The Importance of Vocabulary Acquisition

The Importance of Vocabulary Acquisition in Primary Schools

Explore the nature of vocabulary acquisition in a post-pandemic world, why it’s important to a child’s development and how you can improve it in a primary school setting. 

With speech and language being identified as one of the areas most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, our English Adviser, Emma Mudge, explores how this impacts different curriculum areas and what schools can do to begin to combat this. 

Addressing the Language Gap 

We often hear about the academic gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils in our schools and how we are, as a country, failing to address this problem.  

In fact, over recent decades, we have begun to understand this further, and a correlation has been identified between this economic gap and a similar language gap between the two groups.  

In the Ofsted Research Review Series, it is stated that “developing spoken language is especially important for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are most likely to be word-poor.” Leading academics have also found relationships between children who are ‘word-poor’ and their wider academic achievements. For example, the Oxford language report overview states:  

  • “a child who is not at the expected standard in language at the age of 5 is 11 times less likely to be able to achieve the expected level in maths by the age of 11 years”.
  • “children with language difficulties at the age of 5 were 4 times more likely to have reading difficulties in adulthood”.
  • “children with language difficulties at the age of 5 were three times as likely to have mental health problems, and twice as likely to be unemployed when they reached adulthood.”  

With a word bank of approximately 50,000 words required for pupils to be able to access their GCSE exams, we must ensure that we make vocabulary acquisition and spoken language a key priority in our primary schools today. The question is, where do we start to address this important issue?  

Developing A Spoken Language Curriculum 

One way we can accomplish this as school leaders is to ensure that English is not just seen as a subject but is identified as a teaching and learning tool, interweaving its way into all aspects of our schools’ curriculum.  

This idea is especially the case when looking at our spoken language provision. We have already identified that increasing our pupils’ vocabulary is key to improving attainment in all curriculum areas and so we, therefore, need to consider vocabulary acquisition, not only in English but also in maths, science, art, PE and other subjects.  

Ultimately, the adults in a school are modellers of language – the purveyors of vocabulary, syntax, sentence construction and the articulation of thought and discussion. As leaders, we must consider the following points:  

  • Are staff trained to incorporate vocabulary teaching throughout the curriculum?
  • Are they aware of their own grammar, vocabulary and sentence construction?
  • Do teachers regularly plan for spoken language opportunities – presentations, debates, recitals, group discussions etc. throughout the school day? How do you know? 

Why Rich and Varied Children’s Literature Holds the Key to Vocabulary Acquisition 

It is undisputed that the key area of exposing children to new vocabulary is through text. It is via this medium that more complex language construction is found.  

Stanovich (1986) describes this through the ‘Matthew Effect’. This is a model which explains the reciprocal and cyclical relationship between reading and vocabulary acquisition, focusing on how a foundational level of vocabulary and language comprehension allows children to access texts, which in turn, increases their enjoyment of these stories.  

Conversely, if children have a poor word bank, they are less likely to enjoy the early stories or texts, thereby reducing their motivation to engage in language and reading activities further.  

The impact of the Matthew Effect means that we have a fundamental responsibility to ensure that all pupils are exposed to, explicitly taught and have opportunities to explore in-depth, a wide variety of children’s literature.  

It is crucial that this literature is chosen with care – with a keen eye on the progression of the complexity of the texts and the development of syntax throughout the pupils’ school careers.  

A range of genres and ages of text also needs to be built into your school provision so that pupils are exposed to historical literature, adventure stories, modern classics, ancient myths etc. This approach is a crucial and fundamental feature of any English curriculum and will ensure that the pupils’ language ‘diet’ is designed with care and precision. 

 Explicit Vocabulary Teaching 

As well as the ‘breadth’ of language development within the school via high-quality texts, cross-curricular exposure and adults modelling good quality speech, we need to ensure that we have opportunities for ‘depth’ within the language development of our pupils too. You can explore this through explicit vocabulary teaching. As with all lessons, this needs to be engaging and well-planned with games, exploration of identified vocabulary and exposure within different contexts is key. 

As school leaders, we need to ensure that our classroom practitioners are trained in the various methods of delivering high-quality vocabulary teaching so that the impact of this work is maximised. We need to ensure that those pupils who are identified as struggling with language comprehension are supported with pacey interventions too – including pre-teaching.  

Children who would most benefit from this additional work need to be encouraged to use the new vocabulary they have learnt, as it is their application of the word in different contexts which demonstrates that the child’s word bank is growing and developing. 

Take Vocabulary Acquisition to the Next Level 

There is no argument that a keen and well-planned focus on vocabulary acquisition in the primary school sector is beneficial to all children. However, it is particularly important to those whom we need to most skilfully support, such as:  

  • Pupils who have English as an additional language  
  • Pupils who have SEND needs  
  • Children who come from disadvantaged homes  
  • Pupils who are disengaged from their own learning  

It is these children who will benefit from a renewed vigour towards the teaching of vocabulary and the creation of an explicit language-rich culture within the school. 

At Services For Education, we help equip schools and colleges with the necessary resources and learning programmes to develop and improve their vocabulary teaching, as well as other areas of the English curriculum. 

We have multiple courses aimed at improving the provision of vocabulary acquisition, including: 

If you wish to receive more information about our English resources, contact us at 

About Us

Emma Mudge - Adviser, Services For Education

Emma Mudge has over 20 years of experience working in primary education. Throughout this time, she has become a leader in a wide variety of areas throughout the school including Assessment, Teaching and Learning, Curriculum Management and Lead DSL, to name but a few. As Deputy Head Teacher and Acting Head Teacher, she has been at the forefront of school leadership and improvement.

During her role as English leader, she successfully introduced new approaches which significantly raised attainment. This led her to be approached to support other English coordinators across Birmingham, make presentations to school leaders and become a member of a small group of specialist teachers and leaders, tasked with improving the reading attainment in a number of schools across the city.

Emma now works as the Educational Adviser for English at Services for Education, sharing her experience and knowledge of working in primary schools to continually promote and improve the standard of teaching and learning in English, and in school improvement.

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