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Making words stick is primary practice

Jasen Booton

The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) is responsible for inspecting the quality of education in a range of schools and settings in England, and for reporting its findings to government. Its new evaluation schedule describes how schools will be judged from September 2019, and makes one point strikingly clear: when evaluating the quality of early years education in schools, ‘inspectors need to get beyond the data as quickly as possible to ascertain how well the curriculum is meeting children’s needs. This will be evident in how well children know and remember more [emphasis added]’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 77).

Language and literacy development in early childhood education remains crucial in the new inspection framework; however, interestingly, fresh emphasis is given to children knowing and remembering vocabulary. Learning to read – or more specifically, decode through a process of synthetic phonics – is still high on the early years curriculum agenda, and it is heartening to see that ‘reading aloud’ is highlighted as a pedagogical practice in fostering children’s love of reading. However, for the purpose of this blog, I am drawn to the issue of vocabulary acquisition.

It is concerning that poor vocabulary knowledge may impact on a child’s future life chance

Having been a primary school practitioner for over 20 years, as a teacher, leader and now researcher, I have long been interested in how children learn and use words. Research highlights that a child’s vocabulary plays a crucial role in facilitating metacognition and conceptual understanding (Biemiller & Boote, 2006); arguably the skills necessary for a primary curriculum emphasising deep learning and mastery. It is concerning that poor vocabulary knowledge may impact on a child’s future life chances, with evidence indicating that the size of a child’s vocabulary significantly influences academic achievement, lifelong opportunities and social mobility (Marulis & Neuman, 2013).

Unsurprisingly, the framework focuses on how the quality of education impacts on disadvantaged children: a review of studies shows that a poor vocabulary impacts most significantly on pupils with low socioeconomic status (SES) (Marulis & Neuman, 2013). Despite research revealing positive vocabulary gains from targeted intervention, evidence exists to show that the word gap between linguistically vulnerable children, often from low-income families, and their more affluent peers is unlikely to close (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). This is a real concern and is arguably a matter of social justice and cultural capital, so perhaps this explicit focus on early word learning is long overdue.

This leads me to discuss another group of learners that are at risk of underachieving due to weak vocabulary – children with English as an additional language (EAL). Studies show that children with EAL often lag behind their non-EAL classmates regarding vocabulary knowledge (Cameron, 2002; Murphy, 2014).

It is important to recognise that there are few longitudinal studies focusing on vocabulary development of EAL pupils (Murphy, 2014). Having personal experience of teaching in the bicultural and multilingual nation of New Zealand, it is interesting to note the importance that is given in the curriculum to social language vocabulary. The New Zealand curriculum gives emphasis to the specific teaching of vocabulary that encourages social interactions, with specific reference to words that help children greet each other, express thanks and apologise (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2009, p. 64).

As a Master’s student studying at the University of Oxford Education Department, I conducted a close to practice research project focusing on the explicit teaching of social language vocabulary for Reception age pupils with English as an additional language. The study focused on practitioners identifying picture books which clearly demonstrated the target social vocabulary, reading the text aloud, and then planning for multiple encounters of the words across the curriculum. The findings revealed that young EAL pupils successfully learned sophisticated social language vocabulary such as ‘admire, regret and embarrassed’, and were able to express the words productively in both speaking and writing.

With so many words to learn, it seems likely that practitioners will pose the question: ‘Which words should I teach?’ For perhaps obvious reasons, the inspection framework does not provide specific vocabulary to be taught – it will be interesting to see how further development and research informs the practice of making words stick in the minds of young learners.



Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 44–62.

Cameron, L. (2002). Measuring vocabulary size in English as an additional language. Language Teaching Research, 6(2), 145–173.

Marulis, L., & Neuman, S. (2013). How vocabulary interventions affect young children at risk: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6(3), 223–62.

Murphy, V. (2014). Second language learning in the early school years, Oxford: Oxford University Press.