DISCUSSION: Vocabulary – Are teachers and adults stumping vocabulary growth?

'They don't understand goo-goo-gah-gah. Dumb it down to WHAAAAAH!'

Research has shown that vocabulary is an important part of children’s learning, part of “The big six” of literacy. Yet as teachers (and parents) are we letting our children down by “dumbing down” the language that we use so that they are more likely to understand it? What would Vygotsky have to say about that!


Research has found that students’ vocabulary is a principle contributor to their comprehension, fluency and achievement (Bromley, 2007).

By the time children enter a form of education at the age of 3 years old, children from a high socio-economic status have been found to have a 5x greater vocabulary that children from low socio-economic status (Lehr et al, 2004). Known as “word poverty” by researcher Louisa Moats. Why is this? How can this gap be so great? Logic certainly suggests that the more oral language experiences children have in their early years, the more words and word meanings that they acquire.

Are we holding our children’s vocabulary development back?

The National Reading Panel (2000) found that no one singular instructional methods was sufficient for optimal vocabulary learning, therefore effective instruction must use a range of methods, both incidental and intentional word teaching. Children need to learn about words and not simply acquire new words, so that their learning is supportive of independent word-learning strategies of unknown vocabulary.

Researchers have found these word-learning strategies to be effective:

* use of dictionaries

* how to identify and use context clues

* how to use word-part information (morphological analysis)

* teaching specific tier 2 vocabulary (words that are characteristic is mature language users and appear frequently across a variety of contexts; words that lend themselves to instruction and that can be worked with in a variety of ways so that children can build in-depth knowledge of them and their connections to other words and concepts.

* teaching synonyms

* developing children’s word consciousness

* creating opportunities for interactive classroom talk as well as exposing children to new (and often intriguing) words throughout the school day. E.g. asking a child to close the door because it is ajar, asking children to stop dawdling whilst lining up, or suggesting that the plant looks dehydrated. This can be especially important for English Language Learners who often feel embarrassed with words in a story that they do not understand. Therefore, the teacher could get into the practice during shared reading time, of spending time going through new or complex words and perhaps, writing these words up on a wall so that they can be recalled and used in the children’s everyday language at another time. Making it a challenge to find new and intriguing words for the whole class to learn and celebrating the correct use of them.

Let’s promote and encourage our children to increase their vocabulary growth, which will directly increase their oral and written competence. And remember: enthusiasm can be contagious! 

Bromley, Karen. (2007). Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy,50(7), 528-537.

Lehr, Fran., Osborn, Jean., & Hiebert, Elfrieda. (2004). A Focus on Vocabulary. Research-Based Practices in Early Reading Series.


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