Vocabulary: Looking for giants (part 2)
Vocabulary: Looking for giants (part 2)

Vocabulary: Looking for giants (part 2)

Looking for giants is part 2 in an edventure investigating one aspect of literacy (speaking, listening, reading and writing) – vocabulary. The exposure to, the acquisition and retention of, and teaching of vocabulary (I am still thinking that teaching is as much instruction as it is teaching). You can read part 1, Only 1:3 children read daily here. Then there was this statistic from the GL Why Reading paper.

A quarter of students at 15 still have a reading age of 12 or below.


There is absolutely zero chance that I am first to this celebrity edu-party. After the entree of podcasts and conversation, popular education titles “Reading Reconsidered,” “Closing the Vocabulary Gap” and “Bringing Words to Life” I am looking to connect that learning and thinking, with practical solutions that can be delivered through Successive Relearning and RememberMore. (I have just added Thinking Reading – What every Secondary teacher needs to know about reading and a “Filling the pail” conversation with Emily Hanford.) There are more signposts in Part 3 and then in Part 6 I bumped into Emily’s journalism and documentaries:

The APM Reports Podcast link here.

There is little to be gained from re-writing the summary recommendations of the Education Endowment Foundation’s Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools (sorry about the title Geoff), however, I thought I would share some of the “really?” moments and a few interesting snippets are reports I encountered.

Having learnt the vocabulary is inextricably woven with reading, (most words are written, not spoken), I thought I would start with the bleedin’ obvious. Increased vocabulary facilitates reading comprehension and both academic and vocational success, (Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.)

The GL paper also showed that there is a significant correlation between reading ability and GCSE results across all subjects. Not just the case in English, but in maths and science too. Indeed, the correlation between good literacy and good student outcomes at GCSE was higher in maths (0.63) than in some arts subjects like history (0.61) and English literature (0.60).


I was shocked to read that evidence of the gap in vocabulary knowledge of children surfaces by the age of three, (Hart and Risley, 1995) and by “first grade” children aged 7 years from high SES groups can know twice as many words as their lower SES peers. What is most worrying is that Beck highlighted that once word trajectories, or “differences in vocabulary,” are established – they remain. Further research suggested that is could be as early as 18 months, Fernald et al., (2013).

And to that – the infamous Myhall and Fisher editorial and it is a call to action.

Spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress.

Myhill and Fisher (2010)

The size of the task?

Word and word families was new learning. I had not encountered the category “word family,” before.

Word family: A word family is a group of words which are ‘related’ by a common base word. For example, the word create (verb) is in the same word family as creator, creativity and creation (all nouns), creative (adjective), creatively (adverb) and recreate (also a verb). Other members of the word family are formed by adding prefixes or suffixes to the base word or part of it. In this case, the base form creat- is changed to a noun by adding -or (for the person) or -ivity or -ion (for the thing), and so on. Learning common prefixes and suffixes and studying words in word families will help you to build vocabulary more quickly. It can also help in guessing the meaning of unknown words. For example, knowing that creativity is a noun, meaning ‘being creative’, might help you understand the meanings of objectivity (‘being objective’) and passivity (‘being passive’).

The most frequent 1000 words account for around 75% of the running words in formal written texts and around 84% of informal spoken use.

Precisely how much vocabulary we need is unclear. A minimum estimate for minimally acceptable reading and listening comprehension is 95% recognition of words, which would need around 3,000 word families. Most researcher put the figure for unassisted reading and listening at 98% word recognition, which research has shown to require 6,000 word families for listening and 8,000 for reading. Hu and Nation (2000).

This, however, refers to word families not individual words. Being familiar with 6,000 word families in fact requires knowledge of over 28,000 words, while 8,000 word families requires knowledge of over 34,000 words.

88,500 words, are actually 15,000 word families (introduce, introduction, reintroduce, introducing). Of 15,000 word families, 8,000 are Tier One and 7,000 are Tier Two.

Beck suggests we need to teach 7,000 Tier Two word families. Or 700 words per year. Beck et al., (1982) research calls for 400 words minimum, 400 words per year conforms to the rate at which improvements in word knowledge and in comprehension of text would be required to be proficient.

400 is a clear maker. 700 is the aim. We know from designing RememberMore class reader decks, most texts offer easily 80-120 words or word families to teach.

Incidentally, the “Academic” word family contains 570 word families. eg analysis (analysed, analyser, analysers, analyses, analysing, analysis, analyst, analysts, analytic, analytical, analytically, analyze, analyzed, analyzes, analyzing). Should these be taught discreetly?

Teacher talk is made up is mostly made up of the first 2,000 words of English and high-frequency vocabulary is important.

Averil Coxhead – Focus on vocabulary in speaking in English for Academic Purposes

This area of teaching was of particular interest. Further reading led to a paper revisiting the original, Nation (2006) – Table 14. 95% coverage can be achieved by 5,000 word families. 98% coverage is achieved by an additional 2% provided by 6K–9K words and an additional 1% of proper nouns. It also included this representation of the relationship.

20 minutes reading

Students who do not read outside of school: The amount of time spent reading and the amount read are important. For example, a student who reads 21 minutes per day outside of school reads almost 2 million words per year. A student who reads less than a minute per day outside of school reads only 8,000 to 21,000 words per year.

Whilst words are learnt from context, one of the problems is that later vocabulary learning shifts from oral to written contexts. That poses a real challenge, as it is more difficult to learn word meanings from written context, lacking many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings (intonation, shared physical surroundings). It is presumably one of the reasons the “Just Reading” and Tutor Read Aloud programmes are of interest and the results from these initial studies so striking.

What is it to be word knowledgeable?

…without vocabulary knowledge, words are just words-without much meaning.

Neuman and Wright (2014)

This rocked my thinking. Written contexts are not necessarily informative for deriving word meanings, rather they may be:
Misdirective – unhelpful context, which seems to direct the student to an incorrect meaning;

Nondirective – provides no assistance in directing the reader towards any particular meaning;
General context – provides only enough information for the reader to place the word in a general
Directive – leads the student to a specific, correct meaning for a word.

More often than not, the context is misdirective. That it is easy to draw incorrect conclusions about word meaning. How many times have I directed students to read around the word to try and extrapolate meaning. All my teaching career! Knowing a word is not an “all-or-nothing proposition,” nor is that a new idea. A word familiarity continuum or stages model makes more sense to me. A better approach might be to use Dale’s (1965) four stages of word knowledge:

Stage 1: Never saw it before.
Stage 2: Heard it, but don’t know what it means.
Stage 3: Recognise it in context as having something to do with…
Stage 4: Know it well

A common assessment code for teachers and learners – from which to decide the stage and then, the best course of action.

What is it to be word curious?

Being word curious, being intrigued when you encounter a new word, is a hallmark of those who build large vocabularies.

Word consciousness (an awareness of and interest in words) is crucial to such vocabulary acquisition. Incidental vocabulary instruction should be brief. It is best to introduce or briefly review the word prior to encountering it in reading and then to review it in greater depth after encountering it in context Beck et al., (2008).

We will come back to the benefits of preinstruction, justified on the basis of making the passage easier to comprehend by reducing the cognitive load during subsequent reading. In fact, a few studies suggest that preinstruction of vocabulary words facilitates both vocabulary acquisition and comprehension) aswell as multiple exposures.

Add to that, “students should not only repeat vocabulary items in learning; they should be given items that will be likely to appear in many other contexts.” Hence my growing interest in academic word lists and the research of Averil Coxhead.

What is “Corpora?” The plural of corpus (n). The main body of work. A complete collection of writings.

Which words to select?

RememberMore demands educators defines the declarative content. Defining what is to the be taught, and then categorising and tagging it. A process that helps teachers see and build the rich representations of, and connections with, other words and concepts. This two step process applies equally to integrated vocabulary, as any declarative knowledge. Furthermore, vocabulary should be selected for it utility, frequency (within and across domains,) and instructional potential and Beck et al., (2002) would also seek the vocabulary to support the learners conceptual understanding of the topic.

Broadly, there is a strong case to explicitly teach vocabulary of education or academia – derived from content learning materials. Which drew my attention to the research of Averil Coxhead and her webinar “Focus on vocabulary in speaking in English for Academic Purposes” here. (Both the AWL and ASWL).

Coxhead’s Academic Word List is a list of 570 words that appear frequently in all academic texts. This means that they are very general academic words, they are not specially connected with any particular subject. The 570 words are divided into 10 lists according to how frequent they are. Sub-list 1 has the most frequent words, and sub-list 10 has the least frequent words. Each sub-list contains 60 words, except sub-list 10, which only has 30.

Here is the key point and crossover:

The academic spoken word list may allow learners to reach 92 to 96% coverage of English academic spoken English.

Averil Coxhead

The is 92-96% of what learners are going to listen to in lessons, every day.

We are working on a small project for the Academic Word List with Classroom.remembermore.app.

Next step: curriculum declarative knowledge and declarative vocabulary.

Nest step: explicit vocabulary of the text – the “door” to understanding – more in (part 3)

That still leaves us with the question – which texts and then which words? As McGeown et al., (2016) has demonstrated, text challenge matters, and then which words to prioritise? Could Rewordify help? Here are two selections from two texts on Classroom.remembermore.app. The word choices I selected and the word choices recommended overlap but are quite different.

The Maze RunnerThe Hound of the Baskervilles
lurching suddenly moving
shudder body-shake (from being upset)
despite (even though there is the existence of)
adjust (change to make better/change to fit new conditions)
ancient very old
whine complaint
ascended rose/climbed up
invaded (suddenly entered a place in an unwanted way)
surroundings (things that are near and around something)
predicament difficult situation
strewn thrown
meadow (land area of grass and flowers)
bustling hurrying/very busy
ascent rise
immune to unable to be hurt by
bulbous swollen and bulb-like
esteemed considered
habitually almost always
underrated really good
piqued irritated/excited
convex curving out
self-importance snobbiness
fallacies lies
unambitious (not wanting to accomplish much)
absent-minded forgetful
possessor owner
incredulously in a shocked, unbelieving way
Atavism (appearance of a characteristic that humans have had for thousands of years)
Lancet Surgical knife
astutely intelligently
abandons leaves alone (and forgets about)
jutted out stuck out

Furthermore, the extent to which narrative or plot lines could be highlighted and revisited with RememberMore. Before we even get onto “how.” How to explicitly to teach vocabulary, to what extent, in advance (preinstruction) or in context, and how frequently.

What words for which learners?

This is a question that is rattling around my thinking – an early signpost for Lextutor.ca. A second share is for Jim Thompson and verbalworkout.com.

So another edventure begins, very much along side RememberMore.

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Rewordify & Verbalworkout


Beck I, Perfetti C and McKeown M (1982) Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology 74(4): 506–521

Dang, T. N. Y., Coxhead, A., & Webb, S. (2017). The academic spoken word list. Language Learning,
67(4), 959に997.

Fernald, A., Marchman, V. A., & Weisleder, A. (2013) SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months Developmental Science, 16(2), 234–248

Graves, Michael F. (2006). The vocabulary book: learning and instruction, (pp. 2-3). New York: Teachers College Press
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Neuman, S., & Wright, T. (2014). The magic of words: Teaching vocabulary in the early childhood classroom. American Educator, 38(2), 4–13.

Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Snow, Catherine E. (2002). Reading for understanding: toward a research and development program in reading comprehension. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Education


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