How Does Effective Questioning Enhance Vocabulary Development?

students sat in a class with two of them holding their hands up to answer a question

I had the privilege to witness a mainstream history lesson some time ago. The teacher was enthusiastic, the students were engaged and lots of learning was taking place.

The majority of the class were EAL students (English as Additional Language) functioning at different levels. The teacher walked around the room, speaking to individual students, praising them, giving very occasional prompts to stay on task but what I really loved about the lesson was how he responded to his students’ questions. He answered them simply by asking them questions, ‘drilling down’ until he found their level of prior knowledge of the topic then starting to build on from there. It was superb!

This reminded me of a great article ‘What makes a good question?’ by Mike Gershon.

Mike suggests we all should use phrases like show me, tell me, convince me before moving to more challenging questions such as ‘What do you mean by that?’ or ‘What evidence do you have for that?’. This questioning approach ensures that all students are challenged, regardless of their ability. It switches on the ‘thinking muscle’ in the brain. students need to be taught how to think.

Vocabulary teaching in my opinion must be taught in a similar way and it is the approach we employ in Lexonik. In order to achieve a deeper level of understanding within any curriculum area, students must be secure in their vocabulary knowledge. Students can easily mask their level of misunderstanding when completing comprehension exercises. Questions can often be answered by simply finding the relevant sentence in a piece of text that contains the keyword held within the question. They do not need to have any understanding of the words. I believe this is why so many students appear to do well in classroom and homework exercises yet fall down when it comes to exams.

Consider this example. Please read the following and answer the comprehension questions below.

A condition called digertitus is heightened by the lack of cortosus but introducing hermine very slowly into the kimineltus porium can control it. If this method of treatment is used, care must be taken to ensure that the levels of limines do not exceed recommended limits as this may cause other igniums.

  1. What might happen if cortosus is in short supply?
  2. How can digertitus be controlled?
  3. What can cause some igniums?

I am guessing that you will have ‘passed’ this exercise with flying colours but there is a huge difference between your apparent high score and your level of understanding of the subject matter.

I think we are often lulled into believing that students understand the topic when in fact they do not. They have simply learnt the skills of answering this type of question. No learning has taken place because they have not understood the individual words held within the text.

(In case you are still puzzled by the unfamiliar vocabulary in the example, they are nonsense words!)

So how can we develop students’ vocabulary knowledge by asking questions?

We need to be ‘drilling down’ and analysing the words by asking students on a regular basis, how they know what individual words mean and then encourage them to trace prefix, suffix and root words meanings.

For example when asking KS3 students the meaning of ‘transportation’, the most common answer given is, ‘it is a bus, a car or a way of going somewhere’ and if we accept this answer there is no language development taking place.

However, if you pull apart the word ‘transportation’ and ask students for the meaning of

‘tion’ (the act or process of)

‘port’ (to carry)

‘trans’ (across)

the definition of transportation can then be explained as the act or process of carrying things across.

Having taught the word definition in this manner students begin to see links across subject areas, e.g. transatlantic, transformer, transient, translucent etc. It effectively teaches students how to develop their own vocabulary banks by developing word families and connections. This is the only effective way to teach and develop vocabulary skills to students.

Lexonik Vocabulary, our cloud-based morphemic analysis tool, supports teachers in any classroom to teach vocabulary explicitly. Through the training staff receive we ask them to explore a few simple questions with their class:

What does the word mean?

How do you know?

Where’s your mind going? – In other words, what other things are you thinking of to help you come to a definition

The power of teaching in this manner was highlighted when I met the most wonderful EAL student. He arrived in this country in the September with a very basic level of English. But he did speak three other languages one of which was Italian. So why, after living in London for only 6 months learning to speak English, was he able to give me definitions to words such as entomology, geothermal, and autobiography?

He was able to understand and explain the meanings of these words was because of the approach used by his Italian teachers. They taught him, from a very young age, the Latin and Greek origins of words. He was therefore able to apply this knowledge to English words. I need to point out that this student was very bright and highly motivated however students of all abilities benefit from this type of teaching. We need to routinely teach etymology and morphology in our language instruction.

I also believe that, delivered in a fun yet competitive way, students will really enjoy it. I see it happening. Trust me it works!

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.

Katy Parkinson
Founder Director, Lexonik