The Rich Get Richer

Lindsay Pickton Christine Chen

Language is acquired through imitation. It’s kind-of obvious, but it bears thinking about: different children have different levels of vocabulary (and, indeed, different capabilities with putting that vocabulary together, AKA grammar) because of the language they have been immersed in over the length of their lives thus far. So what are we giving them to imitate?

The source of vocabulary

Most vocabulary is acquired through oral language, and this, of course, is why teachers in all the schools we support worry about those parents/carers who focus on their smart-phones over their offspring. However, advanced vocabulary, challenging or ‘rare’ words are acquired through reading, for the simple reason that writing employs a far greater number of these words than we do in our speech. Even books aimed at 7 or 8 year-olds use some words that educated adults would seldom think to employ orally. For example, Roald Dahl refers to a hole-digging machine as a “mechanical contrivance” in The BFG; as adults, we know what this means, but we’d be very unlikely to use this kind of terminology in conversation.

A vicious circle

There is a problem in all of this: advanced vocabulary is acquired through reading…but poor vocabulary is one of the main barriers to effective independent reading. We can infer meanings of unfamiliar words from context if – and only if – we have understood enough of the other words. Where this is not the case, we have the perfect definition of a vicious circle: children (and adults) with limited vocabulary cannot understand enough of a challenging (for them) text to allow them to expand their vocabulary.

Of course, the opposite is true for those with strong vocabularies: they can read and understand enough that they can infer and acquire more vocabulary, which leads them to read more challenging texts that contain even more unfamiliar words…and so on. We see these children pulling away from their trapped peers: they become real readers early and in so many ways end up teaching themselves advanced vocabulary (and how to stick it together in a vast and growing range of sentence structures). How did these children get to that initial tipping-point of vocabulary in the first place? We can’t say for certain for each individual, but we are willing to bet that overall, this group have experienced more ‘being read-to’, from an early age and onwards. When we read to children, we read writing, and this will include vocabulary that they wouldn’t otherwise encounter – even if their parents didn’t own mobile phones!

Breaking the circle

For the former group, reading is still the answer; it has to be, because that’s where they’ll encounter the vocabulary in context. The issue is that independent reading is unlikely to get them there alone. Whether 1-1 or guided group, children in this bracket need to be coached towards working out the meanings of new vocabulary by starting from their existing comprehension. They need to be taught to expect to understand what they read; far too often, we encounter children for whom this is not a given: being able to successfully decode is the end of the process, as far as they are concerned.

More than word-reading

It is imperative that we do not confuse good word-recognition and decoding with good reading, because, though these skills will show good word-reading, they will not in themselves lead to vocabulary development, let alone comprehension. Let alone genuine independent reading. More often than we might think, the focus of reading support needs to be the acquisition of vocabulary from context – again, not to be confused with the ability to read the words accurately. A child who can do the latter is very unlikely to curl up alone with a great book; they can read the words aloud, but they don’t get what’s going on, so why would they read to themselves?


These children also need to be read-to, of course; as much as possible. Increasingly, we are hearing of targeted “interventions” that are heavily weighted towards additional story-time. And where, as is often the case, parents find themselves unable to read to children at home, let’s do everything possible to get listening to wonderful stories as audio books set as a regular homework!

Graphic texts

Finally – and particularly dear to our hearts – we want to mention the power of graphic texts; comics and the like. Simple versions, like The Beano, have proved useful in getting reluctant readers reading, but such texts rarely contain language that isn’t speech-like. There are more advanced graphic novels; even some superhero comics have extremely complex storylines and employ more challenging vocabulary, and the understanding is scaffolded naturally by the lavish illustrations, even for – particularly for – the independent, individual reader. The Project X Graphic Texts do this perfectly. It was various examples of this sort of material that turned us both into readers and led a girl with EAL and a ‘remedial reader’ boy, eventually, to English literature degrees and a fascination with how children learn to read.

Lindsay Pickton is an experienced Teaching and Learning Advisor specialising in Primary Literacy. He leads inspiring and practical training for all aspects of English teaching, from guided reading to drama and reading for pleasure. Hear from Lindsay at a free event this term, focusing on how effective guided reading using Project X Origins can help you meet the higher standards of the new National Curriculum.

Christine Chen is an experienced Literacy Consultant and Learning and Teaching Advisor, specialising in quality first teaching, curriculum development and leadership coaching. She has held teaching and senior leadership posts. Christine has recently co-authored  Project X Teaching Handbooks for Years 3-4 and Years 5-6.