On a daily basis, every teacher navigates an abundance of questions about words and about the world. The English dictionary is replete with more than half a million words, and lots of in our pupils can struggle to stay afloat because they swim in this sea of educational language.
Given the sheer breadth and depth of vocabulary of the English language-alongside how critical it proves in mediating the academic curriculum of school-it is vital that every teacher includes a confident understanding of teaching vocabulary in the classroom.
We cannot teach all of the words to the pupils. Their language develops daily, outside and inside of the school gates, with reading, talk and just existing in the world, seeing their vocabulary grow exponentially. But, we can better develop our pupils' vocabulary, identify their gaps in understanding, and teach new words having a greater likelihood of success.
The need for vocabulary development to reading, writing and talk is incontrovertible. Of course, much of the vocabulary development of our pupils will happen implicitly past the scope of classroom instruction. This vocabulary growth is cumulative and incremental, founded upon reading and talk, and often hidden in plain sight within the busy classroom.
It is the gaps in vocabulary exhibited by our pupils, rather than the subtle growth, that too often become clear for teachers. These gaps may show up inside a difficult examination, an inadequate answer in class, or perhaps a subtly limited written piece.
Evidence to characterize a vocabulary gap is long-standing and sustained. A seminal study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, published in 1995 is often cited as popularizing the notions from the \”vocabulary gap\” commonly described as 'The Early Catastrophe.' It describes the meaningful variations in the language experiences of young children. They estimated that before U.S. children ever got to school, there might be a difference of language experience for kids from \”word rich\” or \”word poor\” families, with those children from word rich families potentially hearing 30,000,000 more words than their \”word poor\” peers.
The vocabulary research undertaken by Hart and Risley has rightly been critiqued. It was a little study of only 42 families, with strong judgements being made about social class and language experience which are contestable. Their estimates, according to limited recording technology, were not directly replicated. Crucially, however, their seminal study triggered a wave of research in this region. Rather than \”debunking\” such evidence, we discover a consensus that the vocabulary gap exists and that teachers have to better comprehend the issue.
Newer research around the early vocabulary gap has since showed that the gap exists and stays enduring. Our increased knowledge of the study evidence shows that the gap may be small compared to judged by Hart and Risley, but that lots of children arrived at school with having heard millions more words and having experienced a lot more rich interactions with parents and caregivers. We have learned that turn-taking and dialogue is of particular importance, whether round the dinner table, or in a day out at the zoo.
Rich, cumulative experiences with words at an early age matter, influencing later performance in class.
Teachers have revealed that the vocabulary gap can hamper their pupils in countless ways. It is sometimes punch-you-in-the-face stark-from students explaining she didn't comprehend the word 'suspense' in a standardized test, to students crying when dealing with a SAT reading on \”Dead Dodo's\” they found inscrutable.
A recent Oxford University Press survey including a lot more than 1,300 teachers found that vocabulary, or the lack thereof, is really a salient problem for them as well as their pupils. Primary school teachers reported that 49% of the Year 1 pupils did not have the vocabulary to gain access to the college curriculum. This was repeated with secondary school teachers, with teachers stating that 43% of Year 7 pupils faced exactly the same issue.
Consider for a moment the implications of these barriers. Though there are legions of challenges for any teacher supporting pupils within the classroom, our pupils possessing the educational language necessary to connect to the school curriculum is of critical importance.
When confronted with pupils who're experiencing the requirements of the academic curriculum, teachers can seem to be unprepared. Fundamentally, our pupils' capability to read well is inextricably linked to their vocabulary. Every standardized test examination makes that challenge explicit. For pupils with reading difficulties, vocabulary instruction could be a great help, but it could be good for mediate the word what of faculty for every pupil.
So, what makes the language of school unique? Can we describe what makes such language \”academic\”?
The academic language of school is unlike the words that we use within our talk to family and friends. In school, this is evident in most of the academic reading talks, but particularly with our reading of dense informational texts (so prominent in the school curriculum), we are exposed to many more rare words than in our typical talk. Indeed, if I ended up being to read an apt story to my eight-year-old son this evening, the book we'd read would likely have 50% less available words compared to the typical professional dialogue between teachers.
Researchers William Nagy and Dianna Townsend have helpfully described six common features that describe typical academic language:
1. A high proportion of Latin and Greek vocabulary.
2. A high proportion of complex words which have complex spellings.
3. A higher proportion of nouns, adjectives, and prepositions.
4. A higher proportion of expanded noun phrases and nominalisation.
5. A higher degree of informational density, i.e. few words that carry lots of meanings.
6. A high degree of abstraction, i.e. words which are taken off the concrete here and now.
One from the defining characteristics of the \”academic code\” of school- in spoken and written language-is the subtle word choices that pack knowledge and meaning into singular words.
A grammatical term for this process-more specifically when we change verbs into nouns-is called \”nominalization.\” Quite simply, it describes how whenever a pupil uses the verb \”sweat,\” we transform what into a sophisticated noun, such as \”perspiration.\” Suddenly, when our pupils deploy nominalization within their talk and writing they begin to sound \”academic.\” It makes for language that is precise, accurate and proves invariably impressive.
Many academic words in the English language-estimated to be around 70%-are \”polysemous,\” which would be to say that they've multiple meanings. This often trips up our word-poor pupils.
Take the word \”prime.\” Ask your class what they think of when they hear the word prime, and they'll likely mention Amazon or Optimus Prime of Transformers fame. But, ask every mathematics teacher and they'll relate the mathematical concept of an excellent number. Even then, ask an English teacher, or perhaps a technology teacher, and they're going to provide the common concept of \”first importance.\” Crucially then, we have to make sure every student knows what prime means in every subject-not just mathematics.
Science in particular can be tricky for our pupils. A lot of words in science challenge them as their general meaning simply doesn't match their specific scientific meaning. Take \”force\” in science. Within the physics classroom, it's very specific and plays a huge role, but then \”force\” in English, history, or sociology-the more general usage-can have very different connotations. As it is so central to physics understanding, teachers typically spend time on helping pupils comprehend the difference, but it still requires close attention.
Mathematics is a subject that's beset with a similar problem. With specialist mathematical vocabulary, such as \”acute,\” \”constant,\” \”expand,\” \”expression,\” \”factor,\” \”rational,\” and \”translation,\” pupils bring their common, everyday knowledge to them. Unfortunately, such partial knowledge can lead to over-confidence and pupils possessing unhelpful misconceptions. Polysemous words like \”acute\” reveal the critical importance of our pupils not only knowing many words, but to know them deeply.
How do you teach a new word?
Seldom will a thing be understood and used by pupils when they only ever experience that word inside a long list. No word list will encompass the range of academic vocabulary- such as the complex interrelatedness of such words and phrases-required by our pupils to gain access to the whole length of the college curriculum. Instead, we should consider a selection of methods to teaching vocabulary, to ensure that our pupils may use such strategies independently.
A common myth is the fact that pupils only need a dictionary, after which access to the language of school is theirs. Consider as it were: just how much knowledge is required to use a dictionary successfully? Pupils need spelling (orthographic) knowledge and they must have enough depth of word knowledge to select the right word meaning when multiple choices are typically offered. Dictionaries can prove a catch-22 for a lot of pupils.
Instead of counting on the dictionary, we are able to instead foreground the strength of vocabulary study and developing \”word consciousness\” within our pupils. In other words, a natural curiosity to question words, to understand more about their roots and parts, layers of meaning, their relationships along with other words (e.g. synonyms and antonyms) and so on.
A useful method of fostering word consciousness would be to explicitly teach word parts (morphology) and word histories (etymology). Human beings are pattern-making machines, with language we are exactly the same. With meanings hidden in plain sight, pupils is going to be breaking challenging new words into their constituent parts- what linguists call morphemes. For example, words like 'dyslexia' get broken down into the prefix \”dys\” (meaning \”bad\”) and \”lexia\” (meaning word)- being bad with words.
Rather than leaving pupils to do this haphazardly, we can harness this pattern making urge to help them better understand many of the fancy academic words that adorn our subject domains. In English literature, for example, if an author is applying \”foreshadowing\” they are literally offering shadowy hints (be)\”fore\” something bad is going to take place in the storyline. These simple mental hooks add memorable meaning to words.
Take the term \”intractable,\” meaning \”hard to control or cope with.\” In a lesson in history this might describe Anglo-French relations throughout the Hundred Years' War. In geography, it might make reference to issues with natural resources. When we dig into those mighty morphemes again only then do we realise something very familiar. The root of the word, \”tract,\” means \”to pull\”-just like a tractor, using the \”in\” prefix meaning \”not.\” Quite literally then, the word represents how something is hard to drag apart.
The utility of teaching morphology explicitly over the school curriculum is high. We all know that such knowledge is intimately associated with reading comprehension success. Not only that, a substantial quantity of academic words we use within school have ancient Latin and Greek origins, using the proportion being as high as 90% in regions of the curriculum like maths and science.
We can easily see how the Latinate vocabulary of faculty typically makes for bigger, more complicated words that people expect pupils to use in their school writing particularly:
|Anglo-Saxon origins||Latin and Greek origins|
Such words with Latin and Greek roots might be modern-day, and often separate from the daily language of our pupils. They offer us strategies, though, to help pupils hook their knowledge onto new words. For instance, one can learn the vocabulary of religious education, and such associated worldly knowledge, and explicitly teach the morphology and etymology of singular words to open up an enormous amount of faith that may otherwise be alien for them.
Take the words \”theology\” and \”theism\” which are at the very root of understanding religions. The root from the word \”theism\” is the Greek word \”theos,\” meaning \”god.\” The main \”the\” reaches the center of a lot of related terms: atheism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, theology, theocracy and more. By securing these linguistic roots, the very roots of religious understanding are unveiled to the students. Not just that, pupils start to observe that the suffix \”ology\”' is quite common in school (meaning \”the study of-\”). Patterns hidden in the English language become visible and such knowledge is compelling.
Happily, approaching the development of the vocabulary in our pupils in this way helps pupils to understand not just one word at a time, but to learn ten. They become word conscious of words have histories, parts, rich families, and countless meaningful connections that open up an enormous amount of powerful knowledge.
Developing vocabulary in classrooms can happen in countless ways. There is no singular methodology or silver bullet that emerges in the research evidence. Instead, we have to attend to developing teacher knowledge of the challenge, whilst reflecting carefully and monitoring our methods to explicit vocabulary instruction. We have to carefully have a tendency to the implicit growth and development of language gained from reading and rich, structured talk.
Some daily strategies may include:
o Word generation. One method of teaching morphology is to buy pupils to create as many words as they can from the word root or prefix. For instance, the prefix \”dec\” is familiar enough in words like 'decade' and 'decathlon' (from the Latin – 'decimas' – meaning \”tenth\”). Observe how many words pupils generate in groups, then try the entire class.
o \”Word mapping.\” Students understand using graphic organizers in all sorts of guises, from Venn diagrams to fishbone diagrams. They assist translate tricky vocabulary and hard concepts into visual models that aid understanding. For instance, with \”geothermic processes\” like a head word in geography, this would be followed by \”endogenic\” and \”exogenic\” processes. Each of these word headings then connects conceptually to other related words and processes. It is simple stuff, however it brings coherence and clarity regarding subject specific words and concepts.
o 'Working Word Walls'. A 'working word wall' is really much more than the usual display – though it might not even look very great looking – it's wall space that is used to recognise and record for the pupils an abundance of words. We can record new words we use within our teaching and use the surfaces to highlight word roots, connect with word families, and much more.
o 'Vocabulary 7-up'. This is a simple vocabulary game that encourages pupils to record as numerous synonyms as they can for common words (seven ideally). So, given \”positive,\” \”effective,\” \”large,\” or \”small,\” our students exercise their capacity to draw upon a range of synonyms for those words. This activity assesses their breadth of vocabulary, but also overtly signals to students the required variety of words required in their academic expression.
o \”Six examples of separation.\” The simple idea of this game is that all living things on the planet are connected by six or fewer steps. Take the following vocabulary links between \”abnormal\” and \”supercilious.\” Straight away, pupils have to draw upon their vocabulary knowledge-of synonyms, antonyms and more-before then drawing upon their personal vocabulary knowledge. My effort? Abnormal > strange > mysterious > special > superior > supercilious. With a little self-explanation, you are able to encourage pupils to elaborate on their ideas.
Vocabulary instruction must always prove more than singling out subject-specific words, compiling word lists and weekly tests. It's a fundamental a part of the way we communicate the vast array of knowledge in the centre from the school curriculum, not a one-off strategy.
It is helpful to depart the ultimate word on vocabulary development to 1 of the most heralded researchers of the English Language: Professor David Crystal. He poses the worth, the related challenges, and the potential rewards of effective vocabulary instruction on offer for every teacher: \”Education is the procedure of preparing us for that big world, and also the big world has big words. The greater big words I know, the greater I'll survive inside it. Because there are thousands and thousands of big words in English, I am unable to learn all of them. However this doesn't mean that I shouldn't try to learn some.\”