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Vocabulary development: more than words

Vocabulary development: more than words

Children’s range of vocabulary is a predictor of future success in education although I’m still uncomfortable with the statement published on the Ofsted Curriculum workshop slides in autumn 2018: “Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter!” Leaving aside the unnecessary exclamation mark, we’ve all met individuals who use their verbosity to hide ignorance or fail to communicate their message. In the same presentation Ofsted used the oft cited Hart and Risley research and the well-known phrase the “30 million-word gap”.

Hart and Risley and the 30 million-word gap

Hart and Risley’s paper Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American published in 1995 highlighted an “early catastrophe” as they found children from high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare by their third birthday. They recruited 42 families to participate in the study including: high-income families, middle socio-economic families, low socio-economic families, and a smaller number (6) families who were on welfare. They would spend an hour a month over two-and-a-half years observing each family and recording their exchanges.

Hart and Risley’s research, remains the subject of debate. They arrived at the figure of 30 million words by recording every utterance directly addressed to the children in monthly visits of just one hour each with the families. From there they derived the 30-million-word gap, assuming the same incidents of spoken language for fourteen hours a day, every day. However in It’s time to move beyond the word gap Douglas E. Sperry, Linda L. Sperry and Peggy J. Miller attempted to replicate aspects of the Hart and Risley research, although they included words not directly addressed to the child. They had very different findings:

“Most astonishing, however, was the result that children from our Alabama African American community heard 1,838 words per hour spoken by their primary caregivers, nearly three times the number of words heard by the Welfare group children in Hart and Risley. This result cannot be overemphasized; both our Alabama group and the Hart and Risley Welfare group were similar not only in terms of SES, but also ethnicity. These results suggest that the Hart and Risley Welfare group was an outlier.”.

More than words

The shocking figure of 30 million, understandably, grabbed attention from the report. The
startling number distracted from other significant findings. Not only did they find a word gap, but they also noted the children’s average number of words utilised, the duration of their conversations, and the speech patterns were all strikingly similar to those of their caregivers. The children were learning through imitation.

They also found higher- income families provided their children with far more words of praise compared to children from low-income families. Children from families with professional backgrounds experienced a ratio of six encouragements for every discouragement. For children from working-class families this ratio was two encouragements to one discouragement. Finally, children from families on welfare received on average two discouragements for every encouragement although it’s worth remembering they only had 6 welfare families in the study

Conversational Turns

It is important to state subsequent research has borne out Hart and Risley’s conclusions that the volume of words is an important indicator, if not the extent of their extrapolation. However, when one takes a wider perspective there are more important factors than the number of words.

As Dale Walker, the director of the Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, who worked with Ms. Hart and Mr. Risley and continues their line of research remarked:

“It’s not just throwing words at children, but making sure they hear new concepts, things of interest to them, so their brains make those connections earlier,”.

The importance of conversational turns – back and forth exchanges between adult and child- underpins research into effective vocabulary development. In “Beyond the 30-million Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure is Associated with Language-related Brain Function,” Romeo et al at Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the crucial factor in acquisition of language is the number of conversational turns the child experiences.

For a short video on the research see:

The project required children in participating families to wear recorders for two whole days on a Saturday and Sunday. Every word spoken or heard by the children was recorded and they were analysed for three aspects:
• the number of words spoken by the child,
• the number spoken to the child
• the number of times the child and the adult “took turns” in conversation.

The number of conversational turns, showed a strong link with the children’s scores on standardised tests of language skill, including vocabulary, grammar and verbal reasoning.

“The important thing is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain, but to actually carry on a conversation with them,” commented Romeo. The study suggests parents of any income level may influence their children’s language and brain development simply by holding conversations with them.

Romeo et als findings are corroborated elsewhere: The paper, “Language Experience in the Second Year of Life and Language Outcomes in Late Childhood,” marked the longest-term longitudinal study on the relationship between interactive talk in early childhood and later life outcomes. Like the MIT study LENA ( ) developed a “talk pedometer” measuring adult words and back and forth conversations. The adult words and especially the conversations the children experienced between 18 and 24 months correlated 10 years later with their IQ, verbal comprehension, vocabulary, and other language skills. Like the Hart and Risley study the number of words their parents talked to them was important, but conversational turns proved far more significant.

Dr. Jill Gilkerson, Chief Research and Evaluation Officer at LENA, and lead author on the paper summarised: “It strongly supports what other research has shown: talk with babies may make a huge difference in their futures and there is a need to begin early, since parents’ talk habits in the 18-24-month window start forming from the moment the baby is born.” Once more the key emphasis is talk with not talk to.

Turn taking in the classroom

In Let’s Think in English conversational turns between pupils and the teachers is central to developing understanding of the text and exploring vocabulary. The following is an example of a transcript from a Year 6 LTE lessons on symbolism in “Way Home” by Libby Hathorn. Pupils through a gradual, in-depth, slow-reveal process, have explored the significance of the relationship between the protagonist Shane and the cat he befriends. The story is paused two pages from the end of the story and pupils are asked: What might Shane’s home look like?

The questions provoke another re-reading of the text as the pupils are encouraged to reach a reasonable hypothesis. They must revisit the images and text to seek clues regarding the resolution of the story. This enables them to identify key words that might support their thoughts.

Jo: I think that his home is like when it says look at those building they are all dark I think his house might be in one of those building and neglected by his parents because like his clothes are a bit dirty and there’s no lighting no TV and he might be a bit like not lonely because I think he’s pretending to like the cat but when he gets home and says he’s got milk for the cat, I don’t think he has and he’s just going to make the cat like have a really hard time.
Teacher: Why don’t you think he likes the cat?
Jo: Because when you say it, it sounds like a bit and you can see it, it sounds a bit I don’t really know how to put it like a bit informal like a bit of thug life sort of.
Teacher: Do you think if he didn’t like the cat he would have rescued it from the tree?
Jo: He might still not like it because he might want to take it home and kill it to get food and his family doesn’t have money
Al:I think that Shane’s home might like a normal home and have lots of pets because no one would just pick up a cat like that, usually people would buy a cat or adopt one so I think he might usually pick up lots of pets and take them home for their own so they can have a home as well.
Teacher: Do you think he’s got lots of pets in his home?
Al: Maybe not too much because I think he’s got more at home than just the cat that he got.
Ru: I think Shane’s home is like our homes and maybe he’s like a bit rejected because maybe his, maybe he’s quite young and his parents let him go out and stuff.
Teacher :Do you think he has parents?
Ru : Yeah but maybe like a single parent.
Teacher : What suggests to you from the story that he has a single parent?
Ru :Because maybe he’s a bit lonely and is a single child.
Teacher:What make you think he’s lonely?
Ru:Because he’s acting like the cat is a family member; he’s really close to the cat.
El: Our table thought that he might be quite poor and not wealthy as us because his clothes are a bit muddy and don’t look expensive so we thought because of that his house might not be that nice either.
Teacher: If he is poor, do you think he’s aware of how poor he is?
El:Probably because [uncertain] Teacher: Open that up is there any evidence that suggest that he’s poor or
El: Well I think the evidence of him being poor is his clothes because you wouldn’t find someone living in a nice mansion wearing those type clothes, it wouldn’t make sense.
Teacher: What does he comment on, on his way home?
Re: He comments on the jaguars and fancy cars in the showroom and says to the cat, me and you are going to own one and says he doesn’t want the red one, he wants a green one.
Teacher: Why do you think the author might have included that?
Re: Because maybe it just shows he thinks he’s gonna say become of great importance or quite wealthy.
Am: I think he maybe wanted a green jaguar instead of a red one because I think his favourite colour might be green because his jacket was s shade of green.
Teacher: But there was only a red one in a showroom what does that tell us when he said we don’t want that colour, we want a green one.
Am: Maybe because they don’t have the specific colour.
Sa: He might want a green one because if he is poor and you’re going to be wealthy you will get more picky in what you want because you’ve been brought up with nothing and you’ve been like and you go I want this certain colour because we have what we want and we need but because he doesn’t have it he wants more than he needs he wants everything in his favour.
Teacher: Linking to the question Sa, what might Shane’s home look like, taking into consideration what you’ve said to me there. What does his current home look like?
Sa: It’s not going to be a mansion because obviously he’s not the wealthy but it could be an abandoned home that his family have moved into because they are just trying to survive and keep alive or maybe it’s just a small house with his family.
Teacher: Which one do you think is more likely?
Sa: I think more likely probably an abandoned because he’s being brought up in not the best environment and he’s almost, how do I explain it? He’s in an environment and he doesn’t overly – I think if it was just an average house he would not use the language that he’s using to the cat, he’d be more educated I think because he might be at school or something. He’d be more educated. He’s maybe not as educated as everyone would like to be.
Em: Going with Sa, with the he wouldn’t be a millionaire, it doesn’t say that he’s posh and expensive because kids go through different types of clothing of what they want to wear. And also yeah he would be more educated I mean less educated because the way that he uses his actions shows that he’s quite a bit maybe like he doesn’t have that much way of looking to cross the road because he runs across the road and like stuff like that.
Teacher: So link back to the question, what do you think his home is like based on that?
Em: His home is going to be probably be like a flat sort of because he says he has a home but then he said he didn’t like the posh people who gave the cat the posh food so maybe like he is a bit poor but he’s got enough money for a house or something but I don’t think it’s gonna be a house, I think it’s gonna be a flat or something.
Ow: I think his house is a bit not like adding onto El it is a bit like not the house that we have because he probably would be at school and erm Shane probably just wants to have companionship because he was probably lonely and would probably have a small space to live in and it shows that his parents don’t care about him like our parents care about us because he is a very long way from home and listening to how much he’s done because his parents obviously don’t care as much because they are not coming to see if he’s ok and also he probably might not have parents or because he kind of it didn’t say what kind of like life he’s been living it might be like a book when you are like a baby and your parents have passed away or something like that so he’s probably lonely and just wants companionship.
Am S: I think his home is like a single parent and he is an only child because it puts more pressure on you if you are like a single parent as you need to work more to earn more money and I think he doesn’t have many friends and he just had the cat as his friend so he’s opening up to the cat like and is willing to do anything for that cat. Because he hasn’t had the chance to care for anyone because maybe his parents haven’t been around to care for him.
Teacher: Why did he choose that cat?
Am S: So relating back to the cat he called the fat cat he might not want the fat cat because there is too big of a gap between their personalities so he wants a cat that’s been neglected because maybe he’s been neglected before so maybe he can like find a relationship between them.
Ph: I think his house is quite like not looked after because of the other houses around him they are all like dark and most don’t have lights on just one house there has the light on and I think he might have chosen that cat because he wants a cat he can look after and not the cat in the window because that cat is already being spoilt and having too much food or something and that cat I don’t think has been out because he is just sat by the window staring out the window looking at the surroundings around him. I think his house could be quite like he could have two parents but they don’t have enough money for the house he might not have enough money for clothes because I saw that he had a hole in his shoulder so I don’t think his parents look after him as much as our parents look after us. Our parents buy as new clothes and his parents probably don’t because they’ve got holes in them at that.
Lo: I think that his house is probably like a normal average size house for like a person in this class well my type of normal average house, anyway and I think it is probably because of the setting of where the house is looks like more run down maybe then what it is – that’s why his parents can afford it because he is probably quite poor.

The image below summarises the words used, the larger the word the more frequently it was referenced.

What do we notice? Well unsurprisingly simple and more complex words both feature. However, terms such as “family”, “companionship” and “educated” are not directly mentioned in the text. These are concepts lurking within the text, but it is the pupils shared conversation that starts to unlock them and make them transparent to the class. Reading and discussing the story awakens understanding of the concepts that underpin the story. Pupils become familiar with this new vocabulary by reapplying it to the story.

It is noteworthy that the two most frequently used words (leaving aside “like” contained in the question posed) are “because” and “think”, they provide the keys to the conceptual, and vocabulary growth becoming memorable. I would suggest conversational turns helps us to clarify our thinking and encourage us to evidence our thoughts.

The pupils are sharing and clarifying their inner thoughts when explaining their choices. The teacher’s responses could be categorised as:

Probing and opening:
Why did he choose a cat?
Why don’t you think he likes the cat?
Do you think he’s got lots of pets in his home?
Do you think he has parents?
What make you think he’s lonely?

Directing and linking:
What do you think his home is like based on that?
What might Shane’s home look like, taking into consideration what you’ve said to me there. What does his current home look like?
What suggests to you from the story that he has a single parent?

Comparing and evaluating:
Which one do you think is more likely?

The teacher is provoking the class to think more about their points and justify them. The pattern echoes that of the care giver who takes turns speaking to their child asking: “Why do you think that?” and patiently awaits a response. Furthermore, these prompts provoke the pupils to move beyond having an answer to justifying their responses with “because”. As with young children when pupils’ cognition is activated, that is to say they are being asked to think, vocabulary is more likely to be relevant, contextualised and memorable. Pupils are also exposed to the ideas and the vocabulary used to express the ideas of their peers. As ideas vary so too does the vocabulary used to express them.

In this interplay between high quality texts, rereading and mediated conversational turns that evoke thoughtfulness, vocabulary development can be nurtured in an organic and memorable way.

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