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Vocabulary - The Key to Unlocking Academic Success

Learning Differences


Written by: Leoné Kode

February, 14 2022

Words. What are they really? Some may define words as sounds or symbols arranged in patterns, with each unique pattern carrying meaning.  Others may define words as the basic building blocks for communication.  For wordsmiths, these uniquely strung-together sounds are an absolute delight, to be enjoyed and played with.  These lovers of words may agree with the Rwandan proverb that states, “There is nothing one goes to meet with more pleasure than the word.” Sadly, the same is not true for many of the students we work with.  For them, words are a confusing, terrifying obstacle course – decoding and making sense of them is a daily struggle.

Words are used to communicate and understand thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions.  We use words when we are trying to make sense of something we don’t understand.

Words have the power to be healing and soothing, or incredibly harmful and destructive.  Reading, speaking, and writing involve words.  Thinking cannot happen without language, and language consists of words; so there’s no getting away from the reality that words are an integral part of learning. Having a limited vocabulary limits our ability to do any of these things, limiting academic achievement as a consequence.

Research indicates that lexicon size and academic success are closely related (Weitzman & Greenberg, 2010), and that a preschooler’s vocabulary is a strong predictor of a child’s ability to learn to read (Rowe, 2012).  Hart and Risley (1995) studied the quantity and quality of parents’ communication with their young children, and found that by age 4, some children had been exposed to 50 million words, while others had only been exposed to 10 million words. The advantage of being exposed to 50 million words, as opposed to 10 million words, dramatically impacts spoken and written language, as well as reading.

Why are some children lagging behind in the area of vocabulary, and what can we do about it?

Lack of exposure to rich language can lead to children having limited lexicons.

Researchers agree that in trying to improve lexicon size with the aim to improve academic success, children should not merely be bombarded with millions of words.  It seems that although the quantity of words does play a significant role, so does the quality of the words.  Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to be exposed to fewer words at home, and have fewer opportunities to go on overseas holidays, holiday camps, and other enriching activities.  These students also have less access to books and reading materials than children who come from affluent homes (Gunning, 2019).

What can we do?

  • Regularly immerse the child in quality words in meaningful, interactive settings. Children who have language delays require more repetitions of new words in a variety of different situations than children who do not have language delays.  It takes children with language delays longer to confidently and correctly use new vocabulary.
  • Oral, written, and reading language practice need to be given sufficient time on a daily basis.
  • Children who are immersed in quality language from a young age have a distinct advantage. Parents set the stage for their children before they have even attended a single day at school, and it is therefore imperative that parents of young children be educated to play their part. They can do this by reciting nursery rhymes, playing word games like “I spy”, reading to their children, discussing current events, talking about schedules, planning holidays, writing shopping lists, playing board games, limiting screen-time, and designing birthday cards for family members.
  • Make sure that books, magazines, and newspapers are readily available at home and in the classroom.
  • Model the “self talk” that is necessary when trying to solve a problem, and encourage students to do the same. For example, you could say, “I forgot to do my homework for my History lesson. I can ask the teacher to give me an extension or I can stay in during break time and do my homework then. I wonder which will be the best solution to my problem.”
  • Expose children to a variety of rich experiences.
  • Communicate succinctly, using rich vocabulary.

Some children lack the cognitive flexibility that is needed to understand multiple-meaning words and abstract concepts.

Imagine for a moment how confusing it is for a student who lacks this cognitive flexibility when a Math teacher discusses the square root of a number.  The child probably knows that a square is a four-sided shape, with all sides equal in length, and all angles 90°.  The child also knows that roots are the underground parts of plants. Unfortunately, knowing what roots and squares are will not help the student understand what is meant by the square root of a number.  “Because words are used to label concepts and experiences, gaps in vocabulary suggest gaps in concepts and background knowledge” (Gunning, 2019).

What can we do?

  • Some children require multiple, explicit, practical exposures to various meanings of words, and should be encouraged to apply their new knowledge.  This is particularly true when vocabulary relating to abstract concepts is involved.  Abstract concepts like perimeter, pollution, and prejudice require many interactions involving specific vocabulary before they can be fully understood.  Being able to recite the definitions of complex and abstract concepts does not guarantee understanding of the concepts; and when there is a lack of understanding, learning is stunted.  Each subject at school has its own set of concepts and vocabulary that has to be mastered, and these should be introduced to the children in authentic learning situations.
  • The use of Thesauruses and Dictionaries should be encouraged, although these cannot take the place of real, interactive engagement with the meanings of words and concepts.
  • Complete multiple-meaning word webs in pairs.
  • Explore word morphology to improve comprehension of words within word "families."

Phonological Difficulties

Some children have perceptual difficulties, and cannot differentiate individual sounds in words, and individual words in sentences.  They do not always have a good grasp of sound-symbol relationships, making the reading and writing of words very challenging.

What can we do?

  • Explicit and intentional teaching of the alphabetic principle using moveable alphabet letters.
  • Reading books that contain rhythm and rhyme.
  • Read and recite nursery rhymes, poems, and limericks.  Include a variety of texts that are interesting, funny, and entertaining. Novelty encourages active engagement.
  • Include multisensory and multimodal methods of instruction.
  • Enunciate clearly.

Difficulties with Figurative Language

Consider the following examples: “It’s raining cats and dogs.” “His shadow was a giant in the late afternoon sun.”  “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse!” Some children, particularly ELLs, struggle to understand figurative language. True meaning can literally be “lost in translation.” The same is true for children who are very literal thinkers - they find it very difficult to “read between the lines.” Children diagnosed with autism generally have significant difficulties understanding figurative language.

What can we do?

  • Examples need to be explicitly taught, and numerous opportunities for practice need to be provided.
  • Students can illustrate the literal and figurative meanings of sayings like, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” This fun activity can be done in small groups, giving students the opportunity to work collaboratively with their classmates.
  • Read and discuss proverbs.
  • Have fun writing humorous metaphors, similes, and hyperboles.
  • Read and write poetry and lyrics for songs.
  • Use semantic webs.

Word Retrieval Difficulties

Some children have reasonably-sized lexicons, but find it difficult to retrieve the words they need when trying to express themselves orally or in written form.

What can we do?

  • Teach vocabulary in context and give numerous real-life opportunities for application and practice. It is important for children to hear, speak, write, and read the words in meaningful learning situations. Active, meaningful repetition aids retrieval.
  • A word wall in a classroom can contain new vocabulary words that have been acquired, and will allow the child who struggles to remember the word to find it on the word wall.
  • Word family graphic organizers that look at morphology can be useful tools for students to refer to, e.g. time, timely, timeless, and untimely.
  • Personal dictionaries. Each child can create his or her own dictionary, and include new words encountered and mastered.  They can write the word, use it in a sentence, and even illustrate the word – this will help them to access words they may have difficulty remembering.

The Fear Factor

When children experience situations where their opinions and thoughts are not valued, they become reticent to share their opinions and thoughts. Children who have been victims of verbal bullying have experienced first-hand how harmful words can be, and may tend to become quiet and withdrawn.  Sadly, there are children in classrooms who are afraid to ask a question for fear of being labeled “stupid”. The result of each of these is that the children become passive observers rather than active participants in learning situations. For them, words are no longer a tool to be used for learning; but instead, an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

What can we do?

  • Create learning environments that are respectful of everyone’s views.
  • Encourage and teach children to ask questions.
  • Incorporate collaborative learning that allows everyone to speak and listen.
  • Have some fun!  Children can write a rap song to remember the formula for calculating the area of a circle, they can act out one of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, they can write limericks about historical figures, draw cartoons showing the invention of the telephone, or design games to use to practice parts of speech.

A Fixed Mindset

Some children have developed a fixed mindset. They fear change, and prefer to stick with what they know and what feels safe, even if it’s limiting.  They believe they cannot change, cannot do better, and cannot progress from frustration to victory.  Many refuse to set goals or to take ownership of their own learning.

What can we do?

  • Develop a growth mindset by expressing your belief in them as learners.
  • Give constructive feedback that is specific and positive.
  • Ignite curiosity for learning using any and every tool you have at your disposal. Incorporate their interests, use humor and novelty, and play games.
  • Set the scene for a safe learning environment where everyone is heard and treated respectfully.
  • Focus on the process of learning rather than the end product.
  • Challenge your students enough to grab hold of their interest, but not so much as to cause them to give up without trying.

If we hope to improve academic performance, we need to develop robust vocabularies in our students.  The good news is that every situation, whether at home or at school, lends itself to being able to immerse children in rich, meaningful, interactive language when parents and teachers intentionally plan to do so. Parents need to be informed about the important role they can play, and parents who are willing but lack the skills can be trained to become more involved.  When teachers and parents collaborate in this way, the children will benefit immeasurably!

Leoné Kode
National Director - NILD South Africa


Gunning, T. G. (2019). Creating Literacy Instruction for all Students. Pearson Education Inc.: Boston.

Hart, B. M., and Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.

Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.