Word Gaps: 5 Strategies To Boost Vocabulary

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Helen Sharpe

Helen works at The Radclyffe School in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. She has worked tirelessly to build a culture of reading through regular assemblies and whole-school initiatives while trialling and sharing best practice in pedagogy. Helen is passionate about curriculum...
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What strategies can we use to improve vocabulary?

A limited vocabulary impacts pupils’ learning. Without enough language they suffer and their life chances take a serious dent.

What does the research say?

According to Jane Harley, Strategy Director for UK Education at Oxford University Press, “Language is at the heart of education and we believe that more needs to be done to address the issue throughout school and give teachers support to make a difference to these children’s lives.”

Vocabulary is intrinsically linked to academic success. Not having enough words ‘in the bank’ affects progress in school but also enjoyment of school (Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report, 2018)

You can see the huge word gap before children even enter the education system.

In ‘The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3’, Hart and Risley found that “in four years, an average child in a professional family would accumulate experience with 45 million words…and an average child in a welfare family 13 million words”.

The Oxford Language Report also brought to light a vocabulary deficit affecting secondary students. Almost half (43%) of year 7 “have a word gap that affects their learning” and that vocabulary is a bigger predictor of GCSE results [in maths and English Literature] than socio-economic background.

Language opens doors

If the percentage of words known in a text is less than 95%, this causes a major barrier to reading comprehension. Clearly, explicit vocabulary instruction is a priority across the curriculum to address word poverty. But what steps can we take to close the gap?

A helpful place to start is with Beck et al’s tiered system:

One – common everyday words that typically appear in oral conversations therefore children exposed to them at high frequency from an early age (warm, dog, tired, run, talk, party, swim, look…)

Two – high utility words characteristic of written text that are found across a variety of domains (contradict, circumstance, precede, retrospect…)

Three – low frequency and often limited to specific subjects/domains (pantheon, epidermis, oxymoron…)

They recommend a focus on tier two words “because of the large role tier two words play in a language user’s repertoire, rich knowledge of words in the 2nd tier can have a powerful impact on verbal functioning therefore teaching tier two words can be most productive.”

5 strategies to boost vocabulary

Here are some of the ways I have aimed to do this:

1. Reading challenges

This is an adaptation of Rebecca Foster’s excellent 5-a-day reading challenges.

I choose high-quality writing related to the scheme of work which students read in preparation for a reading challenge lesson. For example, in a unit on Shakespeare, there is everything from a Guardian article on arranged marriage to an extract from Atwood’s modern reimagining of The Tempest: Hagseed.

I identify a maximum of eight tier two words that students must learn for homework. Through the reading challenges, students not only build up a bank of tier two words related to the scheme being studied, but they also read around the topic, enhancing their wider understanding.

2. Retrieval practice

The reading challenge lesson consists of low stakes testing of the vocabulary.

We begin with cold-calling where all students stand, I pose a question (e.g. what does the adjective ‘anecdotal’ mean?) and then call on one student to answer.

If the answer is correct, we might use choral response to repeat the definition as a class.

If the answer is wrong, I allow hands up but return to the original student who must repeat the correct answer. You might know this as the ‘No Opt Out’ strategy from Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach like a Champion‘.

We then move on to comprehension questions, linking the vocabulary to the scheme of work (for example, do you agree with the notion that arranged marriage is a retrograde tradition?)

Because these questions require greater mastery of the vocabulary and are more open-ended, I will often ask follow-up questions such as: can you give an example? What evidence do we have for that? What might the counterargument be?

Lots of retrieval practice is a must to develop confidence with the new vocabulary. Students are also encourage to self-quiz on the words as part of their homework to help them learn the definitions.

Retrieval practice an effective way to retain the new vocabulary. There is no marking either and a great way of assessing homework and checking it has been done!

3. Writing challenges

Another magpied idea – this time Chris Curtis’ fantastic writing challenges.

Using the reading text as a mentor text, students aim to emulate the conventions and vocabulary used by the writer in their own piece of writing. This could be an opinion piece on arranged marriage or a short story about betrayal, for example. Through the writing challenges, students are practising using the vocabulary learned for specific effect in their writing.

You can use the above ideas in any subject area. Simply adapt the format of writing to make it relevant (e.g. a research piece in science).

4. Metacognition

For every piece of writing students must explain their vocabulary choices. This includes whether it is a lengthy writing challenge or a carefully crafted sentence.

I give students self-assessment sentence stems such as ‘I used the word ____ here to convey _____’ and ‘If I had used [synonym for word chosen] instead of [actual word chosen], the meaning/effect would have been different because ______’

In writing challenge feedback lessons, we look at examples of excellent vocabulary usage and explore why certain words have been used effectively in students’ writing.

When students metacognitively engage with their work, they think carefully about their word choices. They examine the precise meanings of words and the nuances between words.

5. Word exploration

In the reading challenge lessons, we explore the words by looking at the different words forms; identify synonyms and antonyms as well as the subtle differences between synonyms; create word families and explore the etymology and/or morphology of words.

Word wizards

I am currently putting together a Vocabulary Action Plan. This is very much a work in progress but features ideas such as whole-school ‘Word Wizards’ competitions, vocabulary exercise books to encourage students to develop independent strategies.

I am hoping that the vocabulary notebooks will encourage students to notice and look for patterns such as words with the same prefix, suffix or root; words from the same word family or synonyms and antonyms therefore constantly connecting new vocabulary learning with prior knowledge. I am also looking at interleaving vocabulary tests. I can then test students on the previous term’s vocabulary to encourage retention.

Working in a school with a high proportion of word-poor students, it is an issue I feel extremely passionate about. Watch this space for further developments and tweaks along the way!

17 thoughts on “Word Gaps: 5 Strategies To Boost Vocabulary

  1. Really interesting article. I’m a dyslexia specialist and I can see that poor vocab is linked to lack of reading as well as economic background, although those from a ‘better’ background do fare better due to the language at home. I’ll be interested to see how your work develops.

  2. Thanks – it is something I feel extremely passionate about particularly, as you say, considering the link between the word poor and deprivation. Lots of whole-school initiatives around vocabulary planned next year – I will keep you posted!

  3. Some great ideas here. I’ve always taught children to have a dictionary/iPad next to them when they read so they can look up every word they don’t understand. Many children would just gloss over them otherwise! I’ve had positive feedback from students using this method.

  4. I’d love to know more about your ‘Word Wizards’ competition. I’m working with a team of teachers in my school to promote and develop vocabulary – particularly Tier 2 words.

    1. Hi Jennifer, students have vocabulary dictionaries where they record target words. They earn Word Wizard points whenever they are quizzed by a member of staff and can correctly define a word or use it in a sentence. We then reward Word Wizard Champions in assembly.

  5. You have some great ideas here. I am Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Lead in a Primary School in an area of high deprivation and agree with what has been said in regards to its link with poor vocabulary. I am trying to write an action plan at the moment to try and improve levels of SPaG. If you have any ideas or resources that may help me it would be very much appreciated!
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Emma, I recently ran faculty & whole-staff training on vocabulary where we put together action plans. Happy to share resources etc if you want to get in touch on Twitter?

  6. I am currently putting a vocabulary staff training session together. Can you send me anything you have that might help please?

  7. Do you still have resources for this? If so, I would love them! I teach 4th and 5th Reading/ELA. I have a lot of students at a 1st and 2nd grade level.

  8. I enjoyed reading this post. These are great ideas.
    Knowing vocabulary words is key to reading comprehension. The more words a student knows, the better he or she will understand the text. As an ESL teacher, I see how that vocabulary is challenging for students that English is not their first language. I always use different teaching strategies to teach vocabularies, such as word bank, visuals, and fill-in-the-blank. I like to try your word exploration with my ESL students; especially the ones with intermediate English proficiency because I believe it will push them to learn and improve their vocabulary.
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. I enjoyed reading your article despite it being published five years ago as it is still a vital area schools are exploring across the curriculum, not just in the reading / writing focus lessons. With a high expectation for schools to engage in effective strategies for tier 2 and 3 vocabulary in all foundation subjects do you have any further strategies for teachers to use to embed key vocabulary?

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