“Sir, what does liaise mean? And what does pulchritude mean?”
On a daily basis, every teacher navigates a wealth of questions about words and about the world. The English dictionary is replete with over half a million words, and many of our pupils can struggle to stay afloat as they swim in this sea of academic language.
Given the sheer breadth and depth of vocabulary of the English language—alongside how critical it proves in mediating the academic curriculum of school—it is crucial that every teacher has a confident understanding of teaching vocabulary in the classroom.
We cannot teach all of the words to our pupils. Their language develops daily, inside and outside of the school gates, with reading, talk and simply existing in the world, seeing their vocabulary grow exponentially. And yet, we can better develop our pupils’ vocabulary, identify their gaps in understanding, and teach new words with a greater likelihood of success.
The challenge of the ‘vocabulary gap’
The importance of vocabulary development to reading, writing and talk is incontrovertible. Of course, much of the vocabulary development of our pupils will happen implicitly beyond the scope of classroom instruction. This vocabulary growth is cumulative and incremental, founded upon reading and talk, and often hidden in plain sight in the busy classroom.
It is the gaps in vocabulary exhibited by our pupils, rather than the subtle growth, that too often become clear for teachers. These gaps may show up in a difficult examination, a weak answer in class, or a subtly limited piece of writing.
Evidence to characterize a vocabulary gap is long-standing and sustained. A seminal study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, published in 1995 is often cited as popularizing the notions of the “vocabulary gap” commonly described as ‘The Early Catastrophe.’ It describes the meaningful differences in the language experiences of young children. They estimated that before U.S. children ever got to school, there could be a difference of language experience for children from “word rich” or “word poor” families, with those children from word rich families potentially hearing 30,000,000 more words than their “word poor” peers.
The vocabulary research undertaken by Hart and Risley has rightly been critiqued. It was a small study of only 42 families, with strong judgements being made about social class and language experience that are contestable. Their estimates, based on limited recording technology, were not directly replicated. Crucially, however, their seminal study triggered a wave of research in this area. Rather than “debunking” such evidence, we find a consensus that a vocabulary gap exists and that teachers need to better understand the issue.
Newer research on the early vocabulary gap has since showed that the gap exists and remains enduring. Our increased understanding of the research evidence shows that the gap may be smaller than judged by Hart and Risley, but that many children come to school with having heard millions more words and having experienced many more rich interactions with parents and caregivers. We have learned that turn-taking and dialogue is of particular importance, whether around the dinner table, or at a day out at the zoo.
Rich, cumulative experiences with words at an early age matter, influencing later performance in school.
Teachers have revealed that the vocabulary gap can hamper their pupils in countless ways. Sometimes it is punch-you-in-the-face stark—from a student explaining she didn’t understand the word ‘suspense’ in a standardized test, to students crying when faced with a SAT reading on “Dead Dodo’s” that they found inscrutable.
A recent Oxford University Press survey including more than 1,300 teachers found that vocabulary, or the lack thereof, is a salient issue for them and their pupils. Primary school teachers reported that 49% of their Year 1 pupils did not have the vocabulary to access the school curriculum. This was repeated with secondary school teachers, with teachers stating that 43% of Year 7 pupils faced the same issue.
Consider for a moment the implications of such barriers. Though there are legions of challenges for a teacher supporting pupils in the classroom, our pupils possessing the academic language required to access the school curriculum is of critical importance.
When faced with pupils who are struggling with the demands of an academic curriculum, teachers can feel unprepared. Fundamentally, our pupils’ ability to read well is inextricably linked to their vocabulary. Every standardized test examination makes that challenge explicit. For pupils with reading difficulties, vocabulary instruction can be a great help, but it can be beneficial to mediate the language of school for every pupil.
The academic vocabulary of school
So, what makes the language of school unique? Can we describe what makes such language “academic”?
The academic language of school is unlike the words that we use in our talk with friends and family. In school, this is evident in most of the academic reading talks, but particularly with our reading of dense informational texts (so prominent in the secondary school curriculum), we are exposed to many more rare words than in our typical talk. Indeed, if I was to read an apt story to my eight-year-old son this evening, the book we would read would likely have 50% more rare words than that of the typical professional dialogue between teachers.
Researchers William Nagy and Dianna Townsend have helpfully described six common features that describe typical academic language:
1. A high proportion of Latin and Greek vocabulary.
2. A high proportion of complex words that have complex spellings.
3. A high proportion of nouns, adjectives, and prepositions.
4. A high proportion of expanded noun phrases and nominalisation.
5. A high degree of informational density, i.e. few words that carry lots of meanings.
6. A high degree of abstraction, i.e. words that are removed from the concrete here and now.
One of the defining characteristics of the “academic code” of school— both in spoken and written language—is the sophisticated word choices that pack knowledge and meaning into singular words.
A grammatical term for this process—more specifically when we change verbs into nouns—is called “nominalization.” Put simply, it describes how when a pupil uses the verb “sweat,” we transform the words into a sophisticated noun, such as “perspiration.” Suddenly, when our pupils deploy nominalization in their talk and writing they begin to sound “academic.” It makes for language that is precise, accurate and proves invariably impressive.
Many academic words in the English language—estimated to be around 70%—are “polysemous,” which is to say that they have multiple meanings. This often trips up our word-poor pupils.
Take the word “prime.” Ask your class what they think of when they hear the word prime, and they’ll likely mention Amazon or Optimus Prime of Transformers fame. And yet, ask every mathematics teacher and they will relate the mathematical meaning of a prime number. Even then, ask an English teacher, or a technology teacher, and they’ll give the common meaning of “first importance.” Crucially then, we need to make sure every student knows what prime means in every subject—not just mathematics.
Science in particular can prove tricky for our pupils. So many words in science challenge them because their general meaning simply doesn’t match their specific scientific meaning. Take “force” in science. In the physics classroom, it has very specific and plays an important role, but then “force” in English, history, or sociology—the more general usage—can have very different connotations. As it is so central to physics understanding, teachers typically invest time in helping pupils understand the difference, but it still requires close attention.
Mathematics is a subject that is beset by a similar problem. With specialist mathematical vocabulary, such as “acute,” “constant,” “expand,” “expression,” “factor,” “rational,” and “translation,” pupils bring their common, everyday knowledge to them. Unfortunately, such partial knowledge can lead to over-confidence and pupils possessing unhelpful misconceptions. Polysemous words like “acute” reveal the critical importance of our pupils not just knowing many words, but to know them deeply.
The magic of morphology
How do you teach a new word?
Seldom will a word be understood and used by pupils if they only ever experience that word in a long list. No word list will encompass the range of academic vocabulary— including the complex interrelatedness of such words and phrases—required by our pupils to access the entire span of the school curriculum. Instead, we must consider a range of approaches to teaching vocabulary, so that our pupils can use such strategies independently.
A common myth is that pupils need only a dictionary, and then access to the language of school is theirs. Consider for a moment: just how much knowledge is required to use a dictionary successfully? Pupils need spelling (orthographic) knowledge and they need to have enough depth of word knowledge to select the right word meaning when multiple options are typically offered. Dictionaries can prove a catch-22 for too many pupils.
Instead of relying on the dictionary, we can instead foreground the power of vocabulary study and developing “word consciousness” in our pupils. That is to say, an innate curiosity to question words, to explore their roots and parts, layers of meaning, their relationships with other words (e.g. synonyms and antonyms) and so on.
A useful approach to fostering word consciousness is to explicitly teach word parts (morphology) and word histories (etymology). Human beings are pattern-making machines, and with language we are no different. With meanings hidden in plain sight, pupils will be breaking challenging new words into their constituent parts— what linguists call morphemes. For example, words like ‘dyslexia’ get broken down into the prefix “dys” (meaning “bad”) and “lexia” (meaning word)— being bad with words.
Rather than leaving pupils to do this haphazardly, we can harness this pattern making urge to help them better understand many of the fancy academic words that adorn our subject domains. In English literature, for example, if an author is using “foreshadowing” then they are literally offering shadowy hints (be)”fore” something bad is going to happen in the story. These simple mental hooks add memorable meaning to words.
Take the word “intractable,” meaning “hard to control or deal with.” In a history lesson this could describe Anglo-French relations during the Hundred Years’ War. In geography, it could refer to problems with natural resources. If we dig into those mighty morphemes again then we realise something very familiar. The root of the word, “tract,” means “to pull”—just like a tractor, with the “in” prefix meaning “not.” Quite literally then, the word represents how something is hard to pull apart.
The utility of teaching morphology explicitly across the school curriculum is high. We know that such knowledge is intimately related to reading comprehension success. Not only that, a significant number of academic words we use in school have ancient Latin and Greek origins, with the proportion being as high as 90% in areas of the curriculum like maths and science.
We can see how the Latinate vocabulary of school typically makes for bigger, more complex words that we expect pupils to use in their school writing in particular:
|Latin and Greek origins
(Table adapted from my 2018 book Closing the Vocabulary Gap.)
Such words with Latin and Greek roots may be more sophisticated, and often separate from the daily language of our pupils. They offer us strategies, though, to help pupils hook their knowledge onto new words. For example, you can study the vocabulary of religious education, and such associated worldly knowledge, and explicitly teach the morphology and etymology of singular words to open up a world of faith that may otherwise be alien to them.
Take the words “theology” and “theism” that are at the very root of understanding religions. The root of the word “theism” is the Greek word “theos,” meaning “god.” The root “the” is at the heart of so many related terms: atheism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, theology, theocracy and more. By securing these linguistic roots, the very roots of religious understanding are unveiled to our students. Not only that, pupils begin to note that the suffix “ology”’ is very common in school (meaning “the study of…”). Patterns hidden in the English language become visible and such knowledge is compelling.
Happily, approaching the development of the vocabulary of our pupils in this way helps pupils to learn not just one word at a time, but to learn ten. They become word conscious that words have histories, parts, rich families, and countless meaningful connections that open up a world of powerful knowledge.
Practical teaching strategies
Developing vocabulary in classrooms can occur in countless ways. There is no singular methodology or silver bullet that emerges from the research evidence. Instead, we need to attend to developing teacher knowledge of the challenge, whilst reflecting carefully and monitoring our approaches to explicit vocabulary instruction. We also need to carefully tend to the implicit development of language gained from reading and rich, structured talk.
Some daily strategies may include:
• Word generation. One approach to teaching morphology is to get pupils to generate as many words as they can from a word root or prefix. For example, the prefix “dec” is familiar enough in words like ‘decade’ and ‘decathlon’ (from the Latin – ‘decimas’ – meaning “tenth”). See how many words pupils generate in groups, then try the whole class.
• “Word mapping.” Students are familiar with using graphic organizers in all sorts of guises, from Venn diagrams to fishbone diagrams. They help translate tricky vocabulary and hard concepts into visual models that aid understanding. For example, with “geothermic processes” as a head word in geography, this would be followed by “endogenic” and “exogenic” processes. Each of these word headings then connects conceptually to other related words and processes. It is simple stuff, but it brings coherence and clarity with regard to subject specific words and ideas.
• ‘Working Word Walls’. A ‘working word wall’ is so much more than a display – though it may not even look very aesthetically pleasing – it is wall space that is used to recognise and record for our pupils a wealth of words. We can record new words we use in our teaching and use the wall space to highlight word roots, connect to word families, and more.
• ‘Vocabulary 7-up’. This is a simple vocabulary game that encourages pupils to record as many synonyms as they can for common words (seven ideally). So, given “positive,” “effective,” “large,” or “small,” our students exercise their capacity to draw upon a range of synonyms for those words. This activity assesses their breadth of vocabulary, but also overtly signals to students the necessary variety of words required in their academic expression.
• “Six degrees of separation.” The simple idea of this game is that all living things in the world are connected by six or fewer steps. Take the following vocabulary links between “abnormal” and “supercilious.” Straight away, pupils need to draw upon their vocabulary knowledge—of synonyms, antonyms and more—before then drawing upon their personal vocabulary knowledge. My effort? Abnormal > strange > mysterious > special > superior > supercilious. With a little self-explanation, you can encourage pupils to elaborate on their ideas.
Vocabulary instruction must always prove more than singling out subject-specific words, compiling word lists and weekly tests. It is a fundamental part of how we communicate the vast array of knowledge at the heart of the school curriculum, not a one-off strategy.
It is helpful to leave the final word on vocabulary development to one of the most heralded researchers of the English Language: Professor David Crystal. He poses the value, the related challenges, and the potential rewards of effective vocabulary instruction on offer for every teacher: “Education is the process of preparing us for the big world, and the big world has big words. The more big words I know, the better I will survive in it. Because there are hundreds of thousands of big words in English, I cannot learn them all. But this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to learn some.”
Alex Quigley is the national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, which is based in London. He was an English teacher and school leader for 15 years. This article is adapted from a chapter in The ResearchEd Guide To Literacy: An Evidence-Informed Guide For Teachers (John Catt, 2019, $15, 160 pages.)