It goes without saying that words are powerful things. Words are the difference between understanding and confusion; they deepen and enrich how we express ourselves; they allow us to communicate and connect with others. Without words, we are trapped, imprisoned, constrained within the confines of our own minds. Words allow us to escape ourselves. Words give us the power to reach out to others and share and understand the experience of being alive. Having fewer words at your disposal limits what you can say.
It is upsetting, therefore, that studies have shown that children from language-impoverished families may only hear as few as 13 million words before the age of 4. This is in stark contrast to children from language-rich homes, who are more likely to have heard nearly 45 million words by the same age.
If we do nothing to address this gap, it will only increase as children get older.
Teachers may feel startled and disempowered by such stats. How can we fill a 32 million-word gap in the short time we have them in school? Fortunately, children have a natural propensity for learning language. If we give them the right conditions and teach the right things, therefore, we can make a significant difference to a child’s vocabulary, and consequently, their ability to communicate.
As ever, I don’t propose to have all the answers. Below, however, are some thoughts on where we might begin to tackle this seemingly insurmountable problem.
Step 1: Assessment
As with a lot of things, it is vital to know where pupils are at when they come to you. There are a number of different vocabulary tests out there, such as testyourvocab.com and myvocabularysize.com. These have different strengths and weaknesses, but are based on relatively robust methodologies.
We decided to create our own assessment using the tests in this book by researcher Hunter Diack. We took sample tests and turned the words into simple multiple-choice questions. For example:
What is the best synonym for ‘appreciation’?
Diack’s research is complex, but in his book he argues that the number of correct answers (out of 60) multiplied by 600 will give you an approximate vocabulary figure. A pupil with a score of 15/60, therefore, would have an approximate vocabulary of 9000 words. Whether or not this is 100% accurate is by the by. What it does give is an indication of a pupils’ vocabulary. At age 11, the average child should have a score of about 9000-10,000 words on this test. A well-educated graduate should have around 30,000. The words on the test range from very simple ones like ‘beside’ and ‘appreciate’ all the way up to pretty tough ones like ‘bibulous’ and ‘cenacle’.
When we did these tests in September, the results correlated well with reading age scores. Pupils with reading ages of 13 years or more usually had a vocabulary of around 12,000-15,000 words. Pupils with reading ages of 8 years or below usually had a vocabulary of around 2000-3000 words. Again, these are startling statistics, and reveal just how much catching up some pupils have to do.
[Of course, EAL pupils will begin the year with very low vocabulary scores. Depending on how quickly they learn new things, they will usually progress at a much speedier rate than their native peers. It is very exciting to see this!]
Step 2: Which words?
In this article, Daisy Christodoulou outlines very clearly how we should choose which words to teach. In a nutshell, the words that will have the biggest impact on a child’s vocabulary are words that you see often in books, but hear rarely in speech. Words such as: derive, evoke, surreptitious, capricious, incredulous and eradicate all fall into this category. Focus on these sorts of words and pupils’ vocabularies will increase over time. This works because in order to learn new words, you need to know other words. The more of these words you are taught, the easier it is to learn other words. It’s a lovely, virtuous cycle. Combine a robust vocabulary strategy with high motivation and a school-wide reading culture, and your pupils will go far.
Step 3: Inflexible Knowledge
As cognitive science reveals, the brain tends to remember new information in concrete, inflexible forms that are difficult to apply to new situations and contexts. With this in mind, we begin by giving pupils an inflexible definition for a large number of new words, and encourage them to learn them by rote. Combining tradition and innovation, we utilise Quizlet and knowledge organisers to support pupils’ memorisation.
Another aspect of our strategy for helping pupils to learn these new words is to link them to the units of work we have been teaching. For example, when teaching new words for describing people, we used lots of words that featured in our abridgement of ‘The Odyssey’. We have found that this helps pupils to remember new words as they have a point of reference for using them. It may be narrow at first, but our experience has shown that this is less overwhelming than introducing them to a wide range of contexts in the first instance.
Step 4: Flexible Knowledge
Once pupils have begun to learn the meanings of these new words in an inflexible way, we can now start to teach them the meaning of words in different contexts so that they have a flexible understanding of them. I highly recommend reading ‘Bringing Words to Life’ by Beck, Mckeown and Kucan for an excellent description of the challenges of vocabulary instruction, and the best ways to go about addressing them. If time isn’t on your side, though, I’ve included a brief PowerPoint summarising the book at the end of this blog post.
In a nutshell, pupils need to see and hear words being used in a variety of contexts. When learning the word ‘incredulous’ for example, pupils need to see it used to describe lots of different situations. They also need to begin using the word in a range of contexts too. Again, Beck’s book provides a wealth of different activities that could be used to do this. I have included an example lesson at the end of this post to give you an idea of what this might look like in practice.
If this post sounds a bit technical, that’s because vocabulary acquisition isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. It is simply not enough to point at a few new words on a word wall or ask pupils to use a thesaurus. In order to chip away at that 32 million word gap, we need a robust, systematic strategy that focuses on teaching pupils the most useful words in the clearest way. This isn’t an easy task, but it is certainly not impossible.
A PowerPoint Summarising ‘Bringing Words to Life‘ by Beck, McKeown and Kucan.
An example lesson teaching the word ‘Incredulous‘.