Shaking up a stale subject

Sofia Fenichell

Sofia Fenichell is a self-confessed lover of words. She is a former technology analyst turned serial edtech entrepreneur. As a senior account manager at DDB Needham, she has worked on General Mills and PepsiCo. She is currently CEO and founder of Mrs Wordsmith, a UK start-up transforming how children learn new words. Sofia lives in London with her husband and two children.

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Image credit: Flickr // NEA Public Relations. Image credit: Flickr // NEA Public Relations.

Remember when you were in school and you were given weekly lists of words, with little or no relevance to your lessons or your life, and made to commit them to memory? How about those little primers that focus on mundane activities with a set of vocabulary words artificially embedded into the storyline? Well, chances are those same wordlists and primers are still being handed out today. Nothing has changed for decades.

The truth is that, until now, no one has put in the time and effort necessary to bring vocabulary learning into the twenty-first century. Importantly, the solution to shaking up this stale sector has to be twofold: first, educators need to know which words to teach, and second, we need to know the best way to teach them.

Why vocabulary matters

Vocabulary underpins all subjects, and is truly a cross-curricular skill. The earlier you start the better, and the more words you learn the easier it is to acquire new vocabulary. The knowledge of vocabulary of course plays a pivotal role in academic success, as underlined by the recent government action plan, which aims to close the “word gap” and build children’s word consciousness.

While the learning of vocabulary is critical, it is also important to remember that we need to teach the right words. It’s not enough to just read a lot. It matters what you read. Are the books vocabulary rich? “It’s not enough to just read a lot; it matters what you read.”Many of the books children love to read today simply don’t have enough challenging vocabulary in them. So vocabulary has to be supplemented at school. It’s not enough to send home spelling lists because the words were selected on the basis of teaching common spelling constructs. From the perspective of reading comprehension or general word knowledge, they are of little use.

For example the current KS2 lists for nonstatutory words contain words such as “squirrel”, “tinsel”, “plainness” and “supermarket”. Sadly, I would note that ‘supermarket’ is listed because of its relation to the latin root ‘super’, meaning above. And yet the word, its origin and its meaning has nothing to do with the latin root. And plainness, well I would generally argue that there are better examples of ‘-ness’ words, and that plainness is an awkward word to use in a sentence.

Children need to be taught words that are useful and relevant. While a word like “plainness” may be complicated in terms of the number of syllables, students will not find many opportunities to use the word beyond the confines of a spelling or vocabulary test. If you look through today’s most widely-read newspapers, novels and academic writing, you will get a sense of the types of words children should be learning.

How to teach vocabulary effectively

Once we’ve identified the most useful words, we then need to ensure that we are teaching them effectively. A key way to boost children’s understanding is to make sure the words are taught in a meaningful way. When words are presented randomly, in irrelevant lists, it takes between six and 12 exposures to really learn them. By contrast, words that are taught in a way that is meaningful to students, are mastered at a dramatically accelerated rate. There are research-proven ways to master vocabulary. The most important method is to make vocabulary engaging and relevant. Use visual aids that helps students to picture the words, and makes the learning process more fun and engaging.

It is also important to teach vocabulary in curated lists with common themes so children learn how words are related to each other. In other words, teach synonyms or words in categories, such as ‘food words’. Children won’t remember random lists of words connected by their Latin root unless a lot of effort and care is taken to discuss the root of the word, and how the Latin root relates - correctly - to the word.

Another thing to bear in mind is that vocabulary acquisition is a process happening all the time, not just in the classroom. For example, using a wide range of vocabulary when speaking with children has near immediate knock-on effects. New research in developmental science has indicated that recognition of oral vocabulary can improve children’s ability to identify new words in written form. This means that reading aloud to children and using high-level language in your own speech can improve a child’s word consciousness – which essentially means that they are receptive to new vocabulary and have the motivation needed to learn it.

It is important to make sure your children understand the words in the books they are reading, and not just skip over them as some learners do!

The richness of vocabulary that children hear is not the only indicator of future word consciousness. There is science that suggests that the richness “Using a wide vocabulary when speaking with children has immediate effects.”of children’s environments in terms of words that are visible on signs, and in media like movies, newspapers and advertisements, are critical to them becoming efficient learners. This is partially because children form opinions about learning early on, and if they feel that reading or writing is either boring or too difficult, they are unlikely to put in a concerted effort to learn more down the line.

Conversely, if a child has been surrounded, both in a visual and aural sense, with new and interesting words, they are less likely to skip over words they don’t know when reading, and more likely to seek the definition and add it to their ever-expanding arsenal of words.

How to test vocabulary acquisition

In many ways, it is not only the teaching of vocabulary that needs a good shaking up, but also the testing. Too often a child’s reading level is misunderstood simply because although they are showing an ability to recognise and comprehend words, they actually lack the ability to string together the meaning of the literature; they are decoding, not reading.

Another component of vocabulary learning that has been misunderstood for decades is the idea of ‘cramming’ for a vocabulary test. While students may be able to regurgitate definitions using this method, it is unlikely that the true meaning will stick or that they will be able to use the word in conversations or writing going forward. It is therefore vital that we reflect on how we test children’s vocabulary, and make sure we focus on assessing understanding rather than regurgitation.

Final thoughts

While we wait for the education sector to catch up with the science on language and literacy learning, it is parents and teachers who can make a real difference by engaging with high-quality content.

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