Changing How We Teach Vocabulary and Reading

a boy with his hands on his hips in the library trying to decide what to read

I’m sure we all know learning to read and understanding what we read transforms lives. It’s the basis for the acquisition of knowledge and without the skill of reading, life can become extremely difficult. Not surprisingly, there has been huge public interest for decades about how children learn to read. Everyone is incredibly passionate about it, but unfortunately we are not all in agreement about how we should teach it! This has resulted in ‘the reading wars’, the battle between the most appropriate way to teach reading, the war between phonics vs whole word vs balanced literacy…

Explicit teaching of phonics and vocabulary

I will make my stance very clear from the offset; I am a proponent of explicit teaching of phonics along with explicit teaching of vocabulary. The key word in that sentence is “explicit.” If we take the word ‘explicit’ we are led into seeing something which is precise, clearly expressed, unambiguous and leaves nothing to chance, which is precisely the way I feel we should teach reading.

However, I also want to point out how vitally important I feel reading good novels to children is; it is hugely beneficial. It gives the opportunity to develop a love for reading and to discuss new vocabulary.

“Ensuring young people can read well by the age of 11 also has much wider social and economic benefits. Research has linked poor reading ability to an increased likelihood of unemployment, homelessness, divorce, health problems and incarceration, and a reduced likelihood of employment, home ownership, life satisfaction and community and political engagement” (Dugdale and Clark 2008, Parsons and Bynner 2008).

LKMCo: the relationship between reading age, education and life outcomes.

What are the skills of reading?

The two interlinked skills essential for reading are: decoding and vocabulary knowledge. Without these skills, the higher order reading skills such as inference, predicting, visualising and summarising are not possible.

However, reading comprehension is hugely complex and background knowledge and life experience has a huge impact.

Decoding words

To become confident, successful and fluent readers, students first need to learn to recognise words quickly. To be able to do this they need to be proficient in decoding. With repeated decoding practice (mechanics of reading) they will begin to recognise the words and those words will then become part of their sight vocabulary because they no longer need to decode them. Fluent readers cannot afford time to build every word so the development of sight vocabulary is crucial and that takes practice. Older students also need phonics teaching but at the appropriate level i.e syllabification. Students will struggle to become skillful readers if they do not instantly recognise and synthesise common syllables held within academic language.

An ongoing concern

Research has shown underperformance in both reading and vocabulary skills for decades (Becker 1977, Chall 1967). As educators we have been well aware of this, but nothing seems to have changed! We are still talking about reading levels and vocabulary knowledge as being an issue today and, unless something changes, I fear we will continue discussing this in another ten years!

I strongly believe the teaching of reading in KS1 has dramatically improved, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our primary teachers. The vast majority have embraced the teaching of systematic, synthetic phonics to the benefit of our young readers BUT is this explicit teaching continuing into KS2, KS3 and KS4?

Are we doing enough in the classroom?

I have, for many years, witnessed many students who have had no real issue or difficulty with their reading ability in primary school, who suddenly find it difficult to cope with the literacy demands of the secondary curriculum. Students move from primary to secondary just when they are switching from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ and if they are not secure in their literacy skills, they will start to struggle and very quickly become demotivated, frustrated and disengaged. Does this sound familiar?

I carried out some action research back in the late 1990’s. I asked 300 students in Year 8 and Year 9 in a school in the North of England what they did if they found themselves unable to decode a word. 95% said they try to break the words into chunks.

I asked 80 of their teachers if they taught reading and 70% said they did.

However, the methods they employed included getting students to read aloud and devoting time for individual private reading; I do not classify reading as teaching. It is only exposing them to written text. That is why I struggle to understand why many schools are adopting the ‘Drop Everything And Read’ DEAR method. DEAR must be a dream for able readers but it must be a boring and frustrating time for those who struggle with reading.

Nothing about the aforementioned activities involve explicit teaching.

Only one teacher in my research said they taught syllabification.

So, only one teacher was teaching the method students were trying to employ when attempting to read the more challenging words. That, I believe, is one of our problems; we need to explicitly teach syllabification.

The academic language concern

It is often the academic language that is difficult to decode (read) and encode (spell) for the insecure readers arriving in secondary schools. They need to be taught how to break words down into syllables. They need to hear the words clearly, be able to isolate each syllable sound and know the letter patterns that make up the sound.

Colour coding words into individual sound will help e.g. evaluation and when supporting the spelling of the word try ‘spell speaking’, saying the syllables clearly – e-val-u-a-tion rather than spelling it out as e-v-a-l-u-a-t-i-o-n . Using this method is highly effective as it improves the students’ phonological awareness which, in turn, has a huge impact both on reading and spelling. (Hulme, et al. 2012).

During my research I also asked the students what they did when they did not know the meaning of a word.

Some said they simply missed it out and carried on reading. Others would ask a classmate/teacher or would look the word up in the dictionary. Today, I dare say they would also say they would ‘Google it'.

The teachers I surveyed said they supplied definitions, had words displayed on classroom walls and used word searches. Again, I don’t consider these methods to be nearly explicit enough because they encourage students to be passive learners when they need to be active learners. There is a danger that, as teachers, we believe we are teaching literacy, however, our students are not learning. They are not learning the specific skills and methodology to access texts independently. If that is the case, we need to evaluate our method of teaching!

Are vocabulary displays working?

Currently, I know thousands of teachers are spending inordinate amounts of time producing wonderful word walls and vocabulary resources. I have read many tweets from unbelievably enthusiastic teachers, talking about and sharing ideas for teaching vocabulary. These tweets took me back to my early days of teaching when I was teaching Home Economics. I was absolutely convinced I was teaching vocabulary. I spent huge amounts of time producing wonderful word displays. I got students to write down key words into their class journals. I also provided them with the definitions of words and discussed key words because at that time I had read the fairly recent Becker report (1977) (I can’t believe I just admitted to that time frame!) that highlighted the importance of vocabulary knowledge. I employed these strategies because I had been told these were good strategies (were these some of the myths and snake oil remedies we are hearing about today?) but my students continued to find the academic vocabulary challenging. So the way I was teaching vocabulary clearly wasn’t working.

Fairly recently, I was working with a group of Year 9 middle ability students and asked them what evaluation meant. No one could tell me. Then one said “Oh, we DO these in Tech lessons” “Great! So what do you DO in Tech lessons?” “Well… we sort of write about it really.”

So my question is, "what is the quality of students’ evaluation if they do not understand what an evaluation is?” And how many times will they have heard the word evaluation, yet still can’t fathom its true meaning within different contexts? Hearing a word and being exposed to it is not explicit teaching.

We need to make the learner struggle, just a tiny bit. We need to make them think; to engage them; to make them become more word conscious and, more importantly, make the learning stick.

“Memory is the residue of thought” D Willingham.

So we should not simply provide words with definitions and get students to copy it down. We shouldn’t rely on word walls, unless students actively use them.

What about using dictionaries?

We should not encourage students to look words up in a dictionary; if that is all we are asking them to do, that is not explicit instruction.

Looking up the word ‘conductor’ in a dictionary will provide this definition – someone who leads an orchestra.

This isn’t much good if I was talking about metals in a science class or reading a novel about travelling on a bus. However, if I understood the following:

con means together or with
duct means to lead and or is the person or thing

Then I could begin to understand the meaning and apply it to different situations.

‘Depression’ is a great word which further illustrates what I want to say:

de means down/off/away
sion means the act or process of

Using this word in English may refer to low mood. In Geography it may refer to low air pressure or a low dip in the landscape. In History it may refer to the low financial state of the country. We need to model and show connections and links between subject areas. So rather than teach vocabulary, we need to teach students a strategy so they can build upon and expand their vocabulary knowledge, applying this skill and knowledge to any context within school and beyond.

Getting serious with vocabulary instruction

If we are serious about closing the vocabulary gap, which I am sure we are, explicit teaching of reading and vocabulary must start in the early years but not end there. It needs to continue throughout all education settings; to all abilities and all ages. It must be delivered systematically and consistently by all subject teachers, especially when the vocabulary being encountered becomes more complex and challenging; we need to support all students.

I think we need to change the way we teach reading and vocabulary in secondary schools.

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Katy Parkinson, Founding Director