Vocabulary is essential to Language and Literacy


Vocabulary is an instrument that we use for acquiring knowledge about the world. We are constantly learning new words all the time and here at Gameplan we love to work with our clients to expand their word knowledge. That is why this month, our team decided to investigate the factors that constitute vocabulary development and how it impacts on different facets of our lives.

Why is vocabulary so important?

The English language is ever-expanding and currently contains around 450,000 words (Montgomery, 2013). Vocabulary knowledge is a vital component of language development and is more than just knowing words, it is about understanding their meanings and being able to use them in a meaningful way.

Due to the abundance of words that can be taught, speech language pathologists, teachers and parents need to think carefully and purposefully about the words that they teach to children.

Building a wide and varied vocabulary is imperative, as it corresponds to increased expressive language skills and success in learning to read. Additionally, vocabulary is an important factor in comprehension.  A child with a limited vocabulary can indicate a ‘warning sign’ of a potential language or learning difficulty and reduced literacy skills.

Pre-school and School Age Children

The growth in vocabulary development increases drastically from 3 years of age, where a child will have roughly 900 words in their vocabulary to the age of 5 where they have approximately 5000 words at their disposal. This is a big jump in vocabulary learning at this age and only continues to increase once a child starts school, with children learning nine new words per day (Hanen, 2010).

Children who start school with larger vocabularies are more sensitive to sound patterns within words which supports the letter-sound correspondence when learning to read (McDowell, Lonigan & Goldstein, 2007).

Adolescent Population

Similarly, targeting vocabulary in adolescence is essential in regards to school achievement but also success into adult life as there is emerging evidence to show a link between vocabulary knowledge and future employment. However; the approach is required to be more functional and direct as words hold greater power and value for every year that is spent at school. It is essential that development of an adolescent’s vocabulary is targeted, as by the time a student completes high school, their word bank is at roughly 36,000 words.

What is the evidence for intervention?

The evidence for vocabulary development in young children is well established, although there needs to be an increased evidence base for intervention strategies in areas related to comprehension and literal language. Vocabulary growth has strong links with learning to read, overall school achievement and eventual employment. However, not all words have the same level of importance and that is why we need to think systematically about ways in which we teach vocabulary.

An evidence-based approach to selecting appropriate words is the 3-tiered method as shown below:


Evidence suggests that teaching Tier 2 words are the most beneficial when working on vocabulary development because words in this level still require instruction but can be used in a meaningful way across multiple areas.

Interesting findings from articles

Teaching words to adolescents with language difficulties (Montgomery, 2013)

Adolescents are required to learn vocabulary in mature ways, even if they are not yet mature thinkers. They are required to learn new vocabulary for content-specific areas, often without guided support. As vocabulary is central to comprehension, there is a need to think carefully and purposefully about the words that are selected to be taught. Additionally, the teaching needs to take a more direct approach than with younger children. Three possible intervention strategies: ‘word strings’, ‘reading or listening for a cognitive purpose’ and ‘reading to find out’ are emerging ways to promote adolescent language growth.

The effectiveness and ease of Implementation of an Academic Vocabulary Intervention for Linguistically Diverse Students in Urban Middle Schools (Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller & Kelley, 2010.)

A holistic academic vocabulary program was designed for middle school classrooms with high proportions of language minority learners.

The results from the program resulted in significant effects on several aspects of vocabulary knowledge, including meanings of taught words, morphological awareness, word meanings as presented in expository text. The program yielded marginally significant but promising effects on depth of word knowledge and reading comprehension. The findings showed promise in developing an effective, multi-faceted vocabulary instruction for implementation by teachers in middle school classrooms.

The Effects of Strategic Morphological Analysis Instruction on the Vocabulary Performance of Secondary Students with and without Disabilities.  (Harris, Schumaker & Deshler, 2011.)

Results of an American study on effective vocabulary strategies for learning new words showed the benefit of using morphological strategies, such as Word Mapping in a secondary school. This involved analysing the structure of new words, focusing on prefixes, roots and suffixes. Students were asked to break words up into morphemes, attach meaning to each morpheme, guess the meaning of the word, then check its definition in a dictionary. This strategy can be used to support all kids, and once the meanings of morphemes are learned, students are able to better understand any new words they come across.

Supporting students with language learning difficulties in secondary schools through collaboration: The use of concept maps to investigate the impact on teachers’ knowledge of vocabulary teaching.  (Wilson, Nash & Earl, 2010.)

Teachers and speech pathologists should collaborate in order to support students with language difficulties. One aspect in which collaboration is possible is vocabulary teaching. An article by Wilson and colleagues (2010) explored teachers’ understanding of the importance of vocabulary teaching. It showed that by collaborating with speech pathologists, the teachers improved their knowledge of how to teach vocabulary more explicitly and effectively.

Vocabulary intervention for school-age children with language impairment: A review of evidence and good practice.  (Steel & Mills, 2011)

Functional, target words need to be tied to a meaningful context (ASHA, 2004). An interdisciplinary team should be formed to choose appropriate vocabulary – students, parents, speech pathologist and educators. Words could be sourced from reading sources, subject topics, song lyrics and language appropriate to use with peers. Tier II words should be the primary focus of therapy and tier III should be given brief explanations.

The results showed that collaboration can provide multiple exposures of words across different environments which are the key to effective vocabulary programs. Instruction should be individualised to each student. Small group compared to individual is best.

Implications of the study showed that the incidental nature of acquiring vocabulary highlights the need to create language rich environments. Multiple exposures, modelling, prompting and direct teaching of words are required in the classroom, in order to assist vocabulary acquisition.


  • Word games such as Boggle, Scrabble and Taboo are excellent for developing word knowledge.

  • For older children, teach academic vocabulary that is applicable across multiple areas of study. See http://www.uefap.com/vocab/select/awl.htm for a list of words.

  • Use graphic organisers to map and visually explore new words. See http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/word_maps  for some examples.
  • Adults have the most important role to play. Help children develop a deeper understanding of words by providing them with many opportunities to explore words in everyday conversations. Adults should give positive feedback on their children’s use of words, leading to enjoyable discussions about the multiple meanings of words.
  • Choose appropriate books that include age appropriate and interesting topics, unfamiliar words that are repeated many times throughout the text (and meaning supported with visuals for younger children), a mixture of different types of texts such as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories and plays.
  • Read with your children ensuring that you stop regularly to discuss word meaning in context and other possible meanings.

Useful Websites

Collins Co-Build series (provides definitions of words in a simpler and more understandable way)






Sarah Annells
Speech-Language Pathologist, Gameplan


Wilson, G., Nash, M., & Earl, G. (2010). Supporting students with language learning difficulties in secondary schools through collaboration: the use of concept maps to investigate the impact on teachers’ knowledge of vocabulary teaching. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 26(2), 163–179. doi:10.1177/0265659010368749

Lesaux, N., Kieffer. MJ., Faller, S., Kelley, J (2010). The effectiveness and ease of Implementation of an Academic Vocabulary Intervention for Linguistically Diverse Students in Urban Middle Schools, Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), pp196-228.

Montgomery, J. (2013). Teaching words to adolescents with language disabilities. SIG 1 Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, 20, pp67-74.