5 things you need to know about teaching vocabulary

Teachers working with students to learn literacy and improve vocabulary.

It’s true – the language gap is widening year on year.

However, some teachers think the solution to this language gap is encouraging students to read for pleasure – through this, students will encounter ambitious vocabulary by chance and the language gap will close.

This isn’t the case. When you leave learning ambitious vocabulary to chance, the gap widens, and students who need vocabulary tuition the most are left behind.

But there are solutions. If closing this language gap is something you’re interested in pursuing, but you’re just not sure where to start (or how to prove to your whole school that this is something crucial to focus on), then keep reading.

Here are five things you need to know about improving students’ vocabulary.

1. The playing field needs levelling

American researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley researched the effect of socio-economic background on vocabulary. They ascertained that by age three, a child from a ‘welfare’ background would be exposed to around 30 million fewer words than a child from a ‘professional’ background. Further, between 86 and 98% of words in a child’s vocabulary are also found in their parents’ vocabulary.

Similarly, in the UK, The Millennium Cohort Study found that by age five, children from low-income households were over a year behind in vocabulary compared with children from high-income households.


2. Why does the language gap widen?

Research suggests that to understand any written text, we have to know the meaning of 90–95% of the words used. Stronger readers, who understand around 95% of the language used, will rely on the strength of their existing vocabulary to make an educated guess at the meaning of the unknown 5%. Therefore, the strength of their existing vocabulary enables them to continue developing their lexicon.

However, if a student has a weaker vocabulary, they are limited on two fronts. Firstly, they struggle to understand the text because they do not know 90-95% of the language. Consequently, they are less likely to successfully guess the meaning of the unknown words – their ability to pick up new vocabulary inferentially is limited. There is little enjoyment to be gained from reading a text you don’t understand; struggling readers increasingly avoid reading.


3. What is the effect of the language gap on academic success?

As a student progresses through school, they need to be adding at least 3,000 new words to their vocabulary per year (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002; Nagy, 1980 & 1986) if they are to keep up with the increasingly challenging requirements of academic texts. If a student’s vocabulary is growing at a slower rate, they will find understanding school textbooks, academic resources and exam texts more and more difficult as they progress through school. If a GCSE text has a reading age of 15, but only one third of your students are at this reading age by the time they sit their exams, that’s one third of students lacking the vocabulary to access their education – in all subjects, not just English!

Of equal importance is the impact this will have on their life outside of school. The ability to communicate effectively, through oracy and in writing, helps students communicate their emotions. This has a long-term impact on the friendships they make throughout their life, their career prospects and their mental health. The work you do to improve students’ vocabulary while they are in education benefits them forever.


4. Have a plan

Vocabulary teaching is most effective when it is planned and follows a coherent strategy. Coyne, Kame’enui & Carnine (2007) found that direct instruction of target words is more effective when it adheres to validated principles of instructional and curricular design – vocabulary tuition has to be explicit, consistent and follow a structure. This is what makes educational technology so powerful – solutions such as Bedrock Vocabulary use algorithms to ensure that vocabulary strategy is consistent.

Baker et al (1998) also assert that for the students, vocabulary instruction needs to be ‘conspicuous’, consisting of carefully designed and delivered actions. Vocabulary instruction should also provide students with regular opportunities to review and practise new learning so they can firmly incorporate the new vocabulary into their lexicons. This might involve identifying synonyms, antonyms, contextual imagery, and encouraging the use of ambitious vocabulary in verbal communication throughout lessons.

Ensuring that a school has a well-planned, consistent strategy for teaching vocabulary is therefore likely to be an effective approach.


5. Learning should become self-sustaining

After some initial input from you, vocabulary learning will become self-sustaining. Vocabulary learning has been likened to the Matthew Effect – the language rich get richer and the language poor get poorer. For example, it’s easier to learn the word ‘sweltering’ if you already know oppressive, stifling and parched. By taking your students through those first steps of explicit vocabulary teaching, you’ll find that the definitions they’re confident about contribute to increased learning of new words. If you teach your students the word enigmatic, they might have more luck figuring out the word mysterious without any contribution from you!

However, this doesn’t mean that explicit vocabulary tuition ever stops. As students progress in their education, the words necessary to access their education become more and more challenging. By equipping students with the rich language they need in early years, students can take that language richness forward, benefiting them throughout their education.

Try building in some time for teaching vocabulary to your students this week – and let us know how you get on! Tweet us or drop us a line at hello@bedrocklearning.org. And remember,  if you need some strategies to help you deliver a killer vocabulary lesson, we’ve got everything you need here. Or if you’re looking for ways to make vocab learning fun, try one of these games.

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