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Five Effective Strategies to Close the Word Gap

A rich vocabulary is a key marker of successful academic outcomes - so how can teachers help every child develop one?
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 22 September 2020

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In the 1990s, an academic study sent shockwaves through the education establishment. After recording hours of families from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Hart and Risley calculated that pre-school children from more deprived households heard more than 30 million fewer words than those in more comfortably-off families. 30 million! That’s terrifying.

To be fair, there has been some serious questioning of that figure. Some researchers have suggested that it might be closer to four million. Nevertheless, there is a strong element of this research that simply rings true to a teacher. Those of us who have taught in Early Years or Key Stage 1 in particular, especially in schools in less affluent areas, will have had first-hand experience of children with shockingly limited personal lexicons.

Perhaps it would help for there to be some national campaign to urge parents to converse more with their offspring. Assuming that won’t happen, it then becomes incumbent upon us as teachers to do what we can to close whatever gap there may be. But how? Here are some suggestions.

Promote reading for pleasure

This may seem a rather obvious one to start with but we have to get children to view reading as a joy rather than a chore. Of course, we still need to teach the skills required to wring every possible mark out of assessments, but how much do you actually promote reading for pleasure? Has your school curated a good selection of books that are likely to be sure-fire winners? Do you offer a selection of quality fiction and non-fiction texts? Does your library contain works that cover a range of experiences, written by authors from diverse backgrounds? Relatability matters.

Read to them

Make time in your school day to read to the class. With so many pressures on the curriculum, it can seem that you can’t afford to spend time just letting your pupils lose themselves in a well-written, well-read story. The question should be, can you afford not to? With correct pronunciation, prosody and expression, story time can really help children to broaden their vocabulary and become accustomed to effective grammatical structures.

Direct instruction

You can’t expect adults to know what every word in the English language means. That’s why games like Balderdash are so popular. So why would we assume that children know? As you come across words, double check that the children understand them. You might be surprised. But don’t just leave it there. Discuss their meaning. Discuss alternative meanings. Discuss their class (noun, verb etc.). Ask pupils to use them correctly in a different sentence. Display them and come back to them at a later time. You know – teach them!

Investigating words

Etymology isn’t a dirty word. Unless, of course, you like dirty. Finding out where a word comes from can be riveting (discuss where the word ‘riveting’comes from). Did you know that the word ‘disaster’ has its origins in the stars (think ‘astronaut’)?

There are plenty of other clues you can uncover too. Even the word ‘clue’ began life meaning a ball of yarn, or ‘clew’. Once that yarn has helped you to escape from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, you get from a clew to something that helps you to solve the problem. It’s stories like this that stick in the mind and help children to enjoy and thus learn new words.

Also, take the time to check that pupils really understand prefixes and suffixes. We all know that this is covered to a certain extent in the National Curriculum but ensure that your pupils really understand them. It might be worth creating families of related words – that might help, be helpful and demonstrate helpfulness.

Vocabulary games

If you think about it, when we are asked what a word means, we usually reach for a synonym. Use this as a basis of a game to help embed understanding, perhaps by getting the class to spot matching pairs of synonyms within a collection of words. A similar thing could be done with antonyms, especially if they are not ones with an obvious clue, such as the prefix un-.

Beware that not all synonyms are created equal, however. Thesauruses are all very well, but they do tend to list synonyms alphabetically. Help children to understand the differences between words with similar meanings by getting them to order groups of them by degrees of intensity. For example, you could challenge them to order the words clever, brilliant, bright, smart and intelligent. Remember, the discussions will be just as important as the end result.

No doubt, you could think of many other strategies yourself but hopefully this will spark your imagination. With any luck, you will soon see your pupils blossom from being good kids with good words to exceptionally astute and knowledgeable youngsters with broad and rich vocabularies who are less disadvantaged by their lexical dexterity than you might have predicted from their circumstances.

Do you want to find more effective vocabulary teaching strategies for your classroom?

If you’re looking for more support to improve vocabulary teaching in your school take a look at Building Brilliant Vocabularies, a brand new video training course from Plazoom and the National Literacy Trust that will help you embed effective strategies throughout your school. Find out more here.

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