EEF Blog: When is a word not a word?

How children learn language and communication skills is fascinating -- and with important implications for classroom practitioners, writes EEF senior associate, Megan Dixon....

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass, 1872

What does it mean to be articulate? Impressive and persuasive speakers – take for example, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi – understood the power of words. They used them with care, thoughtfulness, and sophistication. The right words, used at the right time, in just the right way, can move mountains.

Communication and language are the foundations of learning and thinking. Words describe and define the limits of our understanding. The challenge for young children, as they are learning to speak, is that they must learn exactly what the words mean each time they are said; they need to understand the nuance the words have been chosen to convey. 

As Humpty Dumpty illustrates, we have to not only understand the words, but the precise meaning of the word as the speaker intended – these two are not always the same thing! 

A tree is made of wood, but a wood is also a collection of trees. A (dor)mouse is a small, furry creature who sleeps in the teapot at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but also a useful piece of computer equipment. 

Without the context, it is difficult to decide which meaning the speaker is intending.

How children learn language and communication skills is fascinating. As James Law and colleagues explain, the entire environment a child is immersed in contributes to their language development. Learning to communicate well requires a solid understanding of the meanings of words, in the context they are used in, and this demands new language is situated within socially meaningful, contextually rich, interactions.

The environment helps children learn not only how to say each word (the phonology), but how it fits within a grammatical skeleton (the syntactical structure), what it means (the semantics), and how it can be used appropriately (the pragmatics).

Children learn to communicate by having meaningful exchanges with others about something they are interested in.

A child’s ability to put words together may be a better predictor of later abilities, rather than the number of words they know (Law et al, 2017). Language is learnt from the serve and return of meaning and intention. Context, community and culture are the bedrock words are used within. A grammatical skeleton provides power and strength without which words are meaningless. Without the depth of understanding that enables a child to nestle their new vocabulary into their current knowledge, it will slip away.

For practitioners in the classroom, this has a clear implication – we must ensure that the words we focus on are derived from the context the children understand and are engaged with.

Using the wide, rich range of children’s literature available provides an easily accessible context through which to explore new vocabulary. We need to make sure we focus on words that travel, can be used in different situations, and could be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

It is easy to make assumptions about a child’s level of understanding of the words – often it is the unexpected words that are misunderstood. By asking children to identify words and phrases they are not sure about, we can ensure children become interested and tuned into words and what they mean.

So, it becomes a pointless activity to take words out of the context from which they are used and learn them isolated from any other reference or meaning except a dictionary definition or a simple sentence.

It is tempting to see vocabulary acquisition as pouring lists of the “right” words into children. There are many such lists available to teachers, but for every group of children the ‘Goldilocks’ words (not too hard, not too easy, just right) will be different, depending on their knowledge, experience, and skill.

Undoubtedly, there can be a benefit to explicitly learning words, but the evidence suggests this could be a more powerful tool if we use the process of exploring words to encourage children to become active consumers of language. Regular shared reading opportunities using texts that are rooted in the interests and build on the learning within the classroom help provide multiple opportunities to hear and use new vocabulary.

Discussions around a text, focusing on the children’s comprehension skills, can support them to become confident to decide for themselves what a word might mean, and whether they understand it or not. Using the texts and topics that capture the interest of children and modelling the process of learning about a word will pay dividends.

As Humpty Dumpty knows, words are slippery, they change meaning in different situations. It is not enough to simply tell children words. We cannot explicitly teach children all the words they might ever need to know. But we can help them learn how to learn about words and how to make the words they use mean many different things.