Why does Vocabulary Matter
Posted: Mar 19, 2020
A good vocabulary is an important building block for helping language learners to communicate effectively, but it’s also essential to school performance more widely. Research consistently finds that the extent of a child’s vocabulary knowledge relates strongly to their overall academic success - a child’s vocabulary when they are five years old can tell us how well they may do at school at 11.
Vocabulary and spoken language in general, is a key foundation for literacy. If children who have just started learning to read know the words they are reading, they can more easily and quickly sound out, read, and understand them, as well as comprehend what they’re reading: a solid vocabulary is the bridge between phonics and reading comprehension.
Vocabulary in Context
Teaching lists of words out of context can be a starting point for observation, and for conversations about language acquisition. But the emphasis for me should be on the use of vocabulary within the context of the entire language system. It can’t sit in isolation.
Perceptions of Vocabulary Learning are also Contextually Driven
Conversely, many of the children in the schools where I work come to school without what you might call "book" or "academic" language, or conversational language. But within their homes and communities, in their context, of course they have language! What these children might lack is the language, or the so-called ‘cultural capital,’ to access what teachers expect in school. That simply means you have to teach it.
When it is about teaching vocabulary, it is related to the acquisition of language. So we might begin exploring ideas of phoneme correspondence, and expecting children to recognize a word – a task which is very difficult for them if they don’t have the word in their active vocabulary. If it’s not in their active vocabulary they have less idea of how it might sound or where the emphasis or stress may come in the word: it remains in effect a nonsense word, unless they have the skills to work out what it means in the context of the surrounding text.
In the classroom, vocabulary is low-hanging fruit: easy to grasp and observe, it provides a ready insight into some of the challenges that children can face as they learn. Yet while teachers have a sense of what vocabulary is, whether that is accurate or not is a really interesting question.
As a matter of fact, standalone assessments that help a teacher look more closely at each different aspect of literacy learning, might help in enabling students acquire a wider range of vocabulary.
For example, we get children to spend 10 minutes with a paper and pencil and write down as many words as they know how to spell. Statistical data says that the number of correctly spelt words ranged from 3 to 118 over a group of around 200 children.
To understand what this tells us, we need to think about what the task requires. The children have to recall words they know how to spell: it isn’t the case that the child who only writes 8 words doesn’t know more just that they can’t write them down.
From the words that they do write, you can begin to establish whether they have semantic networks, i.e. do they write blue, yellow, red, or do they appear to choose words more randomly? This, in turn, will have a bearing on their writing ability.
We need to be aware of what assessments can show us, and what they can’t. It is often assumed, for instance, that the phonics screening check measures reading. But it doesn’t measure reading; it measures one aspect of reading.
There are a lot of reading assessments that are used all the way through school, to form the basis of judgments about children’s attainment. But we need to think critically: what do these assessments test? What does each really measure? Is the assessment a proxy, and if so, is it an appropriate proxy for what we actually want?
Voice training and Research Institute is a Pan India Partner for Ets (Educational Testing Service), Toefl and Toeic Usa. It serves as an active country partner for India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Nepal.