Why Teaching Vocabulary Is ImportantMar 26, 2023
French was one of my favourite subjects in high school. I loved learning the words and being challenged by the grammar. Although I continued to learn French at university, I fell out of love with it as the distance education lessons – all recorded on cassette tapes- were neither supportive nor engaging.
Five months ago, motivated by my holiday plans later this year, I decided to return to learning this language of love. Since then, I’ve trialled online and in-person classes, had 1:1 tutoring and even downloaded an app for my phone. (How the learning options have changed since my uni days!)
Through all these experiences I’ve received some important reminders about the long journey a learner takes to become literate.
One of the more pertinent reminders for me has been the importance of vocabulary when it comes to experiencing success in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
This painful reminder occurred after a recent tutoring session which left me feeling downheartedly overwhelmed. I’d blitzed the grammar drills and had moved on to a harder challenge requiring oral translation of English sentences using a specific tense. It wasn’t the verb conjugation or the sentence lengths or even the syntax that had caused my failure, rather, it was my lack of vocabulary knowledge.
Licking my wounds the day after this lesson, I reflected on the large impact vocabulary knowledge has on successful reading and writing.
I’m looking forward to getting my French on again later this year.
(This was Laurie and I at the International Wine Festival in Bordeaux in 2012).
The importance of vocabulary in successful reading
Vocabulary knowledge significantly impacts comprehension.
When a reader doesn’t understand enough of the words in a piece of text, it can hamper their ability to understand the nuances and/or overall meaning of the text.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in my French lessons. When I’m given a piece of text with only a few unknown words, I can usually comprehend enough of the text to gain an overall understanding. When a text has too many unknown words however, my comprehension ranges from slightly off (e.g. I may have misunderstood a small element) all the way through to completely wrong.
Note: I’m not talking about a reader’s ability to decode/pronounce the word here, I’m talking about their ability to know what the word means. Just because I can pronounce a written word in perfect French, doesn’t mean I have any understanding of what the word represents.
So, this begs the question: What percentage of words (vocabulary) does a reader need to understand in order to comprehend a text?
What do you think?
Research suggests that a reader needs to understand anywhere between 95-98% of the vocabulary in a text to enable full comprehension (Willingham cited in Quigley, 2018). Wow!
Let’s see what this looks like on an extract from a NAPLAN reading text.
Firstly, here’s what 80% vocabulary knowledge looks like in an extract from the 2016 NAPLAN Year 5 Reading Magazine :
Imagine attempting to answer comprehension-related questions if this was how your understanding of the vocabulary in a text.
Now let’s look at that same extract with 95% vocab knowledge:
What a difference!
Vocabulary knowledge matters.
The importance of vocabulary in successful writing
Good writers craft writing that enables their readers to visualise the action in their writing. They do this by selecting descriptive words and phrases and using techniques such as ‘show, don’t tell’.
Having a wide vocabulary enhances a student’s ability to express their ideas and thoughts more precisely and succinctly when they’re writing.
When I attempt to write -or speak- in French, I’m limited by my vocabulary. As an example, when my tutor recently asked me to write about what I’d done for the week, I was only able to produce simple sentences with limited detail. I wrote ‘J’ai joué au golf avec mon mari.’ (I played golf with my husband). I wasn’t able to convey the idea that it wasn’t normal golf or mini golf but instead a kind of ‘in-between’ golf (in the form of a par 3 golf course). I wasn’t able to express that we did this for fun or that it was the first time we’d done it in over 10 years.
Unfortunately, my lack of vocabulary affected my capacity to build a clear visual image for my tutor to interpret. (And I’m now convinced she thinks I’m some golf pro who plays at big golf courses on a regular basis. Oooops!)
When students can call on a wide vocabulary in their writing it allows them to reach for richer, more nuanced verbs (e.g. ‘attempted’ golf instead of ‘played’ golf), as well as implement more specific noun use (e.g. ‘par 3 golf’ instead of ‘golf’). It also helps them to avoid repetition and vagueness. All qualities I wasn’t able to achieve in my weekly French summary, and all skills that would have helped convey a more accurate and engaging picture for my audience.
When I set out to learn French five months ago, I hoped to learn how to order food, get around in daily tourist life and maybe impress my husband with my ability to learn another language. I never expected to gain so many valuable insights into the long journey a learner takes to become literate.
I also never expected to experience and be reminded of the significant impact vocabulary knowledge has on success in all areas of literacy. Quelle surprise pour moi!
What are the teaching implications for literacy classrooms?
Vocabulary is a ‘must’ have, not a ‘lust’ have when it comes to developing skills in reading and writing.
It shouldn’t be treated as an optional extra in literacy classrooms or school curriculums.
Students need vocabulary instruction alongside their decoding instruction in their junior years and as an integral part of their comprehension instruction in the later years.
The good news for teachers and schools who do invest time in explicit vocabulary instruction is that it pays dividends in the form of improved results in both students’ reading and their writing. C’est fantastique!
I’d love to hear how you’re building your students’ vocabulary knowledge. Join in the conversation and share your ideas on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.
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