There is a considerable body of evidence now to show how children’s early oral language skills are influenced by their home language, with children from low income families more at risk of poorly developed vocabulary compared to peers from more affluent homes. This gap in vocabulary at school entry between children from word-rich homes and those from word-deprived homes grows as they progress through school. The negative impact of poor vocabulary on later attainment has been the subject of media attention over the last year or two and championed by the BBC’s Word Gap Strategy.

Which words do we choose to teach?

It is abundantly clear that if schools are to offer a level playing field for educational attainment, investment in teaching vocabulary in the classroom is critical to accelerate word learning. It’s important that time invested in teaching focuses on those words that have the maximum impact on learning. Although much of teacher’s time in lessons is devoted to teaching the specialist subject vocabulary linked to a particular topic, these are not the words that will have the biggest impact on closing the gap.

The words that serve to narrow the gap are the non-specialist words that children hear across subjects, that are part of the academic language used in literacy and classroom talk (e.g. ‘consider,’ ‘reflect’). For example, curriculum topic words like ‘deforestation’ or ‘photosynthesis’ are important to teaching the topic but these are not the words children will encounter across subjects or need to use in writing and therefore are not appropriate target words for whole class teaching.

For upper Key Stage 2 children a good place to start is teaching the key learning verbs that feature as part of the learning objective (e.g. describe, explain, identify, explore, evaluate etc.). Be aware that some non-specialist words that are important for children to understand and use may not require focused teaching in the same way others do. In other words, children may already have the building blocks to understand the meaning of some words because they are familiar with a simpler word that has the same or similar meaning. For example, a word like ‘injustice’ is a widely applicable word, useful for children to learn because they are likely to encounter it again and again in learning and in life. However, many children are already ‘experts’ in the concept of ‘unfairness’ so if you draw on their knowledge of ‘unfairness’ they will quickly grasp the concept of ‘injustice’ and may require less focused teaching.  Compare this to a word like ‘conscience’ -another non-specialist word with wide applicability but unlike the word ‘injustice,’ its meaning is not expressed by using a simpler word, therefore making it appropriate for more focused classroom teaching.

How do we teach these words?

Many of the approaches suggested here are adapted from the work of Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L (2008) in ‘Creating Robust Vocabulary.’ Regardless of the approach used to teaching vocabulary, there are shared principles which underpin effective practice:

Multiple Exposures

You may expect that an explanation of word meaning accompanied by a few examples will be enough for children to learn a new word, however word-deprived children are unlikely to simply learn words with a single exposure. Experts tell us that children need to encounter a new word used in a meaningful context at least six times before they internalise the meaning whilst others say as many as twelve different exposures to a word in context is required to secure the meaning.

Regardless of the number, it’s clear that words need to be revisited time and time again for a child to embed them into their existing vocabulary.

Varied Contexts

The way children learn words is shaped by the context in which the word is learned. For example, if a child’s first experience of the word ‘flower’ is when they are in the garden and they see an enormous yellow faced sunflower towering above them then they are unlikely to conceive of a tiny purple pansy as a ‘flower’ too. The same is true for how school-age children learn words. Words that are more abstract or conceptually challenging will need to be presented in varied contexts for the child to make sense and generalise the meaning from one context to another.

Word Learning Environment

Create a word learning environment; be a ‘Word–Enthusiast.’ Take opportunities to explore the meaning of words, their similarities and differences and comment on word choices at every available opportunity. Create a classroom environment where words are important: Use a WOW Word Wall to celebrate interesting and useful words used in lessons or writing and take opportunities to model words. Revisit and review academic words you wish to target.

Top Tips for Teaching Words

Play with Sounds in Words

Directing attention to the beginning sounds, syllable structure and rhyming patterns in words enables children to store words correctly in their memory to access them later for speaking or writing. Providing opportunities to repeat words, and creating rhythms and chants improves sound awareness skills important to link the spoken and written forms of words.

Use Context

Using the context in which a word is encountered is the best starting point for teaching. Discover and explore words within the context of books, class discussion or texts, rather than in isolation. Give up the word lists: de-contextualised word lists do not allow children to use the meaningful clues to build and construct meaning. The context provides the first step to explore meaning in depth.

Use Simple Child-Friendly Definitions

When children encounter a new word for the first time, it is often suggested they look it up in the dictionary. However, many words in English have multiple meanings and traditional dictionaries provide definitions for each different meaning. Children may not be aware which meaning is the ‘right fit’ based on how the word is used in context and for this reason it can create more confusion than help. Unlike traditional dictionaries, the online Collins Co-build dictionary

The Collins Dictionary  frames definitions using words like ‘if’ or ‘when’ which embeds the word into a context and makes the meaning accessible.

Use prior knowledge of words

Fundamental to all teaching is exploring and building on a child’s prior knowledge of a word. Co-constructing meaning, relating the meaning to children’s personal experiences enables them to establish links with their existing vocabulary. Let’s consider an example of how to do this:

Target word: ‘Deny’

1) Exemplify the meaning: use clear examples that illustrate the meaning.

If someone denies something happened, it means they say it did not happen. If someone denies they did something, what might they say or do?

Have you ever denied you did something? What happened?

2) Contextualise the meaning: relates the meaning to specific situations or reasons linked to a situation (answering the questions: Why? When? and Where?)

Someone might deny they broke something because they don’t want to get in trouble or because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

When have you denied you did something? Why might someone deny they did something?

3) Associate the meaning: relate the meaning to familiar words. Making associations in word

meaning enables important word relationships to be explored and developed e.g. synonyms or antonyms. Establishing links to familiar words within the child’s existing vocabulary increases the depth of knowledge of meaning (answers the question ‘how’).

If someone denies they took something, but someone saw them do it, you might say they lied about it. How else could we describe someone who often denies that they did something?

Independent Reading

We know that one of the most important ways children acquire new vocabulary is through reading. Children with reading difficulties miss out on these valuable opportunities to learn new words. Take opportunities for plenty of shared reading with the class, use talking books and talk about new words encountered. Display them and explore the depth of meaning in the ways suggested. The magnitude of the challenge teachers face in narrowing the word gap cannot be underestimated, but knowing what we do about the long-term impact of vocabulary on attainment, we owe it to children to devote time and attention to words. Engaging with best practice is the best way to demonstrate our commitment.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L (2008) Creating Robust Vocabulary, The Guilford Press, New York.

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