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Vocabulary: What does it mean to know a word?

The next time a child asks you what a word means, directing them to the dictionary might not be enough, says Megan Dixon

Vocabulary learning

The next time a child asks you what a word means, directing them to the dictionary might not be enough, says Megan Dixon

Imagine you wanted to explain to a child what lavender was. How would you do it?

You might tell them the word and then show them a drawing. From this, they would get an idea of the shape, the outline and the purple colour of the flower.

Next, you could give them a piece of plastic lavender. This would helps them to understand that it is three-dimensional, how the petals link together, and a sense of weight (probably inaccurate).

But it isn’t until they encounter a bunch of real, fresh lavender, or see it in a garden, that pupils really understand how it looks, smells and feels. They might notice that it isn’t smooth like the plastic version. They might realise that it feels solid, yet fragile.

Finally, you could ask them to compare the lavender with a rose and a bunch of parsley. Together, you'd begin to consider which essential qualities made it lavender, rather than another flower or herb. They'd begin to have a sense of how it might be used and why it might be valued. And then, if they read a poem that described someone as smelling of lavender, they could begin to make sense of the inferred meaning the poet was trying to convey.

This, in essence, is the way in which children learn and understand words, grow their vocabularies and extend their nuanced knowledge of the world.

A deeper approach to vocabulary

James Law and his colleagues describe this process in their report on early language development for the EEF, explaining that learning vocabulary is a sequence that moves from learning to recognise and produce the sound of a word, to learning the meaning of the word, and then how to develop the representation of the word and generalise the word correctly. 

To gain a strong understanding of words – what cognitive psychologists call "lexical quality" – we need to understand how the word sounds, how it is written, how it is used grammatically, how it can be changed, and the many semantic meanings and uses of the word. It is useful for us to help children understand words as units of meaning, as families, rather than relying on teaching single, isolated definitions of the sort you might find in a dictionary.

Take the word “mountain”, for example. It can be used in different ways in different texts, in different genres and for different purposes. A text about the life of animals might describe them living “in the mountains of Western China”. This is probably the most common use of the word: describing tall, geographical features, often shown covered in snow.

A child who had visited mountains might have a greater understanding of their enormity, strength and power. They would begin to have a sense of what it meant to be a mountain and the challenge of living on one.

Opportunities to 'explore' words

In a different genre, a character might be described as being “as solid as a mountain”, or “mountainous”. A child with a nuanced, generalised and deep understanding of the word “mountain” would find it much easier to appreciate what the writer meant by this.

This depth of understanding is needed for readers to make sense of the intricate associations that good writers create. It isn’t enough to just be able to pronounce a word. We need to give children the opportunity to share and explore words in the widest sense possible – and to help them understand how words work in the widest sense possible.

So, the next time a child asks you what a word means, take the time to help them go a little deeper. Ask them what they think it means, if they have ever seen the word used elsewhere, if they know other words that mean the same and then define the word together.

We need, as teachers, to develop a deeper understanding ourselves of what it means to really know a word.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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