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Developing Vocabulary

May 7th 2019

In the 2014 National Curriculum, the need for pupils to have an ‘acquisition and command of vocabulary’ was a key statement. The role this would play in their learning and development was clear, but 5 years on how many of us are sure about how and when to teach this?

Recent research commissioned by Oxford University Press and discussed in The Guardian would suggest that although we all are aware of the importance of vocabulary in terms of children’s education and future prospects, we still have a gap and one which many feel is widening.

“A survey of 1,300 primary and secondary school teachers across the UK found that more than 60% saw increasing incidents of underdeveloped vocabulary among pupils of all ages, leading to lower self-esteem, negative behaviour and in some cases greater difficulties in making friends.”

The Guardian, 2018

The statistics outlined by Hart and Risley, (1995) in their 30 million word gap research are stark and with each year of early development that passes the gap only widens. When these children enter our schools, we notice the difference talk has played but the acquisition of vocabulary for future success is relevant to all the children we work with. OFSTED have also recently addressed this in their January Inspection Update 

Without a command of vocabulary how, for example, can children access information from both fiction and non-fiction texts, answer questions in assessments, vocalise what they are trying to say to each other, understand spelling rules and word origins, edit and improve their work thinking about the effect of language on the reader or make inferences about characters thoughts and feelings?

Before thinking about ways to address this, it is worth considering our own vocabulary. How many words do we think we know ourselves? David Crystal in his book ‘Words, Words, Words’ suggests taking a sample of pages from a medium sized dictionary (2% of the total content) and highlighting the number of words you know on each page (whilst also considering those you use) in order to calculate an overall vocabulary size. We are yet to attempt this ourselves, but it would be very interesting to find out who has the biggest vocabulary amongst us!

Vocabulary development is high on our agenda here at The Literacy Company and we have already run many courses to kick start the systematic and focussed teaching of vocabulary. We have also ensured that each of our Pathways to Write units of work have a clear vocabulary focus. Once you begin to consider the vocabulary in the text you are using it opens your eyes to the possibilities.

Take a look now at your next or current text. How many of the words do you think your pupils would already know and understand? Could they use them in a different context (crucial in order for vocabulary to become entrenched)? Could they explain their meaning to another pupil? Words such as sampler, supplies, spire, dome, embers, peril, townsfolk have all been highlighted in the texts we use but do we always stop and talk about these when we encounter them?

This rich vocabulary found in the high-quality texts we use falls into different categories which you may or may not be familiar with:

Tier 1 – Day to day vocabulary we all use. This is usually the simplest form e.g. bag, table, run, shop

Tier 2 – These words can have the same meaning as Tier 1 words, however, they are not used as frequently e.g. satchel, desk, sprint, grocery store. They can also be words which have more than one use and have been encountered within other contexts. These are the words which can have a pronounced effect academically, but they need teaching and exploring as they are encountered in high-quality texts.

Tier 3 – These words are more technical and subject specific. Many of these words are throughout the National Curriculum within other subjects e.g. phoneme, herbivore, photosynthesis

OFSTED are clear that reading to children is one of the most effective ways of exposing them to more ambitious and complex vocabulary, but we need to be selective in our choices if we want to maximise the impact. We often hear talk about children being avid readers but the quality of the material being read is an important consideration as not all will provide them with the understanding and exposure they need. Gill Jones, HMI, discusses this further:

So, with the values and benefits of vocabulary development being so clear, how can we best provide for this in the classroom? Here are some of our top tips and favourite activities:

  1. Graphic organisers – These can be used by all ages to explore a word in more detail. Pupils can be encouraged to think of synonyms, antonyms, pictorial representations, examples in sentences, definitions and related words. The key is allowing the pupils to lead on the investigation so as to aid their understanding and memory.
  2. Use co-operative learning techniques such as ‘Quiz, quiz trade’ to encourage pupils to become experts on particular words. In a short space of time, they will have investigated a handful of new words alongside their peers.
  3. Link vocabulary across subjects – words such as cliff, coast, valley, compass, country appear in the KS1 Geography curriculum and can be easily picked up again in English sessions to aid setting descriptions. Teachers need to use technical and academic vocabulary and expose pupils to it in a number of contexts.
  4. Guided and shared reading planning- we ensure that each of our sessions begins with a vocabulary focus to encourage the discussion of words and their meaning. In The Reading Mind, Dan Willingham talks about older readers needing to understand 98% of the words they read in order to be able to comfortably comprehend what they are reading. Try reading a page from a novel and blocking out 20% of the words. It’s very hard to maintain understanding when you don’t know what the words are or mean.
  5. Shades of meaning – we are all used to encouraging pupils to use a thesaurus to ‘up-level’ their vocabulary but how often do they choose effectively and understand the effect of their choices? There is a big difference between a character being described as upset rather than disappointed and not all are easily interchangeable. Encourage pupils to discuss words and the effect, ordering them by their meaning. Creating scales between antonyms works well too.

There are many more excellent ways to develop vocabulary which we will continue to explore and share with you. If you wanted to read more about the subject, we would suggest the following books:

David Crystal, Words, Words, Words OUP

Alex Quigley, Closing the Vocabulary Gap Routledge

Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life

To enquire about further support in your school with vocabulary development please contact us at admin@theliteracycompany.co.uk or via our website