Vocabulary - Research and Practice

I remember being irritated, ‘back in the day’, when – after several years of highly effective implementation of my work across four continents (people may remember it as Big Writing) that raised standards in both writing and reading significantly for many thousands of children – an academic wrote of my work that, ‘if practice is not underpinned by research it has no validity.’ What is consistent effective practice across primary schools of all demographic profiles, if not in itself empirical research?

So, what price research and the world of academia? Far be it from the fact that it underpins ‘best practice’, quite the opposite can sometimes be true. For a start, I have never read research into a seemingly ‘new’ educational approach or system that was not rooted in an approach or system that already existed in some schools. Thus, the research did not lead the practice, it reflected existing interesting and / or successful practice and then proved statistically that which was already proven by the outcomes in some progressive classrooms.

Furthermore, research can lead to distorted or false conclusions that may lead to wasted investment, mediocre practice and dumbing down of outcomes for many. At its worst, it can impede learning and progress for many children.

Consider the very short life of the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) of the 1960s, which led to a generation of children being unable to spell because so many found the transition from ITA to orthography (conventional spelling by each letter) and phonics so difficult. It advocated an approach to teaching vocabulary and initial writing that customised every word individually to its own, unique set of 45 phonetic codes. Learned ‘spelling’ then had to be ‘unlearned’ at age 7 and the reality of accurate orthography and phonics introduced. Many children never mastered the truth because their practise remained cluttered with ITA symbols and sounds. I know – I was there, teaching in a Year 3 class of children raised on it.

Let it not be thought that I don’t value research. I most certainly do. It gives a wider perspective, relevant statistics and ways of making proven comparisons when well conducted. It enables a common dialogue and language and is often thought provoking.

Recently, a well-respected English Consultant, Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) – whom I hold in high regard – posted a Twitter link to extremely current research on teaching new vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary is the buzz of the moment, with reports, panels and research seeking frenetically for the ‘right’ answers to an age-old issue that we offered a solution for all those years ago. I didn’t do it by reading academic reports, I did it by many years of striving for the most effective practice in the classroom, trialling my own ideas and those of colleagues – reading, observing, assessing and evaluating to discover which worked and which didn’t. Not empirical research? Just the best practice I could manage as a primary school teacher with no access to professional development.

So, here I am in the final stages of preparing a new approach to an age-old issue for publication – ‘Talk:Write’ – improving communication through oracy, and someone I regard is posting a link to new research. I take pause – shouldn’t I read this and make sure there is not something new I have missed? I download the document:

‘The Hidden Depths of New Word Knowledge: Using graded measures of orthographic and semantic learning to measure vocabulary acquisition’ (Ricketts, Dawson and Davies 2021).

Part way through the first paragraph of the Introduction, the premise of the research, and indeed – its ultimate findings – were summarised:

‘In emphasising the importance of orthography as well as phonology and semantics in lexical representations, the lexical quality hypothesis (Perfetti & Hart, 2002) is consistent with the prediction that orthographic facilitation will occur in word learning.’

This revealing statement may, sadly, be lost on some as it is buried in a plethora of technical terminology from the academic world of linguistics. I learnt long ago that it is often better not to waste time on decoding the world of academia, but rather to wait until the reports on its findings emerge, which are more usually written in comprehensible language. How amusing one could find it that research intended to make the understanding of communication more effective is communicated in a form incomprehensible to many – unless they have infinite time on their hands and a large academic glossary.

The above quote tells us that, if teaching of new words is backed up by the visual and conventional spelling of the word, as well as it’s sounds and meaning, children learn and retain the word so much better.

This very long report is highly challenging to decode and absorb. It will not change classroom practice until experienced and skilled educators have simplified and clarified it. This is not a problem, however, for most teachers – as it is purely validating that which they already, intuitively, do.

However, there is always a gem in thorough research, although sometimes even the researchers themselves have not realised which small element is the actual new insight. For me, the gem came a little further on when the researchers reported that:

’Moreover, whilst spoken and written representations of language vary across contexts as a result of changes in voice, accent, handwriting, font and so on, arguably, this is more pronounced for speech. Therefore, orthographic forms may be more readily learned than phonological forms, providing a more effective anchoring device, or hook, on which to hang semantic information.’

I do not know if this report is actually the first to say this – I will have to read more widely to establish that. What I do know is that it makes me stop and throw up my hands in horror. Has all this focus on teaching reading and spelling entirely through phonics from the earliest stages of education over the past decade been a serious detriment to learning for more children, due to the fact that pronunciations vary so greatly that the accurate identification or application of phonetic rules will be an inaccurate science? I struggled to help my own grandchildren with spelling when they were at the start of primary school over the past six years, because they had neither been taught the alphabet nor the names of the letters. Everything had to be done through phonemes. Another generation deprived and damaged perhaps?

This report emphasises the importance of applying a rounded perspective to the teaching of new vocabulary. The study, unusually carried out with latitude, showed that when children learnt new words through a combination of seeing, saying, spelling and semantics, more retained the words eight months later.

At this time, this so reassures me and ratifies our revised approaches that we shall be introducing by this summer through an exciting new initiative named Talk:Write.

Talk:Write

A fun and flexible approach to improving children’s vocabulary, speech, and writing.

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