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Tip of the Tongue - Oral Language and Vocabulary Development

I am the author of Tip of the Tongue and teacher of a multigrade (mixed-age) class in a disadvantaged area. It was through noticing the word gap in my pupils that I realised I had to focus on the development of vocabulary to improve their confidence and competence with oral language, which would in turn also improve their literacy skills.

Posted on Wednesday 18th April 2018

The ’30 million word gap’ refers to research conducted by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their research brought to light that by the time they begin school, children from lower-income families hear a staggering 30 million fewer words than those from higher-income families. Pupil Premium

Oral language is our earliest form of communication and it is essential as we use it daily to communicate our needs. This early language gap sets children up to be at the risk of falling behind as they go through primary school, secondary school and as they move on to post-secondary education. They continue in life to ‘lag behind’ their peers, having less vocabulary and lower expressive language skills. This, in turn, affects their reading and writing capabilities. It is imperative to close this gap but as teachers, how can we help prevent this early catastrophe?

We can help by expanding children’s vocabulary.

Oral language, incorporating rich vocabulary development, is crucial to learning and gives a child entry to a world of knowledge. However, how we teach this vocabulary is also important.

Initially, when I realised I had to focus more on teaching vocabulary, I used the well-known ‘word of the day’ method. I took words from my pupils’ reading books. However, with three different age groups on different reading books, this method did not work in my classroom as I was choosing words at random. When words are taught in isolation, children tend to forget them just as quickly as they learn them. Children need to learn new vocabulary in meaningful clusters to understand their new words.

In formatting Tip of the Tongue, I started to teach my pupils vocabulary, still using a ‘word of the day’, but they were now theme-based words. Here are some examples of ‘rescue’ themed vocabulary I use for pupils aged 8-10: extinguish, winch, distress, torso, dehydration, delirious, unstable, amnesia, hazard, maroon, fatigue, distressed, frantic, necessity. These are big words, but children like to be challenged by large words and for now, we are focusing on using the words orally. Many a three-year-old can say “Tyrannosaurus Rex”… believe in your pupils’ capabilities.

Research has shown that children need to encounter a new word 10 to 16 times in order to really ‘learn it’. When introducing new vocabulary, pupils need the opportunity to practice their new words and use them. Various activities, tips and games are covered in Tip of the Tongue Boxes to enable pupils to do this. Vocabulary sheets also accompany each theme so that teachers can build up their Words-of-the-day through a topic, such as ‘A rescue’. They can then use the sheet to help pupils develop a story or report orally, before extending this to a written activity to make further use of their new vocabulary.

Tip of the Tongue boxes also provide a yearly scheme for the whole school in teaching children how to notice and replace overused vocabulary such as ‘said’, ‘nice’ and ‘went’. This is done on a month by month basis. Feelings vocabulary is taught in the same way, covering overused words such ‘happy’ and ‘sad’. Vocabulary concerning physical characteristics and appearances is also developed and built upon. By working through the three differentiated Tip of the Tongue boxes, the aim is that by the time a pupil leaves primary school, they will have a bank of vocabulary that has been built upon in a systematic way, from their early years at school.

New vocabulary is also built upon and revised using other elements of oral language, meaning that children practise and retain it. Homonym, Synonym and Antonym cards encourage pupils to use their dictionaries to complete fun vocabulary matching games. Debating vocabulary, phrases and expressions are explicitly taught throughout the three Tip of the Tongue boxes, developing children’s ability to argue a point of view, express opinions and gain self-confidence. Through Barrier activities, pupils are taught to use and practice positional vocabulary, developing effective speaking and listening skills both by following and giving one-step, two-step and even three-step instructions.

Tip of the Tongue contains a great wealth of other oral language development activities such as: Three Word Cards, Story Starters, Countdown Letter Game, Object Cards, Talk Cards, Category Dice, Tongue Twisters, Grammar Cards, Idioms, Question Cards, Prefixes, Suffixes, Photograph Cards and Scenario Cards (which incorporate telephone conversations, interviews, oral presentations, procedural instructions, problem solving and directions). All these activities provide fun and engaging vocabulary-building lessons, which  I am delighted to report – because I have seen it with my own pupils –  lead to more successful writing.

Have fun and success with vocabulary building and let’s narrow the word gap. Why not make an impact with your Pupil Premium and take advantage of the 3 for 2 offer on the Tip of the Tongue Language Development boxes. 

With thanks to Julieanne Devlin for writing this blog post. Julieanne is the author of Tip of the Tongue and teacher of a multigrade class in a disadvantaged area.

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