Developing pupils’ vocabulary is about more than words

13 May 2019, 5:01

In their 2017 report Early Language Development: needs, provision, and intervention for preschool children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, James Law et al wrote:  “A child’s ability to put words together may be a better predictor of later abilities than the number of words they know.”

The implication is that if we want to enhance a child’s ability “to put words together”, learning lists of new words is not enough: vocabulary acquisition needs to be alongside  general language and reading development in a way that will support successful literacy and learning longer term.

The language of very young children is best developed by involvement in the “tennis match” of conversations with parents and carers. A child who grows up in a communicative family builds their language in an environment geared to language development. Word meanings are established by being related to familiar contexts and supported by repetitive use. And young children who have experience of nursery rhymes and songs are better placed to develop phonological awareness (recognising and working with the sounds of spoken language), without which they may struggle to become proficient readers and writers.

Learning lists of new words is not enough

As children reach school age, what Beck et al refer to as “oral contexts” are less effective. At that point, the content of texts needs to be more complex and challenging than is likely to be encountered in everyday conversation.

Their research suggests that being read books containing language just beyond what is familiar is beneficial, with sustained, topic-related follow-up activities that build on the introduction of new words.  These include multiple exposures to new words, as well as “deep engagement” with meanings, plus applying new words in different contexts.

Beck et al also report that stories just beyond pupils’ scope for independent reading provide not only an opportunity to build vocabulary, but also help in building comprehension and verbal reasoning, both key elements of becoming a proficient reader.

According to Castle, Rastle and Nation in Ending the Reading Wars, texts like these also allow children to build phonological awareness and concepts of print: its appearance, relationship to spoken language, the rules that govern its production and the relationship between spoken and written words. In a nutshell, the importance and impact of shared reading cannot be overestimated.

This matters for our disadvantaged pupils most of all

They say that to read well, “First and foremost, we need to identify the individual words. This in itself is hugely challenging,” and that “Words are the building blocks of comprehension, but it’s not just a matter of identifying words: Their meanings need to be activated, appropriate for the context.” Their research also cites the challenge of pragmatics (understanding words in specific contexts). Add background knowledge and grammar into the mix, and the challenge for learning readers and writers is complex.

This matters for our disadvantaged pupils most of all.  Law et al present the idea that children who experience a rich preschool language environment fare better in learning to read. However, while some settings are more successful, according to The Effective Provision of Preschool Education (EPPE) Project, (2004), EYFS and key stage 1 can play an important role in helping pupils to develop their language toolkit. For our disadvantaged pupils, the benefits are disproportionately positive. A good guide for teachers who want to focus on this would be Time to Talk by Jean Gross, which outlines whole-school approaches for language development.

In summary, the successful development of pupils’ language skills to support reading and writing depends on a range of strategies including, but not exclusively dependent upon, learning new words.


Research articles:

Early Language Development: Needs, provision, and intervention for preschool children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds A Report for the Education Endowment Foundation, Law et al, 2017

Increasing Young Low‐Income Children’s Oral Vocabulary Repertoires through Rich and Focused Instruction Author(s): Isabel L. Beck and Margaret G. McKeown

Childhood Language Skills and Adult Literacy: A 29 Year Follow Up Study, Law, Rush, Parsons and Schoon, 2009



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