Skip main navigation

What does the research say?

Jean Gross discusses key research for teaching vocabulary
Hello my name is Jean Gross and I am the former government Communication Champion for Children. I’m going to talk about what we know from research about developing children’s vocabulary, and what that means for teaching and learning. Vocabulary does seem to be the key predictor of academic attainment. For example, there is a five year gap in reading comprehension between teenagers who had a good vocabulary at age six, and those with a limited vocabulary. Vocabulary at age 13 is a better predictor of success in GCSE English Literature and Maths than pupil disadvantage.
And children’s long term life chancers are influenced too; children with poor vocabularies at age five were found to be twice as likely to be unemployed in their thirties, and one and a half times more likely to have mental health difficulties, than those with a good vocabulary – after controlling for other factors that might have led to this association. The research on how best to develop vocabulary falls into two broad categories. One is research on general adult-child interactions, and the other is research on the explicit teaching of vocabulary. So looking first at adult-child interaction, we know that children learn best from back-and forth conversations and from hearing lots of different words.
So for example as a teacher, instead of saying ‘Oh dear I’ve left the door open’ you might say ‘I’ve left the door ajar’. It’s particularly importance to use and explain complex vocabulary with disadvantaged children, because studies have found that teachers working in poorer areas are less likely to explain sophisticated words than teachers working in better-off areas. Another research-based tip is to use the ‘expansion’ or ‘add a word’ strategy, where you reflect back what a child has said but add some new vocabulary. So if a child says ‘Wow - look at that whale’ about a picture, you say ‘Yes it’s a giant blue whale, I think, swimming in the ocean’.
If a child complains that an adult was ‘going on at me’, you expand that to say ‘Oh she was going on at you, criticising you?’ Now let’s look at deliberate vocabulary teaching. You may think that children can best develop their vocabulary through extensive independent reading. But while we do learn new words from reading, we need to be able to decode and understand 95% of words in any passage in order to be able to deduce the meaning of an unfamiliar word from context. Many children just can’t do this. Reading aloud to children, however, is a sure-fire way to build their vocabulary and we should do this every day. We also need to teach vocabulary explicitly.
Isobel Beck’s research helps us here; she has shown that we should focus on teaching what she calls ‘Tier 2’ words. These are the important words that are not typical in everyday talk, nor highly topic-specific, but which will be used frequently across the school curriculum. You’ll learn more about these words during this course. When teaching these words, children benefit from discussing child-friendly definitions rather than just relying on those given in dictionaries. When children themselves explain their own definitions, they make greater gains in word learning. Also helpful is analysing a word into component parts- root word, prefixes, suffixes. This is called morphology. So for example, ‘bene’ in the word benevolent is also found in words like beneficial and benefit.
Teaching that ‘bene’ means ‘well’ can help children unlock meanings beyond the immediate word you are focusing on Looking at examples and non-examples of the word, sometimes called semantic mapping, has also been found to work. If children were thinking about the word ‘sleek’, for example, you might ask them to discuss whether ‘porcupine’ is an example or non-example of something sleek, then ask about ‘duck’, ‘sports car’, ‘hairbrush’, or ‘hair’. Finally, we need to draw on research on memory to help us teach vocabulary. It has been found that children need between four and ten exposures to a new word before they will remember it.
So they will need multiple opportunities to hear and use a new word in the classroom rather than one-off teaching. And they will need to revisit words previously taught, through games and quizzes, at progressively longer intervals – at the end of the lesson, at the end of the day, later in the week, later in the half term, and at the end of term and year. So that has been a quick look at some key research. I hope you’ve found it helpful, and that you enjoy the rest of the course.

To introduce the research ideas that we will draw upon throughout the course, Jean Gross provides an overview of current thinking about what makes a difference to pupils’ vocabulary.

This article is from the free online

An Introduction to Teaching Vocabulary

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education