Rebecca Hall | Windhill 21
The purpose of this research was to explore and evaluate the impact of a ‘Word a Day’ programme on vocabulary development. Vocabulary has been a rising theme on the national education agenda and many schools are considering how best to support children to use a wide-ranging, diverse and complex spread of language.
Research by the Communication Trust (2017) shows that by the age of five, 75% of British children who experienced poverty persistently throughout the early years are below average in language development, compared to 35% who never experienced poverty. For these students, “school is their second chance to acquire the rich and varied vocabulary they will need for success both in life and academically.” (Gaunt & Stott, 2019).
At my current school, we have a significant proportion of children with pupil premium who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teachers have recognised a need to support these children with language development and this has become increasingly important with the high vocabulary demands expected in the Year 6 SATs tests. We are therefore actively seeking ways in which we can develop vocabulary in the classroom.
As teachers, we often expect children to learn vocabulary through reading challenging texts. However, Beck et al. (2013, p. 5) note that “The problem is that it is not so easy to learn word meanings from written context. Written contexts lack many of the features of oral language that support learning new word meanings, such as intonation, body language, and shared physical surroundings. As such, written language is a far less effective vehicle for learning new words than oral language.” I was therefore interested in developing an intervention that would give children the opportunity to hear the new vocabulary and use it in speech in order to read, write and use it fluently.
I decided to focus my research on what Beck et al (2013) call ‘Tier 2 vocabulary’. Tier 2 words are more tricky, ambitious words which students are likely to encounter again and again in a variety of different texts, contexts and subjects.
My research was based in my current class of Year 1 children. I used the intervention with the entire class and chose to evaluate impact with a group of three middle-attaining children (two boys and one girl).
Informal observations of my class discussions highlighted that children tend to use basic, non-specific vocabulary in their speech.
To measure this, I filmed the focus children having a discussion in a talk trio and transcribed their speech. I then calculated what percentage of words they used could be classified as ‘Tier 2’ words (See Table 2, below).
Intervention & intended impact
I designed a ‘Word a Day’ intervention based on the research which would give children lots of opportunity to hear and use the word in speech. My plan was to introduce a new ‘Tier 2’ word each day over a six week period, selected by considering what words the children would have the opportunity to use in discussions or writing.
Word a day intervention:
- Say the word five times. Oral repetition was intended to help children remember the word and get a feel for the sounds.
- Clap the syllables. Again, this was intended to encourage children to hear and feel the word.
- What does the word sound like? I encouraged children to think of rhyming words.
- What does it mean? In this section I gave children a simple definition of the word, using language they were familiar with.
- Use it in a sentence. I first modelled a sentence and then asked children to use the new word in a sentence themselves.
- Think of an action. This was intended to support children’s understanding of the word, as well as their retention of it. It also became an assessment tool.
My intended impact was that children would internalise the new vocabulary, understand these new more complex words and begin to use them in their discussions and writing.
I collected three types of impact data.
- Vocabulary test to check whether children had remembered and understood the words taught through ‘Word a Day’.
- A further video of focus children having a discussion to see whether the percentage of Tier 2 words used increased
- A survey with the whole class to evaluate their experience of ‘Word a Day’
I tested the focus children on eight words which had been taught through ‘Word a Day’. I then calculated the percentage of words they had given an accurate explanation of (see Table 1).
Table 1. Student explanations of target vocabulary
|Child||% of words explained accurately|
I filmed the three focus children to assess the proportion of words they used which could be classified as ‘Tier 2’ vocabulary. Every child used a higher proportion of Tier 2 words following the intervention.
Table 2. Use of tier 2 vocabulary: pre vs post intervention
A whole class survey revealed that every child in the class had enjoyed doing ‘Word a Day’. Comments included:
- “I like that you get to know words you haven’t seen before.”
- “I liked talking about the word and making a sentence with it.”
- “I liked making an action for the word.”
When asked which part of ‘Word a Day’ had been most effective in helping them to learn a word, most children said both repeating the word five times and using it in a sentence. They felt that clapping the syllables was the least effective activity.
Overall, the data suggests that the ‘Word a Day’ programme did make an impact on the use of Tier 2 vocabulary by Year 1 children. The children were fascinated by the words we learned and were engaged in discussions about meaning, synonyms and etymology. Children retained understanding of the new words taught after six weeks which suggests that a multi-sensory approach is effective in learning new vocabulary. I found that the ‘Word a Day’ programme led to a sharper awareness of words across the school day and resulted in us learning many more words than were taught through the programme.
As my research was a whole class learning activity, I decided it was not necessary to ask all parents for consent. I did however discuss and agree the research project with my headteacher. For the three focus children who I used for filming and assessing, I gained verbal consent from parents.
Overall, implementing the ‘Word a Day’ programme was enjoyable and simple. The proforma made it easy to follow the sequence for learning a word and the children enjoyed the predictable pattern. Over time, it got quicker to do ‘Word a Day’ and if focused it could be completed in 5-10 minutes. Teachers and Teaching Assistants have noticed children using more ambitious vocabulary in their language and the heightened focus on vocabulary was effective alongside the programme itself.
We did encounter some challenges. It was difficult to always learn a word every day and sometimes we only learned 2-3 words in a week. It was also sometimes difficult to choose which word to teach, and so I think it would be useful to select words at the beginning of a topic when planning so that these are focused and sequenced. Some words were difficult to explain in simple language and so a children’s dictionary was very useful to support with this. I felt that some words would have been better taught in context, as part of a lesson, rather than in a stand alone ‘Word a Day’ session.
Going forwards, as a school we are exploring how to implement a vocabulary development programme. I think the ‘Word a Day’ techniques will be used to teach words within lessons, in context. In addition, I think it would be effective to have ‘Word Time’ once a week. In this time, previous words can be revisited and a ‘Word of the Week’, which would not fit into other lessons, can be taught.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G. and Kucan, L., (2013). Bringing Words to Life. New York: Guildford Press
The Communication Trust., (2017) Talking about a Generation: Current Policy, Evidence and Practice for Speech, Language and Communication [online]. London: Communication Trust.
Gaunt, A. and Stott, A., (2019). Transforming Teaching and Learning Through Talk: The Oracy Imperative. London: Rowman & Littlefield