Words, words, words

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Ann Marie Hickey, Lead Practitioner (English), The Gateway Academy

When we consider what vocabulary acquisition entails, many of us will recall time spent searching new words in dictionaries, creating long lists of words to use in specific subjects, or perhaps have fond memories of reading and listening to stories from a young age. Take a moment to reflect on what methods have worked for you.

Vocabulary acquisition focuses on how students expand the number of words they understand, retain and can independently use in a range of subjects. Noam Chomsky believes that children are given the basic syntax and structure tools before they are born, and use these tools to learn from their environment. Linguists agree that vocabulary acquisition is nurtured throughout a lifetime. We know that having a robust vocabulary improves all communication strands - listening, writing, speaking and reading. Therefore, as teachers and role models, we need to emphasise the importance of nurturing a broad vocabulary, for our students and indeed, for ourselves too. Most learners recognise the importance of vocabulary acquisition, in particular when the modes of communication are interrupted in verbal and written responses. We have all been there – eagerly waiting for a student to complete the sentence, or recall prior learning that we thought was retained. Given such challenges, we have an essential role in helping our students improve their vocabulary, confidence, and ability to communicate and express themselves.

Research on vocabulary instruction indicates that most vocabulary is learned indirectly, and that some must be taught directly - for example, within the classroom environment.

Examples of indirect vocabulary learning include: engaging in oral language and discussion, listening to others read aloud, and independent reading to uncover layers of meaning. Such strategies are often incorporated into MFL classrooms, and all subject areas can adopt a similar approach. How can we expect our students to confidently write an extended response if we have not given them scaffolds to succeed? They need time to discuss the concept or word, listen to examples, verbalise the learning to themselves, have opportunities for independent reading, and practise putting their new vocabulary into sentences. This is all before any formal response can be created. As an English teacher, I will admit that this is an aspect that I had previously overlooked. Expecting students to initially have a grasp of foundation vocabulary has led to some confusion in later lessons. Recently gaining experience an an MFL teacher, it became immediately apparent that when both indirect and direct instruction methods are used consistently, it leads to more individual progress, and increases student confidence when tackling more challenging lexis.

With this in mind, let’s consider the role of direct vocabulary instruction. This type of instruction helps our students understand more complex concepts that may not feature in their everyday lexis. Alex Quigley states that ‘we can support pupils by deliberately practising an array of strategies for exploring an unfamiliar word. Over time these strategies can be internalised as independent word learning skills that pupils use automatically.’

Here are some ideas for our classroom pedagogy. These strategies should help students to become increasingly confident using new vocabulary, and become more active in the learning process.

1. Word parts (morphology): Though a word may prove unfamiliar, pupils can often recognise parts of a word. Common prefixes and suffixes offer strategies for pupils to recognise words and connect them to their prior knowledge. Faced with a word like ‘depression’ and ‘devolve’, pupils can connect the ‘de’ prefix, meaning ‘down’.

2. Word families: The common patterns and features offered by word families are helpful to recognise tricky new words. Faced with a complex word like ‘oligarchy’, pupils recognise the familiar root ‘archy’, meaning ‘rulership’. It offers an essential hook to understand the word, offering more familiar related words like ‘monarchy’.

3. Word histories (etymology): The majority of the complex vocabulary of school has Latin & Greek origins. These word stories can offer vital hooks to better understanding the meaning of an unfamiliar word. For example, the word hydrogen derives from the Greek – ‘hydro’ meaning ‘water’; ‘gen’ meaning ‘to bring forth’.

4. Spelling (orthography): The spelling of a word can sometimes give a useful clue as to the meaning of a word. Pupils can identify common word families and part when exploring the spelling of a word. In words like ‘subtle’ and ‘debt’, pupils recognise the unfamiliar ‘b’. The roots of the spelling are in Latin, connecting to word histories and word families.

5. Multiple meanings: Deep word knowledge needs pupils to actively connect words and to explore layers of meaning. Many of the complex words of school are polysemous – they have multiple meanings – and so pupils need to explore the appropriate meaning of the word. A word like ‘cracking’ has a popular meaning, but in science it is a very specific chemical reaction.

6. Synonyms and antonyms: Sometimes unfamiliar words are the more sophisticated labels for familiar words e.g. ‘avarice’ simply means excessive greed.

7. Connecting to context: Rather than just relying on the contextual clues just from a sentence (which can be helpful, or not), pupils can be more aware than certain words are more prevalent in different subject domains or text types. By connecting up words, their families, into different subject domains and text types build a deep schema of knowledge that increases understanding of word meanings and their uses.

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