How well does your school teach vocabulary? 8 key questions

Firstly, why does it matter? Surely students just pick up new vocab as they move through life? Well, yes, to a certain extent that is true. But think about two students. One who reads extensively, who lives in a language rich household and whose parents or carers talk to them on a regular basis.

Now take a second child. This child doesn’t enjoy reading and avoids it at all costs. They don’t live in a household where they are immersed in new language all the time; maybe they don’t live in a household where English is the first language. Consider the disparity between child one and child two. What is your school doing to bridge that language gap? Your response might be ‘we encourage reading through excellent, engaging schemes, we ensure all students benefit from outstanding teaching and learning practices, we model excellent spoken English at all times…’ but how are you tracking the effects of this on their language acquisition? Are you certain that you are narrowing the gap? There is a ton of research to back up the idea that this really is a crucial consideration. Read this paper for an in depth exploration of that research.

How well is your school doing this?

Here are some questions for you to evaluate your current strategy. They come from a research group in the U.S. that has synthesised research on vocabulary acquisition. Their research suggests that these are the 8 key questions all teachers should be asking themselves:

1. Do you provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for a specific text?

Anderson and Nagy (1991) pointed out “there are precise words children may need to know in order to comprehend particular lessons or subject matter.”

2. Do you use expose students to new vocabulary items regularly and in different contexts?

Stahl (2005) cautioned against “mere repetition or drill of the word,” emphasizing that vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.

3. Do you choose the words you will teach carefully?

Vocabulary words should be those that the learner will find useful in many contexts. 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). Research suggests that vocabulary learning follows a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001).

4. Do you differentiate your vocabulary tasks dependent on which learners are in front of you?

Vocabulary exercises should be restructured as necessary. “Once students know what is expected of them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly” (Kamil, 2004).

5. Do you move beyond definitions? Do you use semantic mapping?

Vocabulary learning is effective when it entails active engagement that goes beyond definitional knowledge. Stahl and Kapinus (2001) stated, “When children ‘know’ a word, they not only know the word’s definition and its logical relationship with other words, they also know how the word functions in different contexts.”

6. Do you use technology to support language acquisition?

Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary (NICHD, 2000).

7. What are you doing to help maximise incidental learning?

Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). In later work, Cunningham (2005) further recommended structured read-alouds, discussion sessions and independent reading experiences at school and home to encourage vocabulary growth in students.

8. Lastly, what are you doing to ensure your approach is varied?

Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning (NICHD, 2000).

What does your school do to help students learn new vocab? Do you have an amazing plan that is working wonders? Share it with us in the comments below. Or, if you’re in need of inspiration, have a look at our ‘How to teach vocabulary effectively‘ resource. It might give you somewhere to start.

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