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.
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:
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