How can we improve the vocabulary knowledge of students?


Tonight’s 15 Minute Forum was led by English teacher and Literacy Leader, Bridget Norman.  Bridget started by posing two questions:

  • How can we improve the vocabulary knowledge of students?
  • How can we address the deficit of general knowledge and word knowledge which many of our students have?

As a classroom teacher and leader of literacy I am continually returning to the same questions. How can we improve our students’ reading skills. I am realising that we cannot talk about reading in isolation. Consider: talk, general knowledge, subject specific/specialist knowledge, the home lives and contexts of our students. Consider: how we talk to our students, questions we ask them, how we contextualise what we are teaching and relate it to their real worlds. There is a vast array of influences that create us as readers. My work in progress is to create a richer linguistic environment for my students (and the students in our school)

Some statistics

  • More than 50% of pupils excluded from school have unidentified language difficulties
  • Around 65% of individuals in the Youth Justice System have some form of communication difficulty
  • Up to 75% of secondary age pupils in certain areas of the UK have limited language
  • In one study 88% of unemployed young men were found to have language difficulties

2013,RCSLT  (Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists)

What are the implications of this for teachers?   At any one time you are likely to have several students in your class with Speech, Language & Communication Needs (SLCN).  SLCN in adolescence associated with poor academic performance, social and emotional difficulties and poor peer relationships. There is a clear link between communication difficulty and criminal activity- it often goes unrecognised.  We need to do what we can in schools to address this.

Vocabulary Learning in older children – some key points

  • We often expect our students to learn their new words through reading and writing.
  • Significant quantities of new vocabulary has to be learned in all subjects during secondary school.
  • Pupils need to appreciate that words can have more than one meaning.
  • Pupils need to transfer words learned in one subject to another.
  • Students have to work out what many words might mean using inference.

My own reflection as a teacher

A key concept in the poem ‘Storm on the island’ is the relationship between humans and nature. The islanders understand the power of the sea and wind since they live on a barren piece of land. When asked to comment on why this land is not suitable for agriculture I am faced with confused year ten faces; I struggle to find a student who knows the word and is able to explore this aspect of the poem. My ‘think on your feet’ mode kicks in: how can I help them to understand the word without just telling them?

Furthermore, in a GCSE history exam paper (6 mark question) if a candidate does not use the word ‘agriculture’ they will lose several marks (‘farmer’ earns less marks).  So this lack of ‘vocabulary knowledge’ can penalise them in a number of subjects.

Since June I have been pondering the teaching of reading/vocabulary and questioning what makes a difference. We encounter our students after they have already established so many of their habits/acquired a complex view of the world. How can we make a difference? My work in progress is: creating the environment in which students will absorb vocabulary knowledge and building reading resilience.

What do the experts say

1. Importance of oracy.

We can only write what we can say…we are only able to put in writing that which we can express verbally.’

‘We can only say what we can think….if you can’t think in academic language that means you’re not going to be able to speak in academic language either.’

David Didau The Secret of Literacy

Implications for teaching:

  • Use modelling and questioning to encourage students to think deeply about their work.
  • Ask students to rephrase responses using more formal/sophisticated vocabulary.

2. Direct vocabulary instruction

  • McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople found that children did not really know and understand words they had only encountered four times, but they did know and understand words they encountered twelve times.
  • Teachers can be strategic about introducing new vocabulary to students repeatedly, and providing a rich discussion and analysis of the words to enhance understanding.

(Sebastian Wren 2005)

3. Context and wider knowledge.

Thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter..’

Daniel Willingham on Critical Thinking (2007)

For example, thinking like an historian involves evaluating sources. Teaching students to ask who, when and why wrote it is no good without the relevant historical knowledge of subject matter.

4. Reading resilience

This is based on my own knowledge and experience in both teaching and as a parent. It links to our belief in challenge and the idea of learning by continuing to do what is difficult.

Beck, McKeown and Kucan refer to ‘Energising the verbal environment’:

‘to have words in play nearly all the time; perhaps we can think of it as a classroom where words are constantly being noticed, investigated, celebrated and savoured.’

‘Even if a teacher can’t keep track of all of them, it is valuable to seed the environment generously with the use of interesting and precise words…exposure will provide students with a chance to pick up and use some words…’

4 things we can focus on

1. Develop Oracy

  • Use modelling and questioning to encourage students to articulate their thoughts.
  • Ask students to rephrase responses using more formal/sophisticated vocabulary.
  • Be purposeful in how we engage students – make it rich in context and find links to their world in order to support understanding.
  • Use our interactions as valuable language lessons

2. Direct Vocabulary Instruction

Is it better to ‘learn a few words well than many words superficially’? Nagy (1982)

Vocabulary instruction should focus on:

  • Important words that help readers understand a concept or the text.
  • Not overloading students with lots of new vocabulary – be selective.
  • Useful words that readers might often encounter or use.
  • Difficult words, such as those having multiple meanings, same spellings with different meanings depending on context, and idiomatic expressions.
  • Students can connect to words they already know.
  • Can be explained with words that are already a part of the students’ vocabulary.

Will be useful to the students when encountering additional texts (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002).

Good comprehension draws from linguistic  knowledge (in particular of vocabulary and grammar) and on knowledge of the world. Comprehension skills develop through pupils’ experience of high – quality discussion with the teacher, as well as from reading and discussing a range of stories, poems and non–fiction.

Knowing a word by sight and sound and knowing its dictionary definition are not the same as knowing how to use the word correctly and understanding it when it when it is heard or seen in various contexts.” (Miller & Gildea, 1987)

The explicit teaching of vocabulary, should involve the following steps.

(a) Selecting the words

(b) Explore the definition

(c) Instructional Contexts

To elaborate further on this:

  • Choose 3-4 words per lesson
  • Think about meaning, would this word give you good opportunities to build wider knowledge across a variety of contexts?
  • Think about usefulness, how many opportunities will the student have to use that word?
  • Try to pick words where the student understands the concept but would generally use a simpler, less precise word to describe it e.g. lucky/fortunate, boring/tedious.

Children are not very good at learning words from explicit definitions. Consider the following sentences (from Miller and Gildea 1987) produced by children participating in a vocabulary-building programme at school:

  • I was meticulous about falling off the cliff.
  • Our family erodes a lot.
  • Mrs Morrow stimulated the soup.

Miller and Gildea were rather puzzled by such sentences, until they discovered that, according to the dictionary that the children were using, meticulous means ‘very careful or too particular about small details’, erode means ‘eat out, eat away’, and stimulate, ‘rouse, excite, stir up’. Clearly, the children have not learned the conventional meanings of these words!


It’s worth considering how children learn words:

  • Tier 1 words – basic words that most children learn through conversations at home and school and don’t need to be taught. However children with language disorders may not pick up the meaning of these words easily and could benefit from being taught them in a structured way.
  • Tier 2 words – these are words that are used a lot in books that are read to children or they are reading themselves but would not be used typically by the children in their own conversation. They are words for which the children have a concept and would use a simpler word e.g. “fortunate” is a more mature way of describing being lucky. They are words that are useful across subjects and in various situations.
  • Tier 3 words – these are words which are not encountered a great deal and when they are they tend to be specific to a subject e.g. knowing what insulate means. These are not very useful outside that specific subject.

For most children structured teaching of Tier 2 words will be most helpful but for children with speech and language disorders there will often be surprising gaps in Tier 1 vocabulary which also need to be addressed. We can develop their knowledge of using teir 2 words by doing ‘spelling tests’ like this:


You could also have a ‘Word of the Week’ display, containing challenging words that you expect students to use in their written work – these could of course be subject specific:

vocab WOW

Students could also be asked to keep a ‘personal dictionary’ – but one that requires them to interact with the words:

vocb personal dictionary

3. Context and wider knowledge

Thinking critically should be taught in the context of subject matter..’

Daniel Willingham on Critical Thinking (2007)

What does this look like?

  • Make connections with their existing knowledge and experience of the world.
  • Do not expect students to understand concepts/ideas which are completely new to them without first engaging them in the context of the study.

4. Reading resilience

By this we mean encouraging students to carry on reading, when it becomes a struggle.  What does this look like?

  • Model and use word attack skills:

Can you work out what the word means by reading the whole of the sentence?

Can you break down the word? Do you understand/recognise parts of it? (The beginning – prefix?)

What type of word (word class) is it? Noun? Adjective? Adverb?

Can I use pictures to understand the content?

Can I look for smaller words inside words e.g. TEACH – er?

Can I sound out/blend words I don’t know?

  • Read and discuss a wide range of texts to expose students to a diversity of ideas/knowledge/contexts.
  • Reward reading and commit to the culture of reading.
  • Give some time to teaching/using a select range of new words that can have an impact (think about exams)

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How can we improve the vocabulary knowledge of students?

  1. Reblogged this on Y Byd a'r Betws – Blog B J Mock and commented:

  2. Very thought provoking #15MF … Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  3. Pingback: I’m a teacher, allegedly. | The Quirky Teacher

  4. Pingback: Talk like… resources | Chris Moyse

  5. Pingback: How can we improve the vocabulary knowledge of students? – jesstoze

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