The way a broad vocabulary is developed is as important as what words are learnt

Vocabulary knowledge is incredibly fickle, think about how often as adults we ‘search’ for words we know but cannot recall. We often try to find the meaning of words we have heard before but cannot quite recall it at a particular moment in time. Children face the same struggles, only more so.

A child’s vocabulary is essentially made up of the following (this is our own classification used to illustrate how vocabulary knowledge is acquired)

  • Secure words– They know the meaning of these words and can define them accurately, they know how to spell them.
  • Known words– They know the meaning but perhaps not as clearly as their secure words, they sometimes falter with difficult or unusual spellings.
  • Familiar words– They know the sense of the words but couldn’t accurately define them, they can spell those with straightforward spellings.
  • Previously seen words– They have an incomplete sense of what these words mean but have some idea, they can attempt spelling them and will get those correct which are regularly spelt.
  • Unknown words– They haven’t seen them before and unless there is a clue in the root of the word itself children cannot really guess what the meaning might be.

As children see words more regularly in tests or in context they build up a better picture of what the words mean until their knowledge becomes secure. As children read they will begin to see the same words more frequently and so their knowledge will expand. Words move from UNKOWN to SECURE as children see them more often.

The problem in an 11 Plus test situation is that on the day (especially if a child feels under particular stress or pressure) their ability to recall words which are not in the secure group reduces by up to 30%. This can have a marked effect on how well children do in the test.

Those who have prepared over a longer period of time, who have been reading every day and reading classic books regularly will tend to do better than those who have tried to boost their vocabulary knowledge at the last minute. Their vocabulary will naturally be more embedded.