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  • Writer's pictureAlison Davis

Does vocabulary knowledge increase literacy learning?

Many educators focus strongly on vocabulary learning in both classroom instructional activities and home practice tasks. Vocabulary knowledge is the cornerstone of language learning and is a critical component of all literacy learning.

In the first five years of life, children will acquire over 5,000 vocabulary words in their first language – layered with personal experiences and meaning. It is a growing bank of knowledge that continues to develop throughout a life-time. It is developed through a rich variety of reading, writing, viewing, speaking and listening in a variety of contexts and media.

Teaching vocabulary is to teach learners a love of words and ideas. A rich English language learning environment will provide multiple opportunities to see and hear words in authentic context – and it is much more than just reciting a list of words. It is learning how to understand the multiple layers of vocabulary – in its form, meaning and use.

Form is the word parts that make the vocabulary and what it looks like and sounds like - pronunciation, spelling, visual form, roots, etc.

Meaning is about concepts and connections – layers of meaning, ideas, relationships, experiences, semantics and inferences.

Use relates to the grammar and structure of how this word works within the English language and how it is used correctly in sentence form.

Learners need to understand, speak and write all the layers of language they hear around them in conversations (everyday vocabulary), in text (academic or literary vocabulary) and in viewing multimedia.

Many vocabulary activities are acts of rote learning of pronunciation or meaning, rather than a focus on the form, meaning and use of the word in authentic context. Students need multiple exposures to vocabulary – particularly academic vocabulary – in order for them to not only hear and understand the word (receptive learning) but to be able to use the word in context (productive vocabulary)

Research has proven that students who have multiple exposures to rich vocabulary with teachers using real objects, pictures, quickdraws, animations and word walls will increase student confidence in the use of language. Students using vocabulary “out loud” improves retention and immediate use of the vocabulary significantly more than pen and paper tasks.

Students need many more opportunities to speak as often as possible in the literacy classroom to see the relationships between words and ideas, how words work in context and ways of remembering. Partner talk, paired discussions, student presentations and explanations by learners provides multiple opportunities for learning, remembering and connecting language in authentic contexts.

Vocabulary knowledge is a critical element of a successful literacy learning environment. It is not a pen and paper task, but rather a rich opportunity for learners to use language productively through speaking, writing and using language as a bridge between first and second languages.

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