PhD Supervisors: Jenny Thomson, Meesha Warmington – University of Sheffield

I am delighted to be able to share my research on vocabulary teaching with delegates at the Link Live conference in May. The research was undertaken during a six-year PhD with the Human Communication Sciences Department at the University of Sheffield. As an Advisory Teacher for SLCN with Babcock Education, I have a passion for developing language and literacy for all pupils, particularly those who struggle to acquire these vital skills. Two areas are especially important for language and literacy learning – phonological awareness and vocabulary. My study looks at a holistic method of vocabulary teaching that may develop not only spoken vocabulary, but also phonological awareness and phonic reading.

Vocabulary is the building block of spoken and written communication. An increasing number of studies highlight the important role which vocabulary plays in a range of life outcomes, including school attainment, behaviour, mental health and future employment(1,2). Large numbers of pupils experience low levels of vocabulary acquisition(3) :

  • up to 50-80% of those living in poverty, both at primary and secondary level(4,5)
  • pupils with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), accounting for 7-10% of children and young people
  • an additional 2-3% of school-age pupils with other special educational needs
  • bilingual and multilingual learners, representing one in five pupils nationally.

Taken together, this represents a large number of children, far too many to extract for targeted group interventions. An inclusive model of classroom-based vocabulary instruction therefore seems a more practical option. According to an analysis of vocabulary interventions(6), whole-class vocabulary teaching provides higher results than individual and small group methods, so this should also be an effective approach.

Learning new vocabulary involves attention to sound and meaning. Traditionally, vocabulary instruction has concentrated on the meaning of words linked to reading comprehension(7). Another method with a wide evidence base(8) uses a combined focus on the sound structure AND the meaning of the word. Originating in the field of speech and language therapy, this approach is beginning to gain momentum in schools in targeted interventions (for example Talk Boost and SpeechLink) and whole-school programmes like Wordaware(9). In addition to improving vocabulary, the extra phonological awareness input is likely to benefit all children at the early stages of literacy development. In Key Stage 2 and secondary school, it still remains a valuable evidence-based tool for targeted intervention(10).

My study involved nearly 300 Year One children across 12 Devon schools. Teachers delivered a daily 10 minute vocabulary teaching programme linked to high quality reading books. The method followed the STAR approach:

  • Select: tier 2 words were chosen and made into visual cards using WidgitOnline
  • Teach: a 3 minute lesson was given on the word of the day using a structured cue card
  • Apply: children played a multi-sensory game for 5 minutes in pairs and small groups
  • Review: the word was reviewed for 2 minutes again at the end of the lesson, next day and next week

Each class also set up a word wall display to help children apply the words in their talk and writing.

The research design included three groups – combined sound-meaning approach, meaning-only teaching and a waiting control group. Results showed that both teaching groups made excellent progress, however the combined group made significantly more progress on the taught vocabulary and phonic reading than both other groups, and significantly better progress than the control group on a phoneme awareness task. It seems that training children to learn vocabulary in this way may have wider benefits for their language and literacy progress.


  1. Law, J., Rush, R., Schoon, I., & Parsons, S. (2009). Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood: Literacy, mental health, and employment outcomes. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 52(6), 1401-1416.
  2. Roulstone, S., Law, J, Rush, R, Clegg, J & Peters, T. (2011). Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes. Research report DFE-RR134. London: Department for Education.
  3. Norbury, C.F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., . . . Pickles, A. (2016). The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: Evidence from a population study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 57(11), 1247-1257.
  4. Locke, A., Ginsborg, J., & Peers, I. (2002). Development and disadvantage:
    Implications for the early years and beyond. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 37(1), 3-15.
  5. Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J. (2012). Language and disadvantage: A comparison of the language abilities of adolescents from two different socioeconomic areas. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 47(3), 274-284.
  6. Marulis, L.M., & Neuman, S. B. (2010). The effects of vocabulary intervention on young children’s word learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 300-335.
  7. Clarke, P.J., Snowling, M.J., Truelove, E., & Hulme, C. (2010). Ameliorating children’s reading-comprehension difficulties: A randomized controlled trial. Psychological Science, 21(8), 1106-1116.
  8. Wisenburn, B., & Mahoney, K. (2009). A meta-analysis of word-finding treatments for aphasia. Aphasiology, 23(11), 1338-1352.
  9. Parsons, S., & Branagan, A. (2017). Word Aware: Teaching vocabulary across the day, across the curriculum. London: Routledge.
  10. Lowe, H., & Joffe, V. (2017). Exploring the feasibility of a classroom‐based vocabulary intervention for mainstream secondary school students with language disorder. Support for Learning, 32(2), 110-128.
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