Vocabulary deficit is high on everyone’s agenda at the moment but it is not a new problem. Vocabulary knowledge is absolutely crucial for our students’ educational development. Lack of it is one of the main barriers to learning and many people share this belief. We have been aware of the problem for years, yet it still remains a problem that is becoming more acute.
A piece on BBC News 18 April 2018 quotes research from Oxford University Press and tells us four out of ten pupils in their first year of secondary school have such a limited vocabulary that it is affecting their learning and that a very high proportion of the teachers said the ‘word gap’ held back progress in not just English (91%), but in history (90%), geography (86%) and religious studies (78%).
It was documented as far back as the 1970s that children’s declining reading comprehension, from age eight onwards, largely resulted from a lack of vocabulary knowledge (Becker, 1977), and that this was primarily caused by a lack of learning opportunities, NOT a lack of natural ability. If we have known this since the early 1970s and it is still a problem today, then we clearly haven’t been addressing it effectively. So, as educators, we must look at this issue, tackle it head on and tackle it now. We need to be questioning the way we are teaching vocabulary to our students because our current method is clearly not working.
The achievement gap between children from different socio-economic groups is also one of the most persistent and frustrating problems we face (Biemiller, 2004). This achievement gap is also linked to a lack of vocabulary knowledge. However, it is a dangerous assumption that this underachievement only relates to economically disadvantaged children. Limited vocabulary affects the outcomes of all learners, whether rich or poor.
Language-starved learners from any background, whether rich, poor, dysfunctional or speaking English as a second language, lack the vocabulary knowledge necessary to access text and understand the language used in examinations. For these learners the teaching of vocabulary is paramount.
So, what can we do about it?
Teachers may believe that the way forward is to provide more comprehensive definitions to subject-specific words, providing keywords along with definitions at the beginning of each new topic. This is what I was told to do, and indeed what I did, in my early teaching career.
My classroom walls were awash with words! I took time providing definitions for the academic vocabulary I was using, only to be disappointed and frustrated when students were unable to recall this information later. It felt as though I had never covered the topic. Were these students not paying attention or incapable of learning? No! Not at all! They simply were not receiving the instruction I thought I was providing, or rather, they were not able to remember my vocabulary teaching – due to the method of instruction I was providing. I was spoon-feeding them. I was forcing them to become passive learners, not active ones. Therefore learning simply wasn’t taking place. My wonderful word walls and displays were no more than classroom wallpaper.
In order that students learn new vocabulary, they need to hear explicit reference to a new word at least six times before it is embedded in their memory, but we simply cannot afford the time to teach every word explicitly. Even if we could we simply do not know which words we would need to teach.
Coyne, Kame’enui & Carnine (2007) found that vocabulary teaching is most effective when it is planned and follows a coherent strategy. Baker et al (1998) also state that vocabulary instruction needs to be ‘conspicuous’, consisting of carefully designed and delivered instruction.
To be successful, vocabulary instruction must provide students with regular opportunities to review and practise new skills and knowledge so that they can recall and apply this new body of knowledge.
So what I suggest, and what I see working, is to teach students how our complex language works. Starting with very young children, right through to A Level students. Teach them the origins of our language by delivering a fast, focused, fun version of Latin. Many think that Latin is for rich, clever kids, but if we are to be serious about closing the vocabulary gap, Latin has got to be taught to all students. It is the pace, intensity and rigour of our instruction that I truly believe makes the difference. It needs to involve the student in their own learning: don’t hand it to them on a plate – make them work for it in an enjoyable, fun and interactive way!
One of the best compliments I have received in recent years from a student, when focusing on vocabulary, was,
“I love these sessions, Miss, because you never tell us anything!”
That’s right: I never tell them anything.
The key word in that sentence, in case you haven’t noticed, is tell. My students have to work out the meanings for themselves. What I have to do is guide their thinking, provide them with the structure and support they need, teach them the metacognition skills necessary, and make them engage with the vocabulary by asking them questions and getting them to find the answer for themselves.
I was demonstrating this type of vocabulary instruction to an audience of senior school leaders last year, and the word being discussed was the mathematical term perpendicular. I selected this particular word because I find students from all school years, across the UK, constantly confuse it with the word parallel.
I asked one of the Vice Principals to tell me what perpendicular meant and he supplied a very accurate and precise definition. I then asked him how he knew and his reply was, “Of course I know, I am a maths teacher!” I went on to ask him how he taught this word to his classes and he explained that he would tell them what it meant and probably draw an example. There’s that word tell, again. He admitted that many of his students had difficulty remembering the meanings of mathematical terms. I am in no doubt he was taking the time to teach words and their definitions, but if students continually have difficulty remembering them, something needs to change: providing individual definitions most definitely doesn’t work…
Let me revisit the word perpendicular. What other words contain the same stem or root?
Pendant – a pendant is a piece of jewellery that hangs down from the neckline.
Suspend – something suspended from the ceiling is hanging down.
Pending – if a decision is pending, it is hanging in the air, waiting.
Depend – if a decision depends on something, it all hangs on the need of that thing
Therefore, if I did not know the meaning of perpendicular, I can start to work out the definition for myself, from the idea that a line hangs down and meets the ground at 90°.
(per is through : pend to hang : ar to do with)
Students and staff love this kind of vocabulary tuition, but just in case you don’t believe me, here are a few quotes provided by my students:
This makes me feel like Inspector Clouseau. Year 9 pupil
It’s brilliant; it really makes you think. Year 10 pupil
I never knew words gave you clues to their meaning. Year 9 pupil
It helps you remember things because it is fun and not boring! Year 8 pupil
I have learnt more in that one hour than I have all year. Year 11 pupil
I would urge you to think about how you teach vocabulary in your classroom, because we need to teach it and we need to teach it effectively.