Cultural capital | Vocabulary | Literacy

Vocabulary matters: An Inspector Calls

By Haili Hughes

02 May 2024


It was recently our great pleasure to welcome Haili Hughes onto our Literacy Works podcast.

During the episode, Haili takes us through her top 10 keywords/concepts that are essential for learners to understand when studying An Inspector Calls, from 'dramatic irony' to 'squiffy'. A fascinating dip into the universe this play inhabits and how we can help our learners fully understand what it's all about. You can listen to the podcast here.

Vocabulary matters

If we were to ask any teacher what the building blocks of effective literacy are, no doubt vocabulary wouldn’t be far from the top of the list. Words matter. If we want our students to sound like a scholar in our subjects, they need to be exposed to a rich and wide repertoire of Tier 3, subject specific vocabulary.

Research suggests that vocabulary is a determinant of reading ability and academic success (Hindman, Skibbe, Miller and Zimmerman, 2010). Therefore, it’s important that teachers promote vocabulary development by providing linguistically rich environments for students to learn new words and expressions. Teachers are role models, who engage students in meaningful talk and the opportunity to discuss and write about their thoughts and opinions using rich vocabulary.

However, it’s not enough to just learn the words, students also then need many opportunities to use the vocabulary and recycle it in new contexts. This means ensuring that you work collaboratively as a department to work backwards and identify what vocabulary is essential and will help enhance student understanding and articulation and then checking that the vocabulary is explicitly taught and revisited, throughout the curriculum.

Of course, this takes time – a commodity that teachers and leaders rarely have! Luckily, Bedrock Learning has identified and codified a huge range of Tier 2 and 3 words which are incredibly useful for all subjects and domains. As an ex-English Literature teacher, their list for ‘An Inspector Calls’ particularly impressive. So impressive, I even recorded a whole podcast about it. There are three words in particular I’d like to take the opportunity to talk about here in more depth: entrances and exits, ‘squiffy’ and structure. I’ll also add a suggestion of a practical strategy you can use to help embed the vocabulary into student’s long-term memory, so they can retrieve it effectively during independent tasks.

Entrances and exits

This is a really easy method of the writer’s that students can talk about, and it also demonstrates to an examiner that students are considering the form of the text.

It can be so impactful as the timing of entrances and exits in the play is crucial. Priestley uses them to increase dramatic tension. For example, the Inspector arrives immediately after Birling has told Gerald about his impending knighthood and about how "a man has to look after himself and his own." Moreover, Sheila runs off stage when she realises she is the reason Eva was sacked, which creates an intense atmosphere. Later on, Sheila and Gerald are left alone to discuss Daisy Renton, which draws information out for audience. Eric’s reappearance at the end of Act 2, just at the moment when the audience and the characters on stage realise that Eric is the father of Eva Smith’s baby is another moment of high dramatic tension. One of the most impactful exits of course is the Inspector’s dramatic exit, with his final message left hanging in the air. It emphasises his message to both the characters and the audience, who Priestley was so desperate to change.

However, my favourite thing to talk about is the stage directions which describe what the other characters are doing as the Inspector leaves. They say:

‘He walks straight out, leaving them staring, subdued and wondering. Sheila is still quietly crying. Mrs Birling has collapsed into a chair. Eric is brooding desperately. Birling, the only active one, hears the front door slam, moves hesitatingly towards the door, stops, looks gloomily at the other three, then pours himself out a drink, which he hastily swallows.’

There is so much that students can analyse here. Sheila for example, has been hugely affected by the Inspector’s speech and exit and the full enormity of her part in Eva Smith’s death has been realised. She represents exactly what Priestley hopes to see from the upper-class viewers. Mrs Birling has collapsed in a chair, which is a metaphor for her whole world crashing down around her. The old world of rigid class hierarchies is gone and she no longer knows her place. Perhaps most interesting however, is Mr Birling. There is no doubt the experience has impacted on him and for one moment, he looked like he had the potential to change, as he almost followed the Inspector out. The door for change was open, but after glancing back at his wife, who represents the old world, he gloomily retakes his place.

A great way to teach this vocabulary is to complete a Frayer model to define the words and then list their characteristics, with examples, and nonexamples. Then you could explore what this looks like in practice by watching film exits and entrances to plot the tension on a dramatic tension graph, before discussing why the entrances and exits contributed to the tension.


There is lots of slang and colloquial language in An Inspector Calls, which is unfamiliar to students, due to the play being set so long ago. I always like to look at the slang as a whole across the text and explore the history of the word, alongside what deeper meaning we can derive from its use. ‘Squiffy’ which Eric says to Sheila, is a great example. Priestley wanted his 1940's audience to see the Birlings as outdated and irrelevant, the exemplification of a bygone era that society did not need to return to. He believed the Birlings' way of life is no longer really possible after World War 2, and their attitudes are outmoded and embarrassing, after the way that society had shown such Blitz spirit in contributing to a common good.

Simply, squiffy means 'a bit drunk' and it is a kind of word that Eric and Sheila’s parents would never use, as it is much more the sociolect of youth. It is a way for Priestley to highlight the vast differences between the two generations: they use different words, have different attitudes and by the end of the play those differences are exceptionally clear.

No wonder Eric and his father don't understand each other - they come from different worlds despite being father and son, and even use different language.

To teach this, why not look at all of the slang in the play and get students to look of where it originated from? This may provide them with more conceptual analysis of the writer’s big ideas.


I have marked thousands of exam papers in my time and students seldom comment on structure in plays and fiction. This is such a shame! As Priestley draws on forms of theatre such as naturalism, the drawing-room drama, detective stories or ‘whodunnits’ and the well-made play. All of these are great dramatic conventions to teach students about and will help them make much more nuanced comments about the structure of the play.

First of all, the play follows a classic three-act structure, which reflects the three unities of Greek tragedy (unity of time, place and action). This subscribes to the conventions of a well-made play. An Inspector Calls is a well-made play that progresses from ignorance to knowledge, following a classic three-act structure, first thought of by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. However, he does not stick to them throughout – in fact he often subverts the rules and seems to enjoy doing so.

For the unity of place, Priestley sets the play in a constant place throughout – the dining room. He uses the characters to tell different stories set in different places, such as Milwards and the Palace theatre bar. This makes the play dramatically interesting.

The Unity of action means that the action of the play should be based around one event. However, in An Inspector Callswe hear about one event – the death of Eva Smith – from lots of different points of view. This is clever, as the Inspector takes ‘one line of enquiry at a time’, showing each individual a photo.

For the Unity of time, the characters are living in real time. We watch them for 90 minutes of their lives talking in their dining room. However, they tell stories about events that took place over the last year and the play ends with a phone call, suggesting that the Inspector has travelled through time at the beginning.

Pre-teaching any vocabulary about dramatic conventions, such as structure, will involve students being shown lots of examples of what the structure looks like in action, and then explicit discussions about how it relates to An Inspector Calls, so students can use their knowledge to illuminate new ideas about the play.

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