Vocabulary: The Bonnie and Clyde of academic learning (part 4)
Vocabulary: The Bonnie and Clyde of academic learning (part 4)

Vocabulary: The Bonnie and Clyde of academic learning (part 4)

Life is short. Vocabulary is long. (And interwoven).*

What started out as a line of enquiry, became an edventure, bringing with it new phrases and plenty of new vocabulary: word families, orthography, morpho-phonemic language, The Simple View of Reading (SVR), comorbid, corpora.

Clearly, all four areas of literacy (speaking, listening, reading and writing) are worthy of independent study. In my defence I was trying to focus on vocabulary. Vocabulary is inextricably connected with reading, reading with speaking and listening. And no matter how neatly exemplified by Dr Scarborough’s Reading Rope, my gut instinct is – it is much more complicated that. I reserve the right to hold back on writing – for now.

Broadening and deepening

Armed with a broadening knowledge of reading and vocabulary acquisition, the edventure continued. Thinking Reading – What every Secondary teacher needs to know about reading offered a compelling case for reading instruction that included explicit vocabulary instruction.

Language is the door. Reading is the key.

James and Dianne Murphy

Reading then, is required to access knowledge. It’s importance increases as students get older. Students with difficulty reading find it increasingly hard to keep up and often develop unhelpful behaviour patterns. Hence teachers need to understand the emotional, motivational and cognitive impact of poor reading.

James and Dianne Murphy include some interesting factoids on orthography, eg a mere 100 words account for 60% of the words primary school children write, 300 words account for 75% of the words children write. Only 4% of English words are truly irregular linking back to Nation’s research. And once back around the block again with Beck and the addition of a five stage vocabulary learning model that made sense to my teacher-thinking: Acquisition, Accuracy, Fluency, Retention, Generalisation.

Kathrine Mortimore offered an equally compelling case for Disciplinary Literacy, so much so, she wrote the book on it. In a nutshell, Kathrine advocates and evidences for “a wide and balanced knowledge-rich curriculum at the centre of any school improvement strategy designed to improve literacy.” Difficult to contest.

Mortimore goes on to illustrate that all subjects must combine. To play their part in building the “vital background knowledge and vocabulary that young people need in order to read independently.” Other giants offered their shoulders.

Disciplinary literacy matters. And it matters to every teacher and pupil. Indeed, success in each and every classroom depends upon it.

Alex Quigley

A not so short diversion created by “The Simple View of Reading” led to a longer diversion listening to what Dr Jessie Ricketts had to share regarding Language and Literacy – Vocabulary and Reading Development From Primary to Secondary. Not forgetting Beck, Snow, and Averil Coxhead’s research back in Part 2. The conclusion.

Nothing else in education is able to change so many outcomes for the better, as affordably, ensuring students can access their learning (dependently and independently). Learning that becomes increasing reliant on our ability to read and make meaning of academic text. Learning that underpins much of writing.

Oral language and reading as “inseparable friends” who take turns to piggy-back on each other during the school years and beyond.

Reading and vocabulary are the Bonnie and Clyde of academic learning.

Less is more

With a breadth knowledge and a deepening, if still shallow, understanding of the topic, the net is drawing in.

Learning to read: A biologically unnatural task.

  • “Language is literacy is language,” Snow (2016). And that influence is bidirectional, Dr Ricketts;
  • Oral language development is critically important for reading “something of an ‘engine’” for early reading” and writing which in turn underpins academic achievement;
  • Exposure to increasingly complex sentences and discourse, to background knowledge, is not enough in of itself to move a child, a learner, from being a ‘good talker’ to a ‘good reader’;
  • One of the most important, yet often subtle educational transitions that children experience is the shift from learning to read, to reading to learn.
  • English is a morpho-phonemic language;
  • There are many dimensions to “knowing a word” (see Dale, 1965 and the stages of learning vocabulary) as there are “many degrees of knowledge.”;
  • Reading is the product (not sum) of a learner’s ability to decode text and their ability to understand it;
  • Learning to read in Primary school and Secondary school – are very different challenges, in late adolescents it is “a complex outcome of a range of complex inputs, spanning biological, social, environmental and instructional constructs” Snow (2016);
  • Most researchers 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;
  • Written contexts are not necessarily informative for deriving word meanings, rather they may be misdirective; 😱
  • We know what vocabulary is needed for “English for Academic Purposes”;
  • Developing the number of words students know (breadth:Acquisition, Accuracy, Fluency, Retention) and their understanding of relationships between words and the contexts in which words can be used (depth: Generalisation.) is an achievable aim.

Place your informed bets (in English but across the curriculum)

With that summary – here are my

  • High frequency academic word lists
  • Declarative knowledge – which includes declarative vocabulary (which may include high frequency words)
  • Targeted vocabulary – a) selected academic vocabulary, selected vocabulary (which may be declarative and high frequency), and words, that without comprehension, meaning can not be found in the text.

Declarative knowledge / literacy or subject specific vocabulary or Power vocabulary (as we defined them within RememberMore). In the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles – that is, the knowledge of the word serialisation. Which leads to an understanding of the reasons why almost every chapter closes on a cliffhanger.

Inhibitive vocabulary or phrases is not a technical a real word or term, (that’s why I selected it). Words or phrases that inhibit a learner from understanding meaning of the text. Without that definition you would have to guess at its meaning.

Then there is the targeted vocabulary of detective fiction, which often overlaps with targeted vocabulary of the text eg inquiry and also vocabulary to help understand the plot eg

Then high frequency and exclusion vocabulary.

Somehow – I am also looking to use a vocabulary word’s synonyms and antonyms. Lane & Allen, (2010) make this recommendation in that it allows the teacher to use multiple reference points and allows the students to see multiple words that may be familiar to them and, therefore, the students can be exposed to more advanced words

What is a serialised story?A story published in smaller, sequential instalments or episodes, with episodes often concluding on a cliffhanger.The Hound of the Baskervilles was first published in serialised format in Strand Magazine, a monthly periodical that was in print from 1891 to 1950.
CliffhangerA dramatic and exciting ending, leaving the audience in suspense and anxious not to miss the next episode.
inquiry (n) in·​qui·​ry (13)examination into facts or“No, sir; I have made inquiry all over the hotel, but I can hear no word of it.”
narrative (n) nar·​ra·​tive (9)a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of eventsI shall soon be in the position of being able to put into a single connected narrative one of the most singular and sensational crimes of modern times.
dogged (adj) dog·​ged (6)Marked by stubborn determinationA stranger then is still dogging us, just as a stranger dogged us in London.
Countenance (n) coun·​te·​nance (2)The face or facial features.Holmes notices the family resemblance in the portraits.
Frequencies provided by verbalworkout.com

Learners rely on knowledge (that includes a rich and broad vocabulary) to attend to, and make sense of what they are reading. Vocabulary are the clues of “meaning making.” It is like knowing / not knowing your timetables when first introduced to fractions. How are you to discern that Holmes notices the family resemblance in the portraits, if you do not know the meaning of “countenance?” I do not have evidence for my next statement, however, I dare say knowledge is even more important for those learners / readers who are still relying heavily on word decoding rather than word recognition.

Which brings me, full circle, to why this line of enquiry started, with a Year 8 class and Othello. Being able to decode words is one thing; being able to match that string of sounds to a thought, idea or concept is another. Then there is language structures, the arrangement of words in a phrase or sentence (big Yoda fan here) and verbal reasoning and, and, and where do you stop.

Where to start? A structured, targeted and explicit approach to language learning. Where to finish? How to present the vocabulary in RememberMore. The final post in the series. If ever you were unsure of the importance of meaning…

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


Validation of this test: Laufer, B. & Nation, P. (1999), A vocabulary size test of controlled productive ability. Language Testing 16(1), 33-51.


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