On the importance of vocabulary

Just a quick blog, inspired by this much more detailed and challenging one by Solomon Kingsnorth:

I think he has a point about the importance of vocabulary, and it’s something we can easily underestimate. It’s also something we can worry that we’ll never be able to resolve, because there’s no way of knowing what vocabulary will come up in any given text or test.

So I took a look at this year’s KS2 Reading test paper and tried to identify some of the vocabulary required to answer each question. It’s not every word in the texts, but it’s also not just the case of the 10 marks theoretically set aside for vocabulary. In fact, I think there were 80 or more examples of vocabulary which might not have been met by pupils who don’t read regularly:

Q1 approximately, survive
Q2 disguise
Q3 razor-like, powerful
Q4 majority
Q5 develops, newborn
Q6 hibernate
Q7 captivity, territory
Q8 puzzling
Q9 vital, essential
Q10 extinction, survive, supplies, diminishing, poaching, territory
Q11 adopt, reserve
Q12 challenge
Q15 fascinating,
Q16 protective, enfold
Q17 punished
Q18 mountainous, praised, lavishly
Q19 wounded, lame, circumstance
Q20 seized
Q22 vividly recall
Q23 frail, hobbled
Q24 hobbled, hesitate, peered
Q26 lit up
Q27 amusing, shocking, puzzling, comforting
Q28 arrives, injured
Q29 verses
Q30 suggests, bothered, basins, smelt
Q31 lifeless, ancestors
Q32 guardian
Q33 devices (left to my own devices)
Q34 recesses
Q35 dawned (dawned on me)
Q36 assorted, debris, network, grime
Q37 detemination, thorough
Q38 impression, evidence, frightening, intensity, cautiously
Q39 justice, efforts
Q40 inspect, fashioned, ought

The only questions that are counted as vocabulary marks are the 10 written in italics. And all those ones in bold? They’re listed as inference questions in the mark schemes. The challenge of inference is often about interpreting complex language as much as it is about guessing what the writer intended.

Perhaps more importantly, very few of those words are technically specific to the texts they appeared in. Even in the case of the non-fiction text about pandas, much of the apparently technical vocabulary is applicable to plenty of other contexts that children meet in the course of the curriculum.

The link here to ‘tier two’ vocabulary is clear: there is plenty of vocabulary here that would come up in a number of different contexts, both through fiction and non-fiction reading.

Which rather makes me think that Solomon is on to something important: a significant part of teaching reading is about getting them reading and reading to them.

6 thoughts on “On the importance of vocabulary

  1. mjlstories 2 September 2018 at 5:51 pm Reply

    So let me get this straight, a wide vocabulary can be acquired by reading widely and being read to and the purpose of this wide vocabulary is to do well in the reading test?
    Reminded me of a training video I saw long ago that showed the importance of guided writing in helping pupils improve their writing skills in order to better express themselves, to gain confidence, to….well no actually in order, we were told, to hit high level attainment targets.

    • Robbie Russell 2 September 2018 at 6:52 pm Reply

      I think some vocabulary can definitely be picked up by easing widely but this is not the only way.

      • Robbie Russell 2 September 2018 at 6:52 pm Reply

        *reading not easing

        • mjlstories 14 September 2018 at 10:41 am

          easing widely – sounds like a euphemism for middle-aged spread. Or maybe a term applied to those well-off annoying over-sixties who spend all their time either holidaying or telling lesser mortals about their travels? Good luck with the new school year, Robbie!

  2. Robbie Russell 2 September 2018 at 6:51 pm Reply

    I also feel that I spent some of my reading teaching time last year developing reading speed without missing important meaning.

    Some of my lower attaining pupils arrived with me at the beginning of last year getting noticeably fatigued by mid way through the test…

  3. Andy Hawes 27 September 2018 at 11:56 am Reply

    Poor vocabulary is, in my view, one of the major barriers to being a successful reader regardless of whether one is in Y6 and hoping to ‘pass’ a reading test or whether one is simply trying to enjoy a great book. If vocabulary is poor, comprehension will obviously suffer. What has become increasingly clear to me is that we do not really learn enough vocabulary ‘by osmosis’ – that is, we don’t just ‘absorb’ it from what we read. We may absorb some in this way, but not all. My view is that children therefore need to be explicitly taught vocabulary in a range of ways across the curriculum. We always teach subject-specific maths, science, geography (etc) vocabulary, so why is it that we sometimes expect children to ‘just learn it’ from reading?
    In my work involving developing the teaching of English with primary schools, I usually advocate some specific work on developing vocabulary and I often direct them to the work of Isabel Beck (et al) as that provides a solid foundation for the teaching of vocabulary linked to reading in particular. Beck and her colleagues also suggest some very practical tasks for pupils to engage in with the vocabulary they are learning in order to develop and deepen their understanding of it. Beck’s approach clearly isn’t the only way, but it does provide a rationale, a structure and a wealth of ideas to get people started…

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