Assessing Vocabulary (Part 1)

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For this area of vocabulary development, I will be drawing upon the books that I’ve read (namely Bringing Words to Life and Word Aware), as well as the conversations I’ve had with other propagates of direct vocabulary instruction such as @29orry (more about her work further down).

My initial thoughts, and they still remain, is that new vocabulary should be assessed in some way. If it’s not, how do we know that children’s vocabularies are expanding? Even if it’s noticing a difference in the words a child is using in their speech or writing, you’re still making some sort of assessment based on what you know about that child.

Beck et al (2013) note that ‘assessment should not be thought of as closing a door on learning a word. Students need to continue their interactions with words across a term or school year.’ The consistent message that I’m hearing throughout my own reading and research is that kids need to be repeatedly exposed to words in order to create and elaborate on their schemas of words.

A major issue here is the around the question ‘What does it mean to know a word?’ Does a child ‘know’ a word if they can give a synonym? If they can put it in a sentence? Give its definition? These different ideas about what it is to ‘know’ a word mean that kids would succeed on some assessments, but not on others.

I’m much more interested in assessing the deeper learning of a word, which, to me, means that a child can use the word in multiple contexts, be able to compare against synonyms and other learned words, and give a good definition. Beck et al (2013) suggest some ways of tapping this deeper knowledge.

Ask students to give examples such as:

  • Describe how someone acts that shows being diligent.
  • Tell me about a time that you were perplexed.
  • Describe some things that could make a person feel miserable.

Ask students to describe what is the same and/or different for pairs of words that are semantically similar.

berate/retort                                                        acquaintance/ally

exotic/unique                                                      extraordinary/peculiar

My favourite suggestion from this chapter of Bringing Words to Life is giving students a “context interpretation” task. To succeed at this, the children need to ‘apply the word’s meaning to understand the context of its use. In responding to the contexts in the task, students need to use the knowledge of the words to draw an inference in order to make sense of the context.’ Have a go yourself:

  • When Sam and I arrived at Alvin’s front door, I had to urge Sam to knock on the door. How do you think Sam felt about going to Alvin’s house?
  • Mary thought that Jim was ridiculing her when he said that the cake she made looked beautiful. How do you think Mary thought her cake looked?
  • Rhonda sent out wedding invitations to all the family, including Uncle Charles, who was a hermit. What do you think Uncle Charles’s answer was to the invitation?

from Bringing Words to Life (2013)

What’s Gill Evans (@29orry) doing at her school?

I’ve been talking to Gill quite a bit recently. She’s a headteacher of a primary school, and has started to introduce a daily session where words are explicitly taught. Over a five-week period, this guarantees that twenty-five words are being taught explicitly; a number certainly not to be sniffed at. How is her school going to assess the impact? With these:

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Children are given a list of the twenty-five words that they will be taught explicitly during the next five weeks, and fill in the grid the best they can. Teachers add up the score. After the five-week period is over, the children do the same grid again, and (hopefully!) the scores will’ve gone up. I’ve seen the materials and planning that Gill has prepared for her school, and it’s wonderful. I’m really looking forward to hearing about how it goes, and sharing more ideas!

You can expect part two of this blog to arrive nearer Christmas ’17. This will allow me to explain how assessment has taken place over the first term, and hopefully share what’s really working.

2 thoughts on “Assessing Vocabulary (Part 1)

  1. Really like the idea of explicit teaching-have you ever looked into the Robust Vocabulary program?

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