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Posted 29th August, 2017 by Sue Partridge

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What counts as knowing a word; is it enough to be able to read it? To spell it? To know what it means?

Our colleague Ros Wright, a very skilled trainer, answered this question in our seminar in a great demonstration of micro-teaching.  Here are some of the notes she used:

1.Where I started with the Vocabulary issue!

  • My background as ESOL teacher, where systematic teaching of vocabulary is the norm
  • Anecdotal/ my children: “guitar” – baby’s first spoken word! “exhilarating” – 10 year old son describing a theme park.
  • A piece of local research: “Full on English”  by Philida Schellekens (2005) – based on students at City College, born in UK to ESOL parents.
  • I have a growing concern about the limited vocabulary shown by many students I support.

2. Take the German word Barmherzigkeit 

  • The short “teaching” session introduced the pronunciation of the word, using choral repetition.
  • I then used a roughly drawn visual aid to highlight the pronunciation and develop reading of the word.
  • B + [picture of an] arm + [picture of] hair + z + ich [picture of a loch for pronunciation] + [picture of a kite]
  • The German rule for pronunciation of “ei” was taught. The group then expressed themselves able to “read” the word.
  • The word was covered over and participants were able to write the word correctly.
  • I then revealed the meaning of the word, first using the meaning given by Google translate and then other possible meanings. These meanings included: compassion, mercy, charity.
  • The group agreed that despite being able to read and spell the word, and knowing possible meanings, they did not “know the word”. To really know the word, we agreed we would need to know e.g. the way it would be used in German/ understand nuances of meaning, and its use in standard phrases or idioms. We would need to understand its meanings in different contexts.
  • Words can be categorised as Unknown/ Acquainted/ Established. Our group was now acquainted with the word, but it would only become established once these further areas had been mastered.
  • Where a reader is acquainted with a word, they may be able to read it within a text, and understand its meaning within the text. However, only once it is established as part of their vocabulary are they likely to understand nuances of meaning and to be able to use it effectively with confidence.

3. Some thoughts from: Braze et al (2007) Speaking Up for Vocabulary: Reading Skill Differences in Young Adults

[accessed 3 June 2017]

  • In adults, the demands of text reading often reflect challenging content and vocabulary, (the left-brain side of reading) [p227]
  • Adding a vocabulary composite to their scores accounts for more of the variance in scores [p234]
  • “there is appreciable evidence suggesting that both decoding skill and word knowledge are worthy targets of remediation efforts directed toward adult unskilled readers…Both improvement in decoding and improvement in spoken language skills are valuable goals. Vocabulary knowledge seems to be doubly important”[ p241]
  • Efforts directed at vocabulary development might be an especially helpful adjunct to reading instruction for adult poor readers.

4.  Some thoughts from: McShane, S. (2005) [online] Applying research in reading instruction for adults. First steps for teachers, Washington DC, National Institute for Literacy

[accessed 3 June 2017], Chapter 6.

  • reading vocabulary is a crucial component of reading comprehension at all levels
  • Native English speakers – many higher level readers need vocabulary development because as they don’t read, they do not acquire “rich understanding” of words in different contexts
  • they may not have acquired vocabulary in school in areas such as science, social sciences etc.
  • Vicious cycle. Limited vocabulary causes comprehension difficulties. Comprehension difficulties mean they don’t chose to read much so don’t develop vocabulary through reading.

5.  Ros’s thoughts on  effective vocabulary instruction:

  • Pre-teach words
  • Ensure multiple exposures
  • Keep learners actively engaged, e.g. projects, class work
  • Teach word learning strategies, e.g. prefixes; using context to derive meaning
  • Encourage wide reading in varied subject matter
  • Useful words – e.g. therefore, in contrast, however
  • Idioms
  • Homophones – aloud/allowed
  • Homographs – bear weight/bear, animal etc.
    Adult learners also need:
  • Background
  • Schema – knowledge of the subject matter
  • Knowledge of structure of texts

6.  From David Crystal (2002) The English language, 2nd Edition,
London: Penguin.

  • How many words is “average”?
    3 year old – 300
    5 year old – 5000
    12 year old -12,000
    Graduates – 23,000
    David Crystal research – 30,000+
  • NB: difficulties with defining “a word”, e.g. separate words, hyphenated, all one word
  • Where do words come from?

Other languages
Prefixes/ suffixes, e.g. non-smoker
Conversion e.g. noun to verb – to butter your bread
Join words, e.g. shopkeeper
Abbreviations etc.
Blending words, e.g. brunch; Brexit

7. In summary, consider:

  • Knowledge of word meanings – the words we understand
  • Compare: Oral Vocabulary/ Reading Vocabulary.
  • Active/Expressive vs Passive/ Receptive.

8.  Action Points for me in my workplace:

  • Make vocabulary development a key part of my support sessions, using ideas from the list above
  • Establish a reading group with our librarian, using magazines and social media initially, moving on to short stories etc.



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