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How Teacher Talk Affects Student Vocabulary Growth

Author of LANGUAGE! Live®
Updated on January 6, 2016
  • Dyslexia
  • Education Technology
  • Literacy
  • Reading Intervention
  • Struggling Readers
  • Struggling Students

Rather than focusing on text reading this month, let’s turn our attention to one of the critical components of language necessary for comprehension: vocabulary.

Educators often point to the importance of expanding students’ vocabularies, but how is verbal learning acquired? A new line of research has confirmed, not surprisingly, that the way the teacher talks and how the teacher uses language directly affect student vocabulary growth.

The word “vocabulary” can refer variously to (a) words that we have heard spoken, (b) words that we can identify the meanings of if we are given a multiple choice or recognition task, and (c) words that we can accurately use in speaking and/or writing. Our mental dictionaries (lexicons) may store a word at any of these levels.

If we have only heard a word, but don’t know its meaning, we still have an advantage when we first encounter the word in print, because we have a pronunciation in memory to which we can attach the letters. This aspect of word memory is called the phonological lexicon, and it is enriched every time we listen to people speaking who use words that are new to us. Younger people who cannot yet read words themselves enrich their phonological lexicons by hearing well-written children’s books read aloud or listening to adults—such as their teachers—use unusual words.

If we recognize a word’s meaning on a multiple-choice test, or get the gist from encountering the word in context, we have stored single meanings or partial meanings in our mental dictionaries (semantic lexicons). We may not know a word well enough to use it ourselves, but it is part of our receptive vocabularies. In most people, receptive or recognition vocabularies are much larger than expressive vocabularies.

Words in our expressive vocabulary are (ideally) ones that we know a lot about and can use selectively to convey precise meanings when we speak or write. Knowing a word well means knowing its synonyms, antonyms, connotations, multiple meanings and uses, appropriate contexts, and structure. The well-known word is stored in our minds in relation to knowledge of conceptual content. Thus, we tend to know and use words in relation to other words and ideas that we have already learned.

So, how do kids learn the 50,000–60,000 words that an average adult should know in order to comprehend language at a college level? Much attention has been paid to the influence of parental language on language development of toddlers, before age 3, and rightly so. But is all lost if those early experiences did not stimulate vocabulary growth as expected?

Listening to the Language of the Classroom

classdiscussion-300pxEnter Associate Professor Nonie Lesaux and her team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A specialist in the education of English learners and students with language deficits, Lesaux argues that the language of the classroom—not just the language of the text that students read—is a critical variable in how much and how fast students grow their own mastery of word meanings. Unfortunately, observational studies suggest that teachers, unless coached, are not likely to spend the requisite time teaching academic vocabulary explicitly, in depth, and with the amount of modeling and practice necessary to establish words in students’ expressive vocabularies. Many teachers in the lower grades understand that reading aloud is important, but familiarizing students with the spoken form of words is only part of what needs to be done to foster in-depth word learning.

On the positive side, according to Lesaux, teachers’ routine use of academic vocabulary in their classroom talk—words that are precise, less common, but content-related—is directly related to middle school students’ vocabulary growth. Students who hear teachers using sophisticated terms during classroom instruction are much more likely to learn them and use them.

While the evidence obtained from Lesaux that a teacher’s speaking vocabulary directly affects students’ language learning is not really surprising, too little attention is paid to this fact in teacher selection, teacher training, and teacher evaluation. Is teacher language a taboo subject? It shouldn’t be if we are concerned about students’ academic growth. It is impossible for students to adopt language patterns and use words if they never hear them spoken at home—or at school.

Raising the Bar in Classroom Communication

There are several ways to elevate the level of teacher talk in our classrooms. One is to prioritize teacher candidates’ verbal abilities when they apply for entry into teacher licensing programs. Why would we ever admit a person into teaching whose vocabulary and verbal scores are below average for the college population?

Second, we can strive to improve the quality of classroom talk by equipping teachers with vocabulary instruction routines that extend through a whole unit of study. We do this in LANGUAGE!® Live. Every reading begins with deliberate introduction of selected words from the text. The introductory routine includes a student-friendly definition, examples of the word in context, and opportunities for students to judge their own familiarity with the word. Every lesson that follows provides multiple opportunities for students to refine their knowledge of the vocabulary and use it in speaking and writing.

Finally, we should emphasize the importance of teacher talk in professional development, as we do in LETRS®. Once they know how important it is to shower students with interesting words, teachers will become much more conscious of their own verbal behavior. Downstream, students’ reading comprehension, writing, and academic language mastery will improve.

Click the button below to watch a Leadership Webinar from Dr. Louisa Moats titled "Teaching Comprehension through Text-Driven Instruction." In this webinar, Dr. Moats explores how educators can identify challenging language in text that may keep students with limited language proficiency from becoming successful readers. Download is complimentary.

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About the Author
Dr. Louisa Moats
Author of LANGUAGE! Live®

Dr. Louisa Moats has been a teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation. Dr. Moats is the author of LANGUAGE! Live®, a blended reading intervention program for grades 5–12, and the lead author of LETRS® professional development and the textbook, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Dr. Moats is also co-author of Spellography, a structured language word study program. Dr. Moats’ awards include the prestigious Samuel T. and June L. Orton award from the International Dyslexia Association® for outstanding contributions to the field; the Eminent Researcher Award from Learning Disabilities Australia; and the Benita Blachman award from The Reading League.

Learn more about Dr. Louisa Moats