Keywords English by Joanna P. Norton

Innovation through the Medium of Literacy

The emerging narrative around smart education assumes a homogeneous landscape. Policy governing AI, gamification, robotic assistance as well as AR and VR experiences assume a highly-qualified workforce managing class sizes that are equipped to deal with rapid societal change. However, the long-term impact of under-investment in education combined with the expectations of a rapidly growing population has diverted attention away from the pressing challenges of daily teaching. Keywords English is an attempt to address the challenges of academic literacy through the mediums of collaboration, creativity and technology. The first stage is to build research-based apps that approach STEM subjects from a language and literacy perspective that challenge remedial connotations of learning. Stage two will introduce project-based learning to encourage young people to apply classroom learning to reimagine their communities through the medium of innovation. Addressing higher and lower thinking skills simultaneously will encourage everyone to have a voice in creating their own future. To activate this process, Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography have both been released to extremely positive feedback.





Underpinning Research

Research guiding Keywords English stems from a 3-year research study carried out by linguists at Trinity College, Dublin. Deploying techniques of corpus linguistics, researchers developed an extensive body of post-primary curricular subject textbooks, teacher guidelines and examination papers. A corpus of nearly 5.2 million words permitted focus to be directed towards subject-specific language which, in turn, informed the development of a large array of materials designed to support teaching and learning at each of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) A1-B2 Benchmarks.
Following intensive classroom trials, 358 language support activity unit were developed and tested by 80 teachers in 250 schools, and subsequently downloaded in 111 geographical locations.
From the initial study teachers became more aware of and able to address learners’ needs such as:
• Accessing key grammatical categories, e.g. noun, verb, preposition, etc.
• Relating language meaning to grammatical structure in context
• Understanding meanings as expressed in texts, and
• Expressing meanings in written work

According to the teachers, the materials provided:
• Exposure to a range of authentic texts with a variety of purposes and functions
• Activities that involve planning, such as exchanging meanings, e.g. aural/oral pair work; information gap
activities; problem-solving; reading/listening comprehension activities such as skimming and scanning; writing to
an anticipated reader to convey meaning
• Activities that link form and function
• Activities that allow learners to restructure their language towards the target language
• A means of teaching grammar and vocabulary in context
• Awareness-raising activities with respect to planning aims, goals and objectives, and thinking about
learning, e.g. purpose of activities, anticipated outcomes, the way one solves communication problems/challenges
• Prompts to develop learning strategies
• Writing prompts to support thinking and speaking
• Opportunities for social interaction and negotiation in language content learning activities

Moving to Mobile Education

With this level of positive feedback along with the increased availability and affordability of mobile devices, the obvious next stage was to integrate this research into a language and literacy app. This approach is critical given the time constraints placed upon subject teachers or, their lack of formal preparedness in addressing this growing learning around language and literacy support. Indeed, given the super-diverse learning needs of today’s multilingual classrooms, subject teachers are under great pressure to deliver highly differentiated learning objectives within inflexible time constraints. To support everyone involved in the teaching and learning process, Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography present the relevant keywords (target language) in context. At a very minimum, this language support will give young learners a basic concept of what the content teacher is discussing in class and gradually help them to scaffold their acquisition of language within related topics of the subject and then within different subjects across the curriculum.

Overview of Learning Activities

With nine clear learning activities, the apps are designed to develop competence in academic English in line with the basic theories of language acquisition. In the introduction section, the primary concept is presented in approximately 120 words, with 12 keywords required for comprehension embedded in the text. A guideline of 120 words is used throughout to reduce the cognitive load on young learners.


As highlighted by Trinity College’s underpinning research, a wide range of vocabulary both in depth and breadth is critical for young learners seeking to develop competency in the usage of academic English. Given the frequency with which certain words appear across the curriculum, the vocabulary section begins to extrapolate the keywords central to understanding the topic at hand and presents the word along with its form, a definition sentence, an example sentence in context along with a contextualized graphic (a valid non-linguistic clue) to aid learning.


Even within an English language classroom setting, pronunciation is often the one area of teaching that is neglected, as it is usually perceived to be a difficult area to teach. However, since English is not a phonetic language, some form of pronunciation teaching is required to ensure learners can communicate intelligibly. Incorrect word stress often leads to more challenges with communication than the incorrect use of an individual phoneme (sound). Keywords English therefore takes word stress as the starting point for pronunciation. In the pronunciation section, Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography use the self-record and playback function to allow learners to practise pronouncing the keywords in private to build confidence, which in turn encourages participation in a mainstream classroom setting.

Word Order

In this activity learners test their comprehension of the keywords. Not only are the keywords presented in context, but the word order activity tests their knowledge of sentence level syntax and encourages them to think about sentence level construction. It is critical for them to gain an understanding of syntax, as this in turn will give them control over their own writing and support them in writing coherent sentences, which in time will become longer pieces of text. Once they establish competency, they will be able to explore alternative options and self-evaluate other pieces of writing they produce.
As a support aid, the activity contains vital literacy clues that work to reduce the cognitive load on young learners. If learners are familiar with basic punctuation rules (a capital letter at the start of the sentence and a full stop at the end), then identifying the first word or lexical set will encourage them to engage with the activity. Since the activity has a high level of interactivity and a game-like feel, it also suits a variety of different learning styles.


Knowing a word means knowing how to spell it. The more thoroughly learners know a word, the more they will be able to recognise it, spell it, define it and then use it appropriately in a variety of contexts. While weekly spelling tests are common at primary level, they all but disappear at secondary level. It is often assumed that young people have the relevant strategies to decode words along with the appropriate study skills and motivation to learn the spelling of a word independently. Exam results at national and international levels challenge such assumptions.

Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography introduce spelling as a distinct activity to remind learners of its importance. Given the challenges spelling poses for literacy learners or those unfamiliar with the Roman script, only six of the twelve keywords are tested. This makes the task more manageable and achievable. Deploying a range of strategies, learners are asked to identify the missing letters to complete the task.
Again, learners have the option to record themselves saying the word they have just spelt. While not relevant to all learners, this option may prompt those struggling to pronounce keywords to engage further. It also supports pair or small group work as it can encourage learners to listen to the pronunciation of others.

Multi-choice & Gap fill

Once learners are familiar with the keywords as words (vocabulary definitions in context, pronunciation, spelling) and their place in the syntax of a sentence (word order), they can begin to combine their language knowledge with an overall comprehension of the topic.

Multi-choice activity

Staying with sentence level syntax, the multi-choice activity uses phrasing close to the opening description. This repetition reinforces the previous learning. The challenge comes from the distracters, which should be plausible answers to the new language learner. For instance, in Keywords Biology the statement, “Green plants absorb _________ in the process of photosynthesis”, provides four options:
1. pigment
2. glucose
3. carbon dioxide
4. oxygen
Each is a substance or a chemical, and each is a noun that would syntactically fit. The learner must know the meaning of the correct term to distinguish it from the others, and the learner must understand the meaning of the whole statement to choose correctly. This combines word knowledge with comprehension.
The record option gives learners the opportunity to record themselves reading a full sentence. While the app has not looked at sentence stress in this version, it does provide an opportunity for learners to work in small groups and to listen to and evaluate the pronunciation of one other.

Gap Fill Activity

The gap fill activity takes comprehension further by presenting the opening description from the introduction twice, each time with six of the keywords left blank, and each blank has a dropdown list of four options. Repetition of the introductory description has the same function as the conclusion in a formal piece of writing; it restates the opening assertion. In reaching the conclusion, the learner/reader is now ready to absorb the statement with knowledge and clarity. And since to know a word is to encounter it seven times, the repetition of the introduction stabilizes the learner’s knowledge of the keywords in a familiar context. The now familiar distractors serve the same function as they do in the MCQ activity.

Conclusion – Free Writing Activity

Given the number of controlled activities in Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography, this is the first opportunity learners have to produce text independently. Depending on their level of literacy competency, this task will be extremely challenging for some learners. While some learners studying independently may choose to write a paragraph, the task will need to be differentiated for others. One or two sentences may be sufficient for some learners. It can be used by others to spell some of the keywords, which can then be shared. Alternatively, if learners want to work on their speaking skills, they can record themselves describing the process of photosynthesis and again share with their friends or teacher.
Getting learners to attempt to write and encourage them to share their work and give feedback to each other is the first stage of the writing process. At this point, it is important for young learners to appreciate that the first attempt is not necessarily the final one. Numerous drafts of the sentence, paragraph or essay will be required for every writing task. Sharing with friends will help them to see that writing need not be a solitary process and that each attempt will bring them closer to their goal.


The glossary section provides learners with the list of keywords central to understanding the topic at hand. If learners require further revision or clarification of any of the keywords, they are simply brought back to the definition screen in the vocabulary section, where they can quickly review the keywords they have learnt.

Impact of Keywords English

Starting with a BETA app, 50,000 downloads have been achieved in both resource-rich and resource-limited contexts prompting the full development of Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography. Initial testing has shown a significant increase in literacy development as well as teacher awareness of the challenges of academic language for young learners along with strategies on how to support them. As both Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography are free to download, those most at risk of underachievement can access researched content designed to support learning. In 2019, a larger study will be carried out to measure the impact of Keywords Biology and Keywords Geography. Users will be consulted on the development of the project to ensure Keywords English represents a diverse range of voices in a rapidly changing society. 2019 will also see the release of project-based learning activities to illustrate how classroom learning can be used to devise solutions to address local challenges. This will allow young learners irrespective of their location or socio-economic context to have a voice in shaping their own future.

For interested teachers, students and communities who would like to get involved or require more information, contact Joanna Norton at

Joanna Norton is a creative educator, teacher educator and founder of Keywords English.

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