Words are all around us. They are legion, ubiquitous and omnipresent in our daily lives. They live in families, possess histories, slide and break into parts, and connect across worlds, separating and connecting us. And yet, curiously, few of us know how we acquire them, learn them, connect them, and teach them best.
It was my condition of relative ignorance – as an English teacher no less – that prompted a deep exploration of words. Curious about their roots, their past, their subject-specific uniqueness, I piled into the world of words and how we may best teach them. Along the way I learnt important myths about vocabulary development and explicit vocabulary instruction that needed busting:
Myth 1: ‘We just grow our vocabulary simply by being at school – it doesn’t need teaching’
From soon after our birth, to the end of our days, our own personal word-hoard is growing, deepening and changing. Like most myths, there is some of truth in this statement. By attending school and going through the natural stages of language development, children acquire new vocabulary (at least 2000 to 3000 words a year by many estimates). We also know, however, that explicit vocabulary can prove a significant boost for vocabulary development.
Indeed, we need to get children undertaking lots of rich, academic talk, but this alone will prove insufficient. Children also need to read widely – learning the rare words found in fiction and non-fiction texts, but seldom used in our daily talk. Of course, it can be hard for a child to read more challenge texts if their vocabulary is limited. By combining academic talk, reading, as well as undertaking explicit vocabulary instruction, we take a deliberate and intentional approach to language development that benefits every child.
Myth 2: ‘There are simply too many words to teach.’
One common reason for rejecting the explicit teaching of vocabulary is that there are simply too many words to teach. With at least three quarter of a million words in the English language (more if you add in scientific classifications) we simply cannot teach them all. A graphic analogy has labelled it “spitting in the ocean”! And yet, happily, if we explicitly teach children words daily, particularly reinforcing understanding as we read, pupils can learn up to four times as many word meanings for words they encounter. Children learn most of their vocabulary incidentally over time, through talk and independent reading, but explicitly being taught as few as 400 new words can offer up connections and understanding of countless thousands more.
Myth 3: ‘I already teach vocabulary… using glossaries and dictionaries.’
Vocabulary pervades all learning in school, but the presence of academic words are so ubiquitous that busy teachers can assume we have taught words well, but the truth is pupils share a shallow understanding of such words. Not only that, some of our go-to resources simply don’t work very well.
The trusty dictionary is always a useful tool for the classroom, but we should take care not to make assumptions. Using a dictionary successfully requires a lot of background knowledge. Given a word that they don’t know that has multiple meanings, pupils will invariably defer to the first definition, or the shortest and simplest definition. Researchers have shown how the dictionary can be poorly utilised and how words in context of the sentence can be unhelpful or even misdirective. A glossary, stripped from lots of helpful exemplification can prove similarly limited. Don’t get me started on the “you can just look it up” fallacy! Children need deep word knowledge for an effective web search, like most reading; indeed, our students need between 95% or even 98% word knowledge for reading comprehension.
Myth 4: ‘I don’t have time to explicitly teach vocabulary – I am too busy teaching Science.’
At every key stage and phase in schools we find teachers struggling to meet the demands of the curriculum. Faced with high-stakes tests in primary school, subjects like Science, Music or Geography can too easily be shunted to the margins. Then in secondary school, subject teachers feel burdened to cram masses of knowledge into the narrow parameters of available curriculum time.
We can too easily consider that teaching students the Science content or the History content sees vocabulary instruction as extraneous. The reality is that unlocking the language of our subject domains is essential to understanding, whether that is grasping the vocabulary of science, that of mathematics, the vocabulary of History, and more. Indeed, for most students, how literate you are – the breadth and depth of your vocabulary – correlates with your success in Science along with many other subject domains.
This great graphic by Oliver Caviglioli citing Neil Postman neatly summarises my point:
Myth 5: ‘Isn’t explicit vocabulary teaching just for those struggling ‘word poor’ students?’
Too often, vocabulary instruction is seen as a sticking plaster intervention to support those students who have English as an additional language, or who are struggling with reading difficulties. Now, we know that explicit vocabulary instruction is important for children with reading difficulties, or those who are at risk in this regard. Crucially though, paying close attention to words is beneficial for every child. The depth of knowledge offered by exploring vocabulary – their histories (etymology), parts (morphology), families, connections, synonyms and antonyms – can prove challenging, inspiring and motivating to the most advanced students as much as those who are struggling to access the academic language of the school curriculum.
You can find out more in my book, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, available on Amazon HERE and Routledge HERE. I also do ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap Masterclasses’ for Teachology HERE (in May, June and December).