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How to build a language-rich school

When it comes to growing children's vocabularies, exposure to challenging texts is only part of the picture...
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By Ruth King, National Literacy Trust

Last updated 01 February 2021

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The Department for Education’s most recent reading framework advised that, “When children start learning to read, the number of words they can decode accurately is too limited to broaden their vocabulary. Their understanding of language should therefore be developed through their listening and speaking.” While using phonics and nurturing a love of reading should form the bedrock of literacy development, talk is also key. As children’s vocabulary increases, so will their comprehension.

While vocabulary is a strong indicator of reading success, research shows that vocabulary growth is largely determined by parental practices, particularly before the age of seven (Biemiller, 2003). When children start school, their vocabulary sizes will vary hugely. A classroom environment has the potential to increase children’s vocabularies and help to level out some of the disparities in speaking abilities, evident early on.

Children benefit on many levels from a broad and rich vocabulary. A classroom rich in talk, where children will encounter unfamiliar words, provides a strong basis for a language-rich classroom. Exploring poems and nursery rhymes - which demonstrate word play and alliteration, for example – is a wonderful and enjoyable to immerse children in the joy of language.

In her 2009 book, Talking Beyond the Page, Janet Evans pointed out that, to help children comprehend and enjoy what they read, “The answer that emerges again and again is responding to texts through collaborative talk”. Through quality discussion about books, children will learn to make inferences; deductive inferences are available in the text, whereas inductive inferences are made when prior knowledge is accessed to arrive at a plausible answer.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen is a brilliant and simple example of the different kinds of inference, all the better because some of the inferring is done through pictures, making it a great text for readers of different abilities. The bear in the book has lost his hat. He tries to find it by asking lots of different animals on his travels “have you seen my hat?” However, this method of deduction isn’t successful at first to the bear – when he encounters and questions a rabbit wearing a hat, and the rabbit becomes extremely defensive, it is not clear to him that the rabbit is the culprit.

There are a couple of questions that teachers might ask at this point, for example:

  • What is on the rabbit’s head?
  • Is the rabbit telling the truth?

In each case, the answer can be drawn from elsewhere in the text. On the penultimate page the bear can be seen wearing a hat, and when questioned about the rabbit’s whereabouts by a squirrel, it is his turn to become defensive. We are never told what happens to the rabbit, and the answers cannot be found in the text alone, but a discussion around the events of the book will lead pupils towards a plausible answer.

Quality books like this can form the basis of dialogic talk, which “harnesses the power of talk to engage children, stimulate and extend their thinking and advance their learning and understanding.” (Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk, Robin Alexander, 2004) In classroom dialogic talk, pupils are asked open ended questions which allow them to reflect on the text and also encourage them to consider, and possibly build on, their own answers.

When tackling more challenging texts, however, indirect instruction is not sufficient for some children. They still struggle with decoding and will not be fluent enough to extract the meaning from the context. Those who most need vocabulary enhancement are caught in a vicious circle. Also exposing children to new words, as important as it is for building an appreciation of their phonic qualities, doesn’t automatically mean that their meaning is processed and internalised.

This is where direct vocabulary instruction is vital, and should be used as soon as the need is identified. In the 3 tier vocabulary framework, the tier 2 words should form the locus of direct vocabulary instruction. These are words frequently encountered in written rather than spoken language, and they often have more than one meaning – for example tend, required or performed, but there are lots more! To take tend as an example – pupils might find it used in different ways in their reading:

  • Suzi tended to be a late riser.
  • Suzi’s mother tended the plants.

To someone with a limited vocabulary, the different uses of the word might present a challenge which would discourage them from taking ownership of the word and using it in spoken or written discourse. Quality classroom activities can help overcome these barriers.

Which tier 2 words you focus on – there are too many to study them all! - can be narrowed down by which words occur frequently, which relate to your pupils’ area of study and which contribute significantly to their understanding of texts they’re studying. Once a list of these words has been identified, they should be explored in context, and also using focused classroom activities to help unpack their multiple definitions.

Adults have a varying understanding of the words available to them and thinking about this, and considering the limits of your own vocabulary, can be useful when assessing how to build vocabulary in the classroom. A word like excoriate can be used in different ways, for example, and it is not used in everyday conversation. For some of us it will only be when we hear it in context that its meaning is clear, and an awareness, whether taught explicitly or inferred from exposure to language, that the “ex” prefix means “out”, greatly helps this process. Children who arrive in school with a limited vocabulary will not have this understanding of how words work, and it is vital that we help them by using good quality classroom activities and rich classroom discussion.

At the National Literacy Trust, you’ll find a range of resources and CPD to support vocabulary in the classroom. Also, premium members can access the first three webinars in the Building Brilliant Vocabularies series, developed in partnership with Plazoom.

For more information, contact the National Literacy Trust’s School team.

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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