Vocabulary knowledge is one of the strongest predictors of literacy outcomes across the school years, according to Dr Clarence Green.
Research has shown that a student’s vocabulary size and the depth of knowledge they have about these words correlates with performance across not only in English class but across subject areas and year levels.
Developing a student’s vocabulary is a crucial part of the literacy teacher’s day, given how essential it is for a child’s success in school.
Children at school entry display very wide diversity in vocabulary knowledge and this gap is difficult to close and thereby contributes to social inequality.
Of course, readers of this magazine and literacy teachers generally are well aware of the importance of vocabulary and do not need to be convinced.
The issues more pertinent and discussed in this contribution are how do we help grow a child’s vocabulary? What words do we teach and how do we teach them? What words should we start with when teaching the printed word during the transition to literacy?
These are not easy questions to answer and teachers and researchers have been investigating how we might design optimal vocabulary instruction for at least the past 100 years.
We do not have the complete picture yet but have been able to draw some good guidance from the research literature.
One piece of the puzzle is to consider the frequency of the vocabulary item in the language and in particular texts that children read at school.
A word that is often encountered is clearly one that will be useful for a range of communicative tasks compared to a word that is rarely spoken, heard or read. Researchers have been able to generate wordlists based on frequency for the English language and other languages to be a professional resources for teachers, a good example being the sight-word lists commonly used in primary and ECE.
Another pedagogy is the Three Tiers model, developed in the US and increasingly popular in Australia, in which teachers reflect on a text that students are using for some literacy outcome and, in the context of this text and lesson and at the point of need for their students, target the Tier 2 words in that text.
These are those words that are essential for comprehension of the text, those which the students do not know, and those that will be useful across the curriculum generally (in this model, Tier 1 words are high frequency and already known, and tier 3 words subject area vocabulary that can be targeted in the subject area).
Another model of vocabulary selection based in the research is to teach the vocabulary known by the majority of students in a particular age-cohort to those at the grade below and/or those with smaller vocabularies in the same grade.
This pool of words are good candidates for vocabulary within or close to the Zone of Proximal Development for the target learners.
For the initial words teachers may want to choose for early orthographic development, i.e. teaching the printed word, it is recommended to draw on the children’s oral language ability.
But, we have limited information about the words children know coming into school and that are productive in their oral language communicative repertoire. Nor do we have good information on the diversity in this vocabulary knowledge amongst children.
My current research at Federation University, School of Education, has been investigating what this vocabulary knowledge might look like and how we might profile for teachers the words that we might expect most children to know at approximately school entry (approximately aged five), and what words are unknown or likely to not to be known by those with smaller vocabularies.
When we teach reading and writing, it is best to use the oral language resource of a child to leverage literacy development since it makes it easy for children to learn the printed representation of a word that they already use. This is because they already know the meaning and sound of the word for which they are learning to read and write, and so not having to learn all these at once.
Recently published in the Australian Journal of Education, teachers might find useful when choosing the words for initial print development, ‘The oral language productive vocabulary profile of children starting school: A resource for teachers’. This article and accompanying resource profiles the words used by children in their oral language communication, based on a sample of approximately 3.6 million words produced by children five years-old or under.
The resource lists 2767 words containing highly productive vocabulary known by most children, as well as words in more advanced vocabularies and useful targets for those with smaller vocabularies. Words not only the list are very unlikely to be known by children coming to school, and bets avoided as exemplars when teaching initial reading and writing. The list contains words that can form the target for print activities ranging from the very productive stuff, mess, hair, show, tell, farm, moon, to the more complex airborne, delicate, mighty, curious, nouns such as manager, theatre, alien, nonsense.
Having such a profile of potential already productive oral language vocabulary helps us understand children’s oral language, knowing what they are likely and less likely to know when choosing pedagogical targets for print literacy.
Of course, this list is not a vocabulary curriculum- it is a professional resource that can assist word selection as it shows us which words like have semantic (meaning) and phonological (sound) representation that we might want to use to map the printed word to.
The words children need to succeed in school are not only those in their oral language vocabulary, however.
Their vocabulary development needs to be supported from rich and extensive literacy experiences on a daily basis.
Green, C. The oral language productive vocabulary profile of children starting school: A resource for teachers.
Australian Journal of Education, https://doi.org10.1177/0004944120982771