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How to Improve Vocabulary in KS2 For SATs

Still haunted by the dead dodo fiasco of 2016? Explicitly teaching vocabulary may be the answer...

  • How to Improve Vocabulary in KS2 For SATs

Our pupils have experienced a lot of challenges when faced with the KS2 reading test in the last two years, from dangerous encounters at sea and swimming the English Channel to wild rides and dead dodos.

Teachers across the country continue to grapple with helping their classes to conquer the increased reading comprehension challenge.

Depressing news stories reported children crying as they faced the new, more challenging tests in 2016. The dodo text alone included vocabulary like ‘unearthed’, ‘drought’, ‘freshwater oasis’, ‘parched’, ‘suffocation’ and ‘extinct’.

The increased vocabulary comprehension demand became obvious. Last year, another non-fiction text, on swimming the English Channel, included ‘hardships’, ‘pioneering’, ‘venture’, ‘feat’ and ‘well regulated’.

Though the act of reading is brilliantly complex, the degree of difficulty with vocabulary goes a long way to determining the comprehension demand of a given text.

Renowned cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham cites evidence in his book The Reading Mind that our older pupils need to possess strong vocabulary knowledge to comprehend a given text – they need to know “about 98% of the words for comfortable comprehension”, explains Willingham.

For many of our pupils, especially those who do not read widely, they simply don’t have the breadth of vocabulary to access the challenging reading in the Key Stage assessments.

In our attempt to make reading more accessible, we can too easily underscaffold their reading – that is to say, simply getting pupils to read harder texts earlier, in the hope that mere exposure will create more mature readers.

Conversely, we might reduce down complex texts to bitesize extracts that don’t build the necessary background knowledge for deep comprehension later on.

Faced with such a gargantuan challenge, it would be easy for teachers to sink into the depressed state many of our pupils faced when confronted with that dead dodo.

What if explicitly teaching vocabulary offered us a small but significant solution to our challenge? Too often, we consider vocabulary development as something that simply happens incidentally.

This is understandable; after all, we develop our personal word hoard without explicit instruction. Simply by reading, talking and reading some more, we grow the breadth and depth of our lexicon.

And yet, ample research shows that explicit vocabulary instruction can further boost vocabulary growth. 

A 10-year-old who is a good reader will encounter something like one million words a year (tantamount to between 10 and 12 short novels). Crucially, approximately 20,000 of those words will prove unfamiliar.

Given this fact, we quickly recognise how essential it is for teachers to tackle vocabulary development head on.

Of course, we cannot conquer the comprehension test problem with a few practice papers in Y6. Real reading comprehension rests on years of vocabulary development and crucial background knowledge.

By identifying vocabulary to teach explicitly, alongside paying attention to developing a curriculum that develops background knowledge cumulatively with a rich diet of wider reading, we can slowly but surely conquer the comprehension challenge in Y6.

Here are some practical approaches for putting vocabulary at the heart of your curriculum.

  • SEEC words:
    We need to actively ‘SEEC’ out words to teach. That is to say: select the crucial words to teach; explain their meaning in child-friendly examples; explore by connecting images and asking questions; finally, consolidate word knowledge by repeatedly returning to words that are taught.
  • Million word challenge:
    Reading more whole texts is integral to developing vocabulary, as the language of books is much more complex than our daily talk. Initiate a reading challenge that conveys the crucial message of how important it is for children to possess a wealth of words: a notion so crucial for everyone in the school community.
  • Record ‘keystone’ words:
    There are many examples of children recording and charting their vocabulary development, whether it’s in word records or hoards, as word wizards or detectives. By foregrounding vocabulary in this way, we offer opportunities for children to develop ‘word consciousness’ – a crucial awareness that words have depth and richness.
  • Dictionary training:
    Pupils can struggle to use dictionaries if they have a limited vocabulary, but specific editions designed for use by children (such as visual ones) can make the process of searching out meanings much more successful. Collins’ COBUILD dictionary (based on the frequency of words) is good for practical use.

Alex Quigley is director of Huntington Research School, York, and author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap (£16.99, Routledge). Find him at theconfidentteacher.com and follow him on Twitter at @huntingenglish.

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