Geography - Lost for words

10th February 2012 at 00:00
Children need the vocabulary to talk about the world they live in

It is a daunting moment when you realise that, while your pupils can recall the current menu at McDonald's with ease, they can name only a handful of environmental features.

I remember asking some Year 1 children, for whom English was a second language, to tell me about their outdoor school area. Despite many prompts, they came up with only one feature, "climbing frame", before rattling off the names of complicated sounding cartoon characters from a television series that had inspired their outdoor play.

Popular culture can be a powerful catalyst for vocabulary development, but so can memorable and positive outdoor experiences. Ofsted recently warned that, in 10 per cent of schools, geography was more or less disappearing. Yet this subject is essential if children are to discuss and understand features, places and environments. So how can we help children to develop the vocabulary to talk about the world around them?

Create memorable experiences in your outdoor spaces framed by geographical questions such as "Where is this place?", "What is it like and why?" and "How does it compare, contrast or connect to other places?" You might use different scales of enquiry to map the school grounds, marking natural and man-made features, different habitats and activity areas. Or get children to research, design and make information panels, maps, signs and trails.

Go on "wonder walks" and look for the unexpected in the everyday, such as a delicate spider web or the changing shapes of clouds. Provide outdoor blackboards, coloured chalk, hides and binoculars. Find and map the hottest, shadiest, windiest parts of your site and use this information to make decisions about land use. Have a "watching window" in class where children can take it in turns to observe the outside world. Spice up the action by strategically placing bird feeders and boxes.

Geography has a potentially vast vocabulary, yet it also has a powerful conceptual framework or "grammar" that helps to make sense of what would otherwise be meaningless lists of feature and place names. Let us develop that vocabulary, but let us also ensure that it is used to help children think geographically about the world in which they live.

Dr Paula Owens is a part-time primary curriculum development leader for the Geographical Association, an author and a part-time educational consultant and trainer


For suggestions of how to use the school grounds and locality, see

Read Ofsted's 2011 report Geography: learning to make a world of difference and reconsider the value of geography with A Different View from the Geographical Association.

Use Learning through Landscapes' resource to explore the school site or go hunting for minibeasts with bevevans22's prompt cards.

For all links and resources visit


Teachers are putting together workshops for an Olympics Humanities Day in the TES geography forum.

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