Learning new vocabulary is not an exact science

7th September 2018 at 00:00
Displaying words on the classroom wall could help pupils to grasp spellings, but it might not assist them in mastering sounds and meanings, writes Megan Dixon

What is the best way to help our students learn new vocabulary? It seems to be accepted practice that writing new vocabulary on the board helps. It is assumed that seeing the words assists students in understanding the letter patterns and sounds within it, and this helps with learning the word. But does it, really?

The benefit of spelling patterns for learning spoken vocabulary has been shown across many studies with students of different ages who are learning different languages, and with and without special educational needs.

In one of the first studies, Jessie Ricketts and colleagues carried out a tightly controlled laboratory study. They presented 58 children, aged 8-9, with pictures of 12 unusual objects. As each picture was shown on the computer, the children heard the name of the object (a nonsense word to ensure none of them had ever heard it before) through headphones. For six of the words, the children also saw the spelling appear above the picture.

After the session, the children were tested to see how many of the new words they had learned and how well they could spell them. The results showed clearly that seeing the spellings helped them learn the sound patterns, spelling and new vocabulary.

Next they tested the same strategy in the real, messy world of the classroom. Ricketts led a study across two schools and 121 children in Year 5. She selected 16 unknown, but curriculum-related, polysyllabic words for the class teachers to teach the children over a two-week period. Each word was taught to the children using a clear structure: the children heard the word, said it, clapped it, chanted the definition and listened to a sentence with the word in it. The children spent about five minutes each day learning their words (eight words each session) and they experienced each word three times.

Like in the first study, half of the words were taught without their spelling patterns. For the other words, the patterns were presented on a poster in the classroom.

Here the results were different: seeing the word up on the classroom wall did help pupils to learn to spell the words, but it didn’t help them with learning the words’ sounds and meanings.

Of course, there are many limitations to these studies and more research is needed to understand whether the strategy works for children of different ages, with different words, and if the children spend longer being introduced to the new vocabulary. But there are some interesting implications.

Firstly, it seems that what you put up on the classroom wall does matter and we should use that to our advantage. Secondly, it appears that putting words up for pupils to see helps them to learn to spell them, but it may only support learning of the sounds and meanings in certain conditions.

But these studies emphasise that just because something works in the tightly controlled conditions of a lab experiment, it doesn’t mean it will work in the messy world of school.

The research gives us a best bet. It is up to us to ensure it works for learners.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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