How we're addressing the vocabulary gap

Possessing a comprehensive vocabulary improves all areas of communication including: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Not only does improving a child’s vocabulary remove barriers to current and new learning, it gives them a better understanding of the world around them from the very beginning. Did you know that the size of a child’s vocabulary on entry to Primary school can help predict their future ability to learn how to read and comprehend?

What the issue is

The understanding of vocabulary and the correct usage is in decline amongst school children of all ages but particularly those in areas of economic deprivation and social mobility. This puts many areas in our town of Middlesbrough at an immediate disadvantage which is distinguishable on entry to primary school. This gap in language skills, as children start school, is critical. Without support, the gap remains and widens right through school into adulthood leading to issues with extending education and gaining employment. Statistics from studies across the decades have shown that reading, and being read to from a young age, is the answer to this problem, but what do we do in school to increase the understanding of new vocabulary? What more can teachers do to close this gap? We have all experienced children being unable to access texts because they cannot comprehend some of the words and a lot of the time they have never heard of these words before for whatever reason. The aim of this blog is to highlight some of the practical solutions, teaching strategies and general ‘easy wins’ we utilise to increase exposure to unfamiliar vocabulary get rid of the stigma around ‘big words’.

What we do

· Pre teaching vocabulary from texts

This idea comes from the reading strand of understanding words in context but herein lies the problem: children struggle to understand words in context if they have never heard them before, meaning that the rest of the section of the text gets lost to them as a result and deters them from continuing. Pulling vocabulary from the text prior to reading and discussing it helps them to understand its meaning in context when they come to read it/having it read to them. An effective way to do this is to use the class text of choice, highlight words, have them up around the room and encourage use via modelling in social conversations and point to the words as you do so and make it a challenge for them to do this with each other. To make it real, we turn it into a physical demonstration, stand a child near a window and ask them if they can feel the draught! Lost something? Turn that standard Friday feeling into a teaching point, ‘I need your help Y5, my memory isn’t functioning today!’

· Vocabulary/Key words around the room

Similar to above but using the key words from the vocabulary lists for your year group. The idea here is to immerse them in vocabulary, the more they see, the more they do. Set challenges to add prefixes and suffixes to them to alter meaning or word class. Task them with finding the most alterable word on the wall. Encourage use in writing by talking through some of the most appropriate ones that fit with the unit of writing being taught at the time. Our children love a competition - try offering rewards to students who can prove that they’ve used a new word in their independent writing.

· Resilient Reader focus on vocabulary

As per the resource above for reading, our school and trust follow the Resilient Reader focus to structure our reading lessons. We find this more engaging than previous approaches but the strands (or fingers) provide a focus for question types that are broken down enough for children to understand. The right hand ‘find’ is the question type that we find works best to push vocabulary knowledge, with activities such as: find and copy a word which means the same as… This highlights the focus on synonyms but the task works just as well with antonyms and steps up that level of challenge even further. To extend learning, the children are often required to write their own questions for this strand which promotes independent vocabulary research. We also see competition here for finding the most obscure synonyms, you might just be surprised to hear something you’ve never encountered before. The children love this! Best work on that baffled look!

· Vocab Ninja – Word of the day/Words of the week

A super resource by Andrew Jennings (Vocabulary Ninja) and diverse because you can use the resources how you see fit to meet the needs of your class. Children can relate vocabulary to their learning to then put the words into use to solidify understanding rather than coming up with obscure examples which mean nothing to them. For example: a current topic in our school is WW2, so the children linked all of their words that particular week to their topic so they were able to translate them into their writing. This meant that they had a clearer understanding of the meaning and proved that they could use it both accurately and creatively. Win-win!

· Teaching vocab through handwriting – by using key words or spelling lists.

For KS2 in particular or at an age when children generally move on from phonics (it makes sense here to tie handwriting in to words in the phase being taught at the time) this is a really easy win. This can be adapted to whatever you use for your spelling lists, whether it be year-group specific key vocab or words organised by strand. Discussion needs to be had around the words as you model the correct letter formation on the board. Some of the words on these lists are obscure and (sometimes) outdated and irrelevant - particularly those arranged by strand where the spellings are included just because they fit the strand so the least we can do for our students here is to make links for meaning.

· Sneaking vocabulary into conversations with children – oracy focus.

There’s nothing more enjoyable than a child showing curiosity when you say something they don’t understand, or the look they give you when they think you are talking nonsense. Offer an explanation to what you have said. Greeting children on a morning is a fun opportunity to do this, ‘How are you today? Jubilant? Euphoric? Jovial?’ They have started preempting this question and often have something already prepared: instant word bank in their heads ready to be shared.

· Work out meaning together – show curiosity, ask them to clarify for you.

Teachers should not be scared of doing this. Turn being wrong into a teaching point. If you come across a word in a text when reading to them that isn’t one you can easily explain, send a child to dust off a dictionary and pass on their new learning to you and the rest of the class. You don’t even have to be genuinely in the dark here, just make sure that your acting skills are up to scratch!

· Upskill vocabulary in examples for writing examples and in questions for reading tasks.

This is another way to sneak some vocabulary in (like sneaking vegetables into a toddler’s dinner!) With a set of reading questions the focus is always on answering the questions, rarely the questions themselves which teachers often read out to them as well as allowing them time to process the task themselves. Make sure you are phrasing your questions in a way that allows for a tiny bit of discussion around the question (even if it is just one word) before they set off to answer. In the image above, ‘the majority’ was originally ‘most’. It is a tiny tweak to the task but introduces upskilled words in a gentle way. You can always step this up over the course of the academic year once your students are used to this.

In the same manner, when producing examples of writing for children to analyse and text mark, make sure it includes plenty of adventurous words. Have them pick out these and discuss them with peers to explore what they mean. Allow them to use only one or two of your own examples but suggest that find synonyms for your word choices to find some of their own – gather a whole class word bank on the whiteboard. The Word Wheels (credit to Jacob Mitchell) are a fantastic resource for helping children to do this.

Let us know how you get on or if you have more ideas to share contact us via our school Twitter feed: @N_O_P_A

Mrs Lyndsey Frost - Y5 teacher/English Team (November 2019)