, so I was flabbergasted by that I did not realise- and then, you know, he actually cites in there a piece by Dan Willingham, who’s a cognitive scientist, and he says it’s even higher, 98%, and particularly in texts for older children when things become more technical in science and things like that. And so yeah, I think vocabulary really feeds into comprehension. And it’s not explicitly taught, I believe, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but it’s not explicitly taught in state schools per se. Whereas with the 11+, it has to be because these kids are just not going to pass otherwise. So yeah, I think it’s all about understanding, Ludo.

Ludo Millar 14:30
Those are really, I guess, not shocking numbers, but it’s shocking that that’s not seen as kind of widely known or not widely understood.

Sheena Ager 14:43
Well, you know, Alex Quigley’s book, I don’t want to bang on about it, but he’s all for- he’s actually saying there is a vocabulary gap. And I’m guessing he’s a teacher. And I guess he’s actually referring to our education system. And I have to say, I do agree. I mean, there’s another teacher now is doing great things, a guy called Andrew Jenkins, who writes the Vocabulary Ninja books. He’s a deputy head I believe, and I think his books are being used more, much more now in state schools. And, you know, I think maybe there is an understanding that vocabulary is important. But you know, I’ve seen it myself evidenced in the sessions that I’m running at the weekends, in my free sessions for the kids, kids will immediately jump to conclusions, because that’s what they’re like, you know, they’re quick thinkers, they’re fast. And they’ve immediately gone down the wrong rabbit hole, because they don’t understand the vocabulary. And, you know, hence me writing books with a built-in dictionary on every single page. But yeah, going back to your question, I think it’s all about comprehension.

Ludo Millar 15:53
So, right on that theme then, what makes your books so different? How are they solving this problem?

Sheena Ager 16:03
Okay, so they are quite different in that, if you were to pick up one of my books, and the dictionary on the page was taken away. So the narrative is at the top of the page. The tricky vocabulary, as we like to call it, is bolded and has a footnote. And then at the bottom of the page, there is a correlating dictionary. It’s a contextualised dictionary, which I’ve rewritten so that the definitions are child-friendly, but they’ve all been checked against the Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary. But obviously, we had to rewrite them because we couldn’t just lift them, because there’d be, you know, copyright issues with that.

So basically, a child can read the text. And if they want to, they can look straight at the dictionary at the bottom of the page. But the key thing as well, one of the things that I’ve really learned certainly with 11+ is that if children do not understand a part of speech, that is to say the word class or the word type, they’re also scuppered. Because obviously, one word can appear as a noun, an adjective, a verb, a gerund, and so on, and so on. Although gerund, I don’t think is a part of speech, but it’s just another complication. So, my books basically have that dictionary on every page. So if a child wants to look up a word, and I’m not saying- they absolutely should not look up every word, nor should they feel they have to learn every word. It’s there if they want to look it up. And it means that- I’ve got anything against dictionaries. But a dictionary is just another barrier to a child’s understanding, if they have to go away [and] start flicking through it. And again, then they’ve got to start looking up the part of speech, you know, it’s like, the word snipe appears in my books, okay? But it appears in the context of a verb, of a child making a petty or snide attack. Now, if a child looks up the word snipe in a dictionary, they have to know the context because you know, it could mean to shoot from a secret place. Snipe can also mean to outdo somebody at an auction at the last minute. So a child’s got to have an amazing understanding before they even choose the word and define what it means.

So my books, they don’t have to do that. And Kindle actually does that as well. But Kindle doesn’t give them the contextualised word, they have to choose it. Whereas my Kindle versions, so they’re all on Kindle, they click on the word, and it brings up exactly the definition as it appears in the book. So basically, they’re foolproof definitions with parts of speech, and I don’t think anybody else is doing it. And then there’s workbooks that actually go with the novels. So again, I don’t think there’s kind of any other novels out there that have got dedicated workbooks, so the child can read the chapter, do creative writing pieces, the creative writing pieces have got answers and marking guides, which were written with a qualified teacher that you know- I don’t think there’s anything else like that out there really. So yeah, that’s how they’re different.

***

Julia Silver
Okay, let’s go

Ludo Millar
Welcome everyone to this, the 11am event on Monday 24th January at the Love Tutoring Festival.

[QT MUSIC]

Okay, here we go.

Jack Simmonds
So, the first prize that we are going to give away today is … number nine! I need an extra monitor. That’s what I need …

[QT MUSIC]

Ludo Millar
So welcome to the 2pm keynote at the Love Tutoring Festival Day 2, Tuesday 25th of January, 2pm UK time where many of us here are based. Our speaker today is Michael Bungay Stanier, who is a, as you can see here, Wall Street Journal bestselling author on coaching.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Maybe I hand it back to Ludo as a kind of ‘what needs to be said’ to wrap us up here.

Ludo Millar
Well, Michael, you’ve made my job very simple. There doesn’t really need to be much more said, that was world class.

Yes. For those of you wondering, those were just a few highlights from the incredible Love Tutoring Festival 2 that took place at the end of January of this year 2022. The big news from Qualified Tutor and the Love Tutoring Festival team is that … we’re BACK!

From Monday 27th June to Friday 1st July, the Love Tutoring Festival 3 will return. The focus of this festival is on alignment and new beginnings. The festival will have a slightly different feel to it but all of the main tenets will still be there. A host of amazing speakers, including world renowned leaders in education, such as Craig Barton, will be joining us for a festival of fanfare, of training and of connection. Those are the values which hold the Love Tutoring Festival together and those are the values that we want you to come and take part in over the week of the festival.

Head to qualifiedtutor.org/love-tutoring-festival to find out more and book your ticket today.

***

Ludo Millar 22:01
I feel like the kids reading and absorbing the Cadwaladr books and the workbooks that go alongside are not just learning about vocabulary. They’re learning other skills, aren’t they? What have you heard or seen are the other skills that kids are learning as part of reading these books?

Sheena Ager 22:33
So I think the skills that they get. So I there’s a there’s a quote, his name escapes me, the guy who said it. And he said, ‘A word shall be known by the company it keeps‘. Now, if you were to take out the dictionary from my books, and give it to somebody like Harper Collins or Bloomsbury, they would see my books as overwritten. And that is because they are. The prose is what’s called ‘purple’. You wouldn’t write David Walliams, I love him. But David Walliams would not write a sentence like I do, because I try to get two or three synonyms into a sentence. So I’m kind of hammering the story home at them a little bit. But that is so they can, if they don’t understand the word, and they don’t want to look up the word in the dictionary at the bottom of the page, they should be able to infer it from the synonyms that are in that one sentence. So that’s where my books are different. And that’s what I’m seeing.

So when I do these sessions with kids, and one of the kids will read a sentence, I’ll stop them, and it’ll be a really tricky sentence. And I always say to them, ‘Okay, kids, don’t cheat. Don’t look at the dictionary. Look at that word. What does it mean? Look at the company’ and they can tell me. And that’s because I literally overwrite what he’s done very consciously. So yeah, that’s what I think the learning shows.

Ludo Millar 24:07
I know you talked about how you became a writer, but where did the style do you think of writing come from?

Sheena Ager 24:18
I think it came from knowing what was needed because of what I’d done with my two kids. So what happened with with my oldest, she was sitting for Kendrick and my boy’s at Reading now. They’re called, I hate this term, ‘super selectives’ and it’s not because the kids are any cleverer. It’s just that there are no places. So 1500 kids go for 96 places. And you can’t just fit in with a pass mark you have to get in with a stellar pass mark and with the CM test, 50% of the marks were all verbal skills. My daughter, when she started the board was GL, which is not quite so vocab heavy, although it is now, but it wasn’t then back in the day. And because of their Facebook groups- because there was, you know, I wasn’t even on Facebook then, I was really behind the times and come the April, so April, May, June, July, August, September. See I’m not good at Maths, I have to count on my hands [LAUGHS], 5 months before the test, I found out that Kendrick had swapped boards, and it was CEM. So everything we’d learned with CEM went out of the window overnight, and in came this vocab, vocab vocab. And it was from that, it made me realise that they, I mean, the vocab that these kids have to learn, it is stellar, put in brackets *criminal, because it is hard, but it’s also good for them, you know. My kids don’t walk around like precocious and yes, and speaking like this, and using all these long words. But they’ve got good vocabularies. And I think it just comes from that at such a young age, especially my son still doesn’t read. I think he’s only ever read three books and they were mine [LAUGHS] but he’s come from that. And I guess it’s when I wrote the first book, obviously, it was a bit of a baptism of fire. I didn’t know what I was doing and probably if I’m truthful, I overstuffed that book a little bit. And I think I may go back and do a second edition and just take out anything that I really am now confident was too much. Because I think I also at the time didn’t know if I’d ever write another one. I didn’t know whether it would be received well, I honestly wanted to give- I’m a northerner so I wanted to give people value for money. And I thought if it was me, I put as many words in there as I could possibly get. But maybe now I’ve realised that there’s parts of it that I could just take out and wouldn’t really be missed for the 11+.

***

Ludo Millar 27:11
And now, a brief word from last week’s guest, William Minton.

William Minton 27:19
This is William Minton, from CanopyEd here. What did I learn from being on the Qualified Tutor Podcast? The Qualified Tutor Podcast gave me an opportunity to connect some of the larger macro trends in tutoring with the micro trends and observations that we have from our own tutoring operation and to bring them together into a bigger story, which was interesting for me to do because it’s the type of thinking that I hadn’t done too much before. What I enjoyed about being a guest on the podcast, I enjoyed talking with Ludo. Ludo is authentically curious and really wants to know and to learn and to connect on an authentic human level so it was a pleasure talking with Ludo for some of those reasons. And what I would say to a future guest is prepare, know what you want to say. You have ideas to share, otherwise you wouldn’t have been invited and then relax. That’s all, thank you.

***

Ludo Millar 28:33
This focus on vocabularies is amazing. It’s really refreshing. And for those of our listeners who want to dive into the Cadwaladr Quests, I would be surprised if you didn’t want to at least check them out after this conversation, the links to those will be in the show notes below. But I gather there’s more to come from you. What’s next for you, Sheena?

Sheena Ager 28:58
So yeah, I’m finalising- so the Cadwaladr Chronicles, the books that parents asked me to write for the younger kids, their actual prequels, so dare I say, think Star Wars, I am not comparing myself to George Lucas here [LAUGHS]. But, you know, that was the idea. I thought, if I can tie this in and go back, and I went back and set those in the 12th century. And I did that for two reasons. My favourite genre of reading personally is historical fiction. I absolutely love it. But also, it gave me the opportunity to use all the world, the classic vocabulary in context, because I was able to have these knights and these pages and the squires using very classic vocabulary, but it was in context because that’s the way they would have spoken. So I did that on purpose. And I’d say I’ve got two out of the first two books around. Another coming out in July, which I’m just finalising. And then the fourth coming out at Christmas, they’re going to have supporting workbooks. And I’m currently working on another standalone verbal skills book. That’s the one with a blue triangle in there behind me. They’re completely standalone. So anybody can buy those. You don’t have to read any books, nothing. And they’re very much, they’re called ‘verbal skills’ books. And the reason why I call them ‘verbal skills’ is they haven’t got any verbal reasoning in them.

So yes, I’m doing a book, another verbal skills book. And then I think what I’d really like to do is, a friend of mine, a tutoring friend of mine, who you may know, a lady who founded Education Boutique, Lucy Spencer, she has a lovely saying, which I’ve stolen. And she says, ‘Let your kids read one for the head, and one for the heart’. So a book you want to read, and the book your mum wants you to read. My books are very much for the head, I would say. I mean, although I do get kids who really love them, and they write to me, but you know, it’s mum who’s going to be saying, read this book, and the genre isn’t for everybody. And what I’d really like to do is write some books for the heart. So they won’t have a built-in dictionary on every page, and they won’t be overwritten, but they will challenge the reader. And I’ve got a really good idea buzzing around in my head. And you know, it’s going to be how I’d like to describe it is David Walliams, but with some tricky vocabulary and that’s what I’m going to write and I’m gonna put it out there without the dictionary on the page and see how it goes. So yeah, that’s awesome.

Ludo Millar 31:56
I love it. It’s so wonderful having authors on the podcast. At the upcoming Love Tutoring Festival 3 happening at the end of next month, the week commencing 27th of June, we have a wonderful event on the Tuesday by an author and author coach AJ Harper who’s actually helping Julia Silver write Tutoring is Not Plan B, the vision behind Qualified Tutor and that is going to be about business publishing and and authorship as a part of your business. So it’s a very, very strong message, I think. And I think that what you’re showing, Sheena, is that it is a hugely important part of learning is books, and through these books, vocabulary can be really targeted, which helps students across all subjects, not just in English. So thank you so much for coming on tonight. If there’s one final question it is: what is the best way for people to get in touch with you right after this?

Sheena Ager 33:03
Oh, well, thanks again for inviting me onto the show. It’s been great. I know I can talk a lot and the best place for people to find me, if they want to know more about the books, it’s probably my website, which is just slager.co.uk. But I’m @slagerauthor on all social media platforms, including dare I say now TikTok, which is such a hoot. And I have a very big presence on Facebook. I’ve got my own Facebook group. I’m not so good on Twitter, but I am there but yeah, Facebook, probably, or my website, Ludo.

Ludo Millar 33:47
Well, there we go. That is your next step. listeners. Thank you very much for joining us for this 115th episode, and we will see you all next time. Thank you very much again, Sheena.

Sheena Ager 33:58
Thank you. Bye.

***

Ludo Millar

Thank you for listening to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Whether you’re a regular listener of this podcast, or you’ve just stumbled across it, join the Qualified Tutor Podcast Group within the Qualified Tutor Community. To stay up to date with our latest news offers workshops and of course, simply to meet other tutors like you, whatever your level is as a tutor, our training courses will be the next step in your professional development. Visit qualified tutor.org/training to find out more about our CPD-Accredited and Ofqual-recognised courses: the first of their kind in the tutoring industry.

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