5 Things you need to know about teaching vocabulary

If helping your students expand their vocabulary is quite far down your list of classroom priorities, then read this…

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 the age of 3, 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 U.K, 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 in order 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 2 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 and 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 all this?

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. Of equal importance is the impact this will have on their life outside of school.

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. 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 practice new learning so that they can firmly incorporate the new vocabulary into their lexicons. 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. Instruction of high-frequency words known and used by mature language users can add productively to an individual’s language ability (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Vocabulary learning has been likened to the Matthew Effect, whereby 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 helping students take the first steps with vocabulary learning, you will find that eventually it will take care of itself.

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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