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Language learning should be the bedrock of the primary curriculum

Language is the foundation of learning, and we need to ensure that our practise prioritises it so young children can access the curriculum and succeed, says Charlotte Raby...

  • Language learning should be the bedrock of the primary curriculum

It is well known that the quality and quantity of talk that children receive before school is varied. In its 0-5 study in the UK, LuCiD found that this ranged from 43,926 words to 7,239 words per day in different families.

This reflects the findings of similar research in suggesting that the amount of language a child has heard before the age of five directly affects the size of their vocabulary and the rate at which they can process new language.

This study and others have linked poor early language skills to lifelong academic, social and income disparities.

The consensus is that low levels of vocabulary are not only a barrier to children becoming fluent readers as this hinders comprehension, enjoyment and fluency, but overall academic success and social mobility is also affected. 

This picture tells us that understanding early language is crucial. We need to be able to help children who come to school with lower language levels develop a wider vocabulary quickly.

We know that the vocabulary divide widens over time if it is not addressed so primary educators need to make sure they develop approaches that teach vocabulary systematically as well as opportunistically. In doing so we can lessen the word divide.

To do this successfully we need to understand how to develop language with children in Nursery, Reception and KS1 as a core part of the English Curriculum. Language is the bedrock of learning.

How do we teach language?

We use language to describe our world and experiences. Teaching words alone doesn’t close the word gap, nor does teaching vocabulary out of context.

What’s more, if our children do not have a robust spoken vocabulary and understanding of how language works at a fundamental level then new words, especially ‘enriched’ or ‘academic’ words, will not have a place to stick to. Vocabulary interventions may initially show impact but this impact will washout if the new vocabulary isn’t useful or used.

This is why I believe we need to teach language and not just words and we need to move away from prioritising ‘wow’ words or lists of words and move towards something more rooted in context, experiences and talk.

The strategies I suggest are not quick fixes and they require a connected approach across your school, but I believe if you choose the language you teach well then it will have an impact for the rest of a child’s life.

Which language do we choose?

Not all words are created equal. Three tiers help us understand the purpose of the different language that we all need.

Tier one language is the everyday spoken language that we use. Children learn these words through their conversations and interactions with adults and each other.

Tier two words are found in books and have a high utility but are not often found in everyday speech. These words could well challenge children when they read them, and they may find it difficult to slot all these words into their pre-existing vocabulary. These are the ones that we need to teach children because they have the greatest impact on their understanding of what they read and write.

Tier three words are low frequency words technical words linked to specific subjects. You would teach these words as they are needed and when they are likely to be used several times. Teaching these words out of context has a low utility as they will not be used frequently enough to be truly learnt.

As we can see from the research I have already outlined, many children in early years foundation stage (EYFS) and even KS1 will need additional support with tier one language. This is the foundation for any other language learning.

Take a simple word like ‘tree’, which is definitely a tier one word. Think about all the other tier one words that we associate with tree: leaf, trunk, branch, nuts, blossom, insects, fruit, roots.

If we know about ‘leaves’ on a tree then we can learn about how some leaves are evergreen (tier two) and some are deciduous (tier three). If we know about leaves, we can think about how the tree makes its food and how photosynthesis (tier three) happens.

Without a strong understanding of tree and the other words that surround it, we cannot access the new language in tier two and three. But what can primary teachers do to develop a strong foundation?

Make word webs

Taking time to surround each word with the language associated with it will grow further context for children, helping to develop a robust vocabulary. Word webs are an effective way to develop depth as well as a breadth of understanding.

In other words, it is not only important to know lots of words, but in order to connect to each other, the understanding of the words needs to be strong. These semantic word webs can expand with the class as they learn more, growing with their knowledge.

Meet the same word in many contexts

In order to make new language stick, young learners need to meet the same word many times and, most importantly, to meet it in many different contexts. By doing this, children see how the word alters in meaning based on the sentence, phrase and context.

Teachers should take time to get to know new language, and always introduce it in context. Quality picture books and non-fiction are great places to look.

It is also important to choose words from all of the word classes, not just adjectives. Nouns and verbs are the most important word classes to convey meaning, and don’t forget the impact of pronouns and prepositions too.

Three words a week explored properly will be more meaningful than ten words barely taught, so limit the amount of words you choose!

Finally, remember that just because a word is familiar to you doesn’t mean it is to the children. A simple word in a new context can cause difficulty for children.

How to teach language

  • Read the passage or sentence containing the new word to the children.
  • Always say the new word to the children so they can pronounce it correctly.
  • Give children a simple definition that they can relate to.
  • Use actions and your voice to help bear out the meaning of the new word.
  • Find other examples of the new word in different contexts. Talk about how the word is being used.
  • Keep a list of the words you have taught the children and connect to them again and again over the year.

Another way to go deeper with words is to make links to their collocations, words that are often paired with a word, or often come up in phrases and sentences with a word.

For example, collocations for dark could be: dark and light, dark and stormy, dark night, dark woods, dark thoughts, dark mood, tall, or dark and handsome.

Understanding which words are used alongside a word gives us a deeper understanding how that word works in context. This impacts children’s reading comprehension and writing. Children who are not native English speakers particularly benefit from learning about collocations.

Make time to create collocations with the new words you explore by adding new words to word webs and discussing where these words fit in with what they already know. For example, should dark go into the word web for space, colour or time – or all three?

Lingering with language and taking the time to know words deeply will help our children master meaning. With a good grasp of how to manipulate language we can choose the right word to say what we think, to write what we mean and to describe our experiences.

So move away from wow words and think about creating a connected web of language.

With over 20 years’ experience in teaching, training and educational consultancy, Charlotte Raby is a consultant for the DfE, Associate Member of the Primary English Hubs Council and lead lecturer at Essex and Thames Primary SCITT. She also leads the HEI partnership with the Open University Research Rich Pedagogies.

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