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Vocabulary should be taught not caught

Chris Quigley
Posted by Chris Quigley
November 28, 2022

The importance of vocabulary

According to Isabel Beck, in her book Bringing Words To Life, a large and rich vocabulary is not only the hallmark of an educated individual but also helps one in becoming an educated person.

One of the main reasons that vocabulary facilitates learning is that it allows comprehension of the content being studied; the greater one’s vocabulary, the easier one understands new content.

Moreover, Beck argues the greater one’s vocabulary, and the better one becomes at expressing one’s understanding. In exams, students with limited vocabulary often suffer because they simply don’t understand the question.

For example, a colleague of mine once told me that her GCSE students were thrown by the exam question about Of Mice and Men: Describe the futility of George and Lenny’s plans for the future. Although they had studied the theme of broken plans they didn’t know the word futility and could not answer the question.

Which vocabulary is most valuable?

Bringing Words to Life outlines a three-tier framework for categorising words:

Tier 1: basic words that typically appear in conversations, e.g. table, chair, girl, walk. Students are exposed to these words frequently, from a very young age, so readily become familiar with them.

Tier 2: words which are of high utility for mature language users and are found across various subjects, e.g. precede, systematic, and conclude. As these words are characteristic of written text and are used more rarely in conversation, students are less likely to learn the words independently.

Tier 3: subject or topic-specific words, such as meander and photosynthesis and are best learnt when a specific need arises.

The focus should, therefore, be on tier 2 and tier 3 words and as the words are unlikely to come up in everyday contexts, the terms should be explicitly taught rather than caught in everyday conversation.

Ditch the dictionary!

When teaching new words, most teachers use dictionary definitions and short exercises such as cloze passages or matching words with meanings and synonyms. The problem with these approaches is that, although students complete the activities, they do not really understand the words and therefore have little command of them. There are four main reasons why dictionary work is fragile as an approach to learning new vocabulary:

  • lack of nuance. A dictionary definition of the word conspicuous reads: easily seen. A younger student may therefore think that anything that they can see without effort is conspicuous. A more nuanced explanation of the word would help the student to know that being conspicuous involves attracting attention because of an exceptional quality or feature.
  • vague language. A dictionary definition of the word typical reads: of a type. This is very vague for a student, who may ask, "a type of what?"
  • lack of appropriate examples. A dictionary definition for the word devious reads: to stray from course. A more relevant example for students would be to explain: ‘If you describe someone as devious, you do not like them because you think they are dishonest and like to keep things secret, often in a complicated way.’
  • Single-word alternatives. Instead of giving a precise definition, dictionaries sometimes give single-word options, such as in one dictionary, the word exotic is defined as strange, unusual, or foreign. This may lead the student to believe that anything unusual is exotic. Imagine if a student had seen some unusual dancing and described it as exotic!

Because of these four limitations, Beck and her team advocate robust vocabulary instruction, which “involves directly explaining the meanings of words along with thought-provoking, playful and interactive follow-up”. The approach can be used with all children and young people from Early Years onwards. Instead of defining words, they suggest ‘capturing the essence of them in a student-friendly way. For example, the word tamper in a traditional dictionary definition might read: to interfere with something. Capturing the essence, on the other hand, would be to explain the word tamper as If you tamper with something, you change or damage something, often secretly, when you have no right to do so.

This can be done with even the youngest students:

Word: extraordinary

Capture the essence: If you describe something as extraordinary, you mean it is very unusual.

Example: It would be extraordinary to find a tiger in the classroom.

Resources to help with vocabulary

Our Curriculum Companions have a high emphasis on vocabulary. Each knowledge web has a vocabulary section, such as in the art example below:

Screenshot 2020-05-12 at 16.19.33

Key Stage 1 knowledge web showing vocabulary

One of our aims with the Companions was to help students from the youngest age develop a rich and broad vocabulary to allow them to develop a deep understanding of the subjects they study.

For further training in vocabulary, our course Infusing Rich Vocabulary in the Primary Curriculum may be of interest. Reviews of this course can be viewed here.

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