Teaching vocabulary: why every school needs a plan

“Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. However, lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure” (Biemiller, 2005).

Picture the scene: It’s 4:30pm on a Thursday afternoon. There are 8 English teachers huddled over their Excel print outs, highlighting students of concern after a recent reading assessment. “Hmm, James is 3 sub levels below his target and we’re reaching the end of the year.” Silence ensues. What happens next?

In my experience, there are 3 possible paths here, only 1 ends with a meaningful strategy.

Option 1) There will be talk about how James struggles with decoding. “It’s ok, we have a phonics programme, let’s get him on it.”

Option 2) According to his class teacher, James has not yet mastered the skill of inference. “Hmm, let’s get him reading more? How’s his Accelerated Reader score?” There are many reasons why this isn’t an effective response, we won’t go in to that now.

Or finally option 3) there will be a vague conversation about a lack of comprehension skills. The same conversation about ‘reading more’ ensues.

And so, we find ourselves confronted yet again with Stahl’s Matthew Effect for reading, the word rich get richer and the word poor get poorer and other than suggesting the reticent reader reads more, time-strapped English teachers struggle for a solution.

As Biemiller says, lacking phonological awareness is a barrier to reading success, but so is a weak vocabulary and so it would follow that teachers who want to support their weaker readers need a coherent strategy to address this issue. When we are ploughing so much of our schools’ time, energy and resources in to supporting our students with their reading, it seems daft to leave this central aspect of reading to chance. The paradigm of how students learn new vocabulary needs to shift in UK schools, and as with all literacy issues, it shouldn’t always be the responsibility of the English department…

The imaginatively named National Reading Technical Assistance Center in the States synthesised a lot of research around the topic of vocabulary instruction and came up with 8 key ideas:

  1. Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for a specific text. Anderson and Nagy (1991) pointed out “there are precise words children may need to know in order to comprehend particular lessons or subject matter.”
  2. Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important. Stahl (2005) cautioned against “mere repetition or drill of the word,” emphasizing that vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in a variety of contexts.
  3. Vocabulary words should be those that the learner will find useful in many contexts. Instruction of high-frequency words known and used by mature language users can add productively to an individual’s language ability (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Research suggests that vocabulary learning follows a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001).
  4. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured as necessary. “Once students know what is expected of them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly” (Kamil, 2004).
  5. Vocabulary learning is effective when it entails active engagement that goes beyond definitional knowledge. Stahl and Kapinus (2001) stated, “When children ‘know’ a word, they not only know the word’s definition and its logical relationship with other words, they also know how the word functions in different contexts.”
  6. Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary. Encouragement exists but relatively few specific instructional applications can be gleaned from the research (NICHD, 2000).
  7. Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998). In later work, Cunningham (2005) further recommended structured read-alouds, discussion sessions and independent reading experiences at school and home to encourage vocabulary growth in students.
  8. Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning (NICHD, 2000).

Anderson and Nagy (1993) write that “A synthesis of research on vocabulary growth suggests that the average student learns from 2,000 to 3,000 words per year, and that many students learn at twice that rate. Even an average rate of vocabulary growth is possible only if students learn large numbers of words incidentally, as they are exposed to new words while reading.” Yet as mentioned earlier, I’m not sure this is a good enough solution for our reticent readers.

If, as research suggests, the distance between the language rich and language poor grows incrementally day by day, surely an effective school would be one that meaningfully tries to bridge that gap. Planning how our students, all of our students, are going to learn new vocabulary seems like a good place to start.

What does your school do to help students learn new vocab? Do you have an amazing plan that is working wonders? Share it with us in the comments below. Or, if you’re in need of inspiration, have a look at our ‘How to teach vocabulary effectively‘ resource. It might give you somewhere to start.

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