Eliminating the vocabulary gap across all phases of schooling

Posted by Angela Taylor

Eliminating the vocabulary gap across all phases of schooling


Two new publications this year have once again highlighted the impact of a limited vocabulary on the achievement of a child: ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters” an Oxford Language Report and ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ by Alex Quigley.

The research of Hart and Risley published in 1995 identified that vocabulary development is often tied to socioeconomic levels. Many children who live in poverty begin school with less-developed word acquisition and knowledge than more affluent students. In their study, during a typical hour, a welfare child heard 616 words, a working-class child 1,251 words and a professional child 2,153 words. Over four years this meant welfare children heard 13 million words, working class children 26 million and professional children 45 million. Barbara T Bowman argues that it is not just the word gap, but also the language which is used. Children of professionals heard twice as many unique words and twice as many encouraging versus discouraging conversations. The sociologists Farkas and Beron studied research on 6,800 children from ages 3 to 12 and found that children from the lower socioeconomic status were far more likely to arrive at school with smaller vocabularies and that they were 12 to 14 months behind other children in their language.

"Children of professionals heard twice as many unique words and twice as many encouraging versus discouraging conversations"

Vocabulary is enormously important to children’s development, especially in reading. Children with larger vocabularies have higher school achievement in general and higher reading achievement in particular, and people with larger vocabularies will have higher IQs. Findings from the Department for Education (July 2013) showed that one of the three most frequent issues for children with special needs is in relation to speech, language and communication needs.

The Oxford Language Report published this year has found from their survey of 1,300 teachers in the UK over half reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary needed to access their learning and that 69% of primary teachers and 60% of secondary teachers believe the gap is increasing.

Eliminating this vocabulary gap is, therefore, an issue across all phases of schooling. Laura Cocker in her paper ‘The Early Years Makes the Difference’, suggests several ideas for preschool teachers to increase the vocabulary of young children: use new and interesting words in natural conversations; use gestures and facial expressions to help children make sense of words; sing with children and recite poetry and rhymes; read to children daily, taking time to go over new words. Importantly, she cites helping families understand how important it is to talk with their children and share new vocabulary words. Storysacks and conversation starters based on children’s interests and classroom projects can be sent home along with sharing videos of conversations between teachers and children.

"Children with larger vocabularies have higher school achievement in general and higher reading achievement in particular"

Teachers can have a real impact on children’s vocabulary knowledge. Nell Duke and Annie Moses have, through their research, identified ten ways to build children’s vocabulary, number one being to read to children, not only storybooks but also information books as this encourages discussion as well as presenting new vocabulary. Children should also read for themselves and be encouraged to talk, both at school and at home. They promote the teaching of new words and stress the need to enable children to encounter words repeatedly through meaningful activities, conversations and texts.

The Oxford University Press identified three findings from the ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters’ publication which are to bring vocabulary practice into mainstream class teaching; focus on key subject vocabulary and learning language in the context of use; and the importance of conversations and wider reading in the classroom and at home.

"Teachers can have a real impact on children’s vocabulary knowledge"

Alex Quigley also believes that the vocabulary gap should be tackled head-on with explicit instruction. He suggests that the SEEC (Select, Explain, Explore, Consolidate) model can be helpful for primary and secondary teachers. Select words to choose as the most important vocabulary for students, Explain by carefully pronouncing a new word, write the word and offer a student-friendly definition, Explore the word using image association, compare synonyms and antonyms and dig into the roots of the word and then Consolidate. This final part is often what he believes is the missing link. Students need to use words again and again.

Improving the vocabulary of children and students is vital and one that needs to be part of everyday teaching practice. Perhaps then we will not have the situation where a teacher asks a student ‘Why didn’t you answer question three [in the exam], it was just what we have been studying’ and he replies, ‘But I didn’t know what evaluate meant’.

To understand how Tribal’s internationally recognised Quality Mark accreditation helps schools close the vocabulary gap and provides a framework for continuous quality improvement in English and maths provision, join our forthcoming webinar.



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