Vocabulary: A number of words?

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Deep vocabulary learning is irreversible, irreplaceable and essential to learning and thinking. However, as it is so integral to all of schooling and learning beyond the school gates, it proves very difficult to assess and evaluate effectively. Simply counting up words in lists will never do the job adequately.

Vocabulary development is a crucial part of the learning development of our pupils, but pinning a number on the vocabulary of our students offers us too little. Rather than seeking out a nominal number of words, we can instead use ongoing diagnostic assessment to try to gauge our pupils’ knowledge.

When we consider ‘word depth’ – that is to say, how well and deeply a pupil understands a given word we teach, it prompts us to consider appropriate methods of diagnostic assessment. From verbal questioning, to multiple choice questions, matching exercises, or mini-whiteboards, there are a wealth of quick and easy ways to probe how well our pupils know and understand academic language.

One strategy I have begun to make an integral element of my teaching is first selecting the important ‘concept’ vocabulary of a given topic or scheme of learning and then assessing my students’ prior knowledge of those words. For example, when teaching romantic poetry, I would deploy a short pre-test to ascertain how well my year 7 pupils know the terms ‘industrialisation’, ‘pastoral’, ‘sublime’, ‘individualism’ and ‘nostalgia’ etc. Using Edgar Dale’s ‘Four stages of word knowledge’ model, you can do a quick and easy assessment with a simple points system:

  1. I have never seen the word before and I do not know it [1 point]
  2. I know there is such a word – I can pronounce it – but I do not know its meaning [2 points]
  3. I have some partial knowledge – I recognise it – I could probably use it in my writing [3 points]
  4. I know the word well – I can use it confidently – I know it changes in different contexts [4 points]

Other creative and accessible low stakes assessments could include synonym or antonym matching activities can both be a useful way to assess vocabulary knowledge, whilst also encouraging an exposure to new words, such as this ‘match the synonym’ assessment:













‘Multiple-choice questions’ are a popular and common method of assessment, with child-friendly word definitions being offered for the vocabulary selected. ‘Cloze exercises’ are another perennial favourite, with ‘short answer quizzes’ proving a mainstay in the teacher’s repertoire. ‘Flashcards’ offer the opportunity for self-testing vocabulary – with children devising their own or using online tests (e.g. Quizlet).

Classroom-based strategies are as useful for developing vocabulary knowledge as they are for diagnosing gaps in word knowledge and assessing ‘word depth’. They can lack information about underlying knowledge about how well children can use those words and so on. To get a more thorough measure of vocabulary knowledge and the related ability of children to fully comprehend a difficult text, there are many standardised assessments available:

  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, Fourth Edition. This test measures listening and understanding of single vocabulary items. It is typically used with younger children and requires substantial input to undertake the test.
  • Single Word Reading Test (SWRT). This quick word reading test offers Standard Age Scores and diagnostic information. It can prove relatively easy to administer.
  • York Assessment of Reading Comprehension (YARC). Divided into age-appropriate assessments, the YARC identifies decoding and comprehension skills. The secondary assessment includes a range of fiction and nonfiction extracts. The test is one-to-one, so it is appropriate for more specialist, individual support for children.
  • InCAS (now evolved into Cambridge Primary Insight). This primary assessment covers a broad span of reading, spelling, maths and mental arithmetic. The reading element tests word recognition, decoding and comprehension.
  • MidYIS. The secondary school equivalent test to InCAS, this test specifically assesses vocabulary: word fluency and understanding, as part of the broader academic assessment.
  • New Group Reading Test (NGRT). This assessment is made up of two parts. Sentence completion: predominantly measuring decoding, as well as passage comprehension. Weaker readers do a phonics test. This assessment offers Standard Age Scores and detailed diagnostic information.

Selecting these standardised assessments is a significant investment of time and money. If we use them to find a baseline assessment of vocabulary knowledge, and reading comprehension more broadly, we offer a robust diagnostic assessment from which to evaluate the progress of children in our schools.

Vocabulary learning is much more than word lists and counting words – it is the very architecture of developing subject knowledge – so we should give it the time and evaluation it deserves. By combining low stakes diagnostic tests with more complex standardised testing, we can better understand, and go onto teach, vocabulary learning.

More Information

Alex Quigley is the Director of Huntington Research School, in York. He is the author of ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’, published by Routledge and you can find free resources at www.theconfidentteacher.com.

Find out more about the Cambridge Primary Insight and MidYIS assessments.