Poor vocabulary – a genuine concern?

In the news recently we were told how narrow vocabulary hits pupils grades. Going beyond the stereotypical monosyllabic grunts we may associate with teenagers, the article articulated many of the concerns that teachers – particularity of English and humanities – are expressing, especially with the fairly new, untiered GCSEs.

Why does it matter?

As I wrote in my previous post, 8 ways to promote reading to secondary school children, exam papers use vocabulary that is age appropriate. This is the case with all subjects. If the question uses vocabulary that is unfamiliar to the pupil, them s/he will be at a disadvantage before s/he’s even begun.

Going beyond exams, (because that’s the point of education after all) how real-world ready is a young person who can’t understand everyday language? To prepare children and young people for life, it is essential that they are equipped with a good vocabulary.

Now, I don’t profess to be a great parent. I always get it wrong and feel guilty a lot of the time. But if there’s one thing that my kids’ teachers tell me at parents’ evening it’s that my boys can talk! Unfortunately, sometimes this is not a good thing! However, they also acknowledge that they do have a rich vocabulary. Some of this has probably happened by chance, but I am fairly certain that this is also a result of the unfortunate fact that they have an English teacher as a mother.



So, what did I do?

1. It will come as no surprise, since my blog is essentially about reading, that we have always valued reading in our family. From day 1, we read stories to the boys. Often these stories would contain a lot of words that they did not know. Sometimes they ask what the words mean, sometimes they don’t, but the point is that they have always enjoyed listening to words which has built their vocabulary. Love for reading is one of the biggest factors involved with improving a child’s vocabulary. Indeed, the article I read blamed the vocabulary problem on ‘too little reading for pleasure’.

                             “In reality the word gap will depend on your circumstances rather than                                      your choices – your home, your family, the richness of language and n                                          relations, the presence of books and conversations, the habits you form                                      as you grow up.”                                                                                                        (Geoff Barton, General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders)

2. When the boys were learning to speak, I always avoided baby language. For example, I never saw the point in teaching a small child to use ‘Ta’ to say thank you. In fact, I actively discouraged others from doing it with them! I just couldn’t see the point in teaching a child to use second best when they were perfectly capable of saying thank you. Along the same lines, I never added -y to the end of words. This was probably partly due to the fact that I found it really annoying (and still do), but again, why teach kids the wrong thing? It just didn’t make sense to me.

3. Leading on from the previous point, I generally don’t dumb down my language for them. I speak to them using the same level of vocabulary and explanations (so far as it is appropriate) I’d use with an adult. If they don’t understand what I’m saying, then they tell me and I rephrase it, but that rarely happens because children are intelligent and expecting them to grasp what you say, tells them that you think they’re intelligent.

4. Occasionally, if I know that what I’m saying is far out of their reach, I use a little differentiation technique I was taught when training: use the word of your choice and then follow it with a simpler alternative, so the child still hears the more difficult word, but also gets an interpretation. For example, I might say ‘The alternative, or another option could be to tell your friend….’ you get the idea.

5. I was never massively against the boys watching TV in moderation. There are a lot of educational programmes on children’s channels and my eldest certainly learnt a lot from theses.

7. As I have said before, we enjoy listening to audiobooks in the car. This might include anything from a Matilda to a Horrible Histories stories. Making sure there is a lot of variety to what they listen to or read will increase the vocabulary they are taking in.

8. Finally, family time is so important for developing vocabulary (and many other things!). In my family, we love our food and we eat together most days. We also try to make the most of school holidays and enjoy outings together. Whatever it is that your family likes to do, the point is that it provides a natural opportunity for conversation where the children can learn from the adults.

All of these things have helped my kids’ vocabulary to develop. I’d love to hear from you if you think I’m missing a trick or if you want to comment on anything I’ve written. Thank you so much for reading, and as always: Happy reading!

You might also like: 8 ways to promote reading to secondary school children  ; 6 simple strategies to create super spellers