How many words does your child know? It is easy to tally them up when they are just beginning to speak, but harder to calculate the size of their vocabulary as they hit school age and beyond. What is known, though, is that having a wide vocabulary sets your child up for life.
Why is it important?
In the average UK primary school almost half (49%) of Year 1 pupils have a limited vocabulary (word gap) to the extent that it affects their learning. The word gap persists into UK secondary schools where, on average, 43% of Year 7 students are felt to have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning.
Teachers believe the problem is getting worse. 69% of primary school teachers and 60% of secondary school teachers surveyed reported an increase in the number of pupils who have a limited vocabulary compared to previous years.
The word gap has a profound impact on academic achievement. Over 80% of teachers believe that children with a limited vocabulary find it very or extremely challenging to understand questions in national test papers and that these pupils are therefore likely to get worse results in national tests. The word gap also affects pupils’ wider life chances with over 80% of all teachers surveyed reporting that they believe it results in lower self-esteem and 82% of secondary school teachers responding that pupils with a limited vocabulary are less likely to stay in education.
A strong correlation can be made between the number of words a child comes in contact with on a daily basis and the breadth of their vocabulary.
93% of primary school teachers 95% of secondary school teachers believe a lack of time spent reading for pleasure is a root cause of the word gap.
A child without words will often …
- Struggle to understand and follow verbal – never mind written –instructions
- Struggle to articulate their own needs and feelings including things they don’t understand.
- Only ever learn the “mechanical ”process of reading – decoding words without finding meaning and never really getting to the “pleasure” bit of reading at all
- Lack ideas and imagination for talk and creative play with their peers
- Struggle with both verbal communication and writing beyond the basic or functional
- Suffer from a lack of self-esteem, confidence and motivation
Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report January 2018
What are we doing?
If a child is in the lowest 20% in vocabulary knowledge at age five, and you want them to move to an average level within three years, they would have to learn 20 new words a day, every day. Words are explicitly taught and repeatedly practised. We never assume that children know the meaning of even simple words. A language-rich environment is present in every classroom and across the curriculum.
Although a child may come across a new word, they usually rely on hearing words 10-20 times before it becomes part of their ‘vocabulary’.
We constantly use a rich language with the children such as “Could you help me to distribute the fruit?” rather than “Give out the fruit”. “Walk slowly to the home corner and pick up the red triangle carefully and return it to me”. Rather than “Pick that up and bring it to me from over there”.
Vocabulary falls mainly in to a three tier system -
Tier 1 words are basic words used often in everyday conversation, e.g. go, play.
Tier 2 words are high utility words that are more likely to occur in written text, e.g. compare, contradict.
Tier 3 words are highly specialised, subject-specific words, e.g. isosceles
By enhancing the use and understanding of tier 2 and 3 words we are closing the vocabulary gap.
Whole class reading exposes children to advanced vocabulary from good quality texts above their reading age where we specifically explore vocabulary.
We constantly encourage reading the more widely and often children read, the greater the number of words and different language structures and patterns they will encounter. Reading fuels language development, which in turn supports reading, forming a virtuous circle.
The children collect new words that they hear and read in vocabulary dictionaries so that they can use them in their own written work and verbal communication.
We constantly discuss word choices when writing to inform the reader for example Steven walked across the road. Is Steven old or young? What word could you use to show this? Walked could become staggered or skipped.
Dictionaries and thesauruses are accessible across the school. We ensure the meaning of the words in context is understood and applied and embed for future use.
We have celebrated vocabulary during ‘World book day’ when the children came as their favourite word. The children were able to hear each other’s words, listen to their meaning and used in a sentence. Thus, all children increased their vocabulary bank.
We also use books as a stimulus to word collecting and writing such as ‘The Lost words and ‘Dangerous’.
What can you do at home?
Talk about how everyone continues to learn new words throughout life from reading, television, conversations. It is OK not to know what a word means – we can find out. Sometimes we have heard a word but we are not sure how to use it.
Listen to them read regularly and read to them discussing the author’s word choices and meaning. They may be fluent readers but is their comprehension the same.
Play word games such as: I spy, Hang man, Word Bingo, Scrabble Junior, Story cubes, Articulate for Kids, Bananagrams, Pass the Word, Boggle and Word snap.
Useful links to dictionaries and thesauruses.
Online games and Apps.
Please access these safely with your children
- The creative writing companion
- Vocab Lab
- Vocab Ninja – Word of the Day