Spending more time teaching vocab doesn't always work, study finds

Dedicating more time to teaching children vocabulary doesn't necessarily mean their vocabulary will improve, research suggests

Adi Bloom

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The new study, conducted by Ann Arthur and Dawn Davis, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the US, found that there was no link between how much time pupils spent learning vocabulary and how much new vocabulary they learn.

The academics observed 278 pupils, between the ages of 4 and 9, in 56 classrooms in four US states. They provided four, 30-minute vocabulary-booster sessions to a third of the children. These children’s vocabulary improved in comparison with those children who were simply given general language-comprehension lessons.

A third of the children, however, were given a double dose of booster sessions: eight 30-minute sessions a week. These children’s vocabulary improved the same amount as that of the children who were given four booster sessions a week.

The importance of pupils’ vocabulary range and size has been a key issue in England this summer. A number of Year 6 teachers serving disadvantaged areas complained that the language used in this year’s key stage 2 comprehension test was inaccessible for their pupils.

And research has shown that children from high-income families are exposed to roughly 30 million more words over four years than those in disadvantaged families.

A worthwhile investment?

The US academics said that their findings suggested “that increased instructional time devoted to vocabulary development only may not provide enhanced outcomes…and thus may not be a worthwhile investment of school resources”.

They said that this may be in part because those teachers offering the single dose of booster sessions supplemented the official lessons with other vocabulary-enhancement activities.

An English study published last month showed that 80,000 boys – equivalent to four in every Reception class – already lag behind their peers by the time they start school. Many struggle to follow simple instructions or to speak in full sentences.

The Nebraska-Lincoln researchers said that it would be worth exploring whether, while the additional vocabulary-booster sessions were not effective for the pupils as a group, they might be of benefit to particularly low academic performers.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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