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Renowned education writer Alex Quigley answers QA Education's questions on his latest title, Closing the Vocabulary Gap…
What challenges do teachers face in terms of children having a poor vocabulary?
The issue of children having a limited vocabulary is quite challenging in scale and subtly different from child to child. With the new bigger and harder curriculum at both primary and secondary school, the increased vocabulary and reading comprehension demand has risen considerably. Many children simply cannot access the full curriculum. In the early years, children can struggle to read at the same level as their peers, whereas at secondary school, many students are simply turned off by school after facing failure countless times daily as they cannot access the academic curriculum of school.
How can a better vocabulary improve work in subjects other than reading?
A broad and deep vocabulary is integral to every facet of learning. Take science. In primary school, children need to grasp the unique language of science to describe the phenomena, from forces to food chains. When you possess a broad vocabulary any new or unfamiliar idea or term you come across is more likely to be linked to what you know and therefore better understood. Vocabulary is like mental Velcro - the more you know, the more 'hooks' you have to hook onto new words. I quote E. D. Hirsch in my book who states that vocabulary is a great proxy for lots of general knowledge in the sciences, the humanities and the arts.
Do teachers have time to implement more approaches to reading, or should they replace existing practices?
Successful reading is so fundamental to all learning that we have to ensure our approach is as effective as it can be. For many teachers, this may mean dropping some existing strategies so that pupils can a well understood and well practiced array of reading strategies. Explicit vocabulary instruction shouldn't be some time-consuming bolt on in the school week. Instead it should be woven into our explanations, our teacher and student talk, in the act of reading and more. Ensuring our pupils access, and confidently use, the academic language of school is essential and needs time in the school week.
How is spelling linked to vocabulary usage?
We too often fail to teach spelling - we simply test spelling. Weekly spelling tests are ubiquitous across the country. The problem is that this is a limited and inefficient strategy that relies pretty much on children simply improving with age. We can instead combine vocabulary instruction with the teaching of spelling in meaningful ways. By teaching new and unfamiliar words by unveiling their parts (morphology) and history (etymology), by making links to word families, synonyms and antonyms, we get to deeply know a word – along with the how and 'why' of its spelling. If you want a pupil to remember how to spell 'ghost', tell them how it was a ghastly 500 year old mistake. You want to find out too don't you?
Why is it important that children understand etymology?
The roots and parts of words unveil meaningful knowledge about their origins. If you are teaching mathematics or science, you are drawing upon language with the same Latin and Greek roots. This offers lots of useful mental hooks to understand not just the origins of words, but to deepen your understanding of their meaning. Knowing that the root of 'scop' means to see/watch gives lots of mental hooks when a child faces new or unfamiliar words like 'microscopic', 'scope' or 'horoscope'.
Should secondary schools and even colleges still be promoting the use of a wider vocabulary? How can this happen?
I think we should and we can with not too much difficulty. First, teachers need training in teaching vocabulary and the gaps many of our students face with academic language. Then we need to work as subject experts identifying the crucial subject specific vocabulary, whilst also paying attention to the sophisticated language of school – what Isabel Beck and her colleagues term 'tier 2' vocabulary. Words that litter our academic talk and writing, like 'inefficient', 'phenomena' or 'sophisticated'. We can gift students with independent word learning strategies too, so that whenever they read they have the tools to more readily access the meaning of a given text.
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