Supporting students to use academic and subject specific vocabulary when they speak has the potential to help them to make significant progress. There is strong evidence about the interdependent relationship between talking, thinking and writing. A student’s spoken language is related to the level at which they can think and process new ideas and concepts. Furthermore, a student’s spoken language contributes to their ability to write about it. Simply put, if you can say it you can write it. Conversely, if you can’t think in academic language this can create a challenge when writing. Therefore, paying attention to how we provide opportunities for talk, and for students to use academic and subject specific language, can lead to learning gains in terms of thinking and writing.
From a social justice perspective, improving a students’ vocabulary will go some way to address the wide disparity of vocabulary students possess when starting school. Without specific attention, this vocabulary gap is commonly found to widen, described as the Matthew Effect. Students with a broad vocabulary are likely to be more confident and happy to talk and read, both of which can expand their vocabulary further, even exponentially, over their time in school. Whereas those students coming to school with a limited vocabulary may be more likely to struggle in conversations, or in formal talking environments, as well as in reading. They may begin to avoid taking part, not only limiting their vocabulary growth, but potentially even reducing it.
Helping students to talk like experts is challenging but can be helped by the following ideas. Teachers play a role in modelling the use of academic and subject specific vocabulary and repetition of key words can help. Furthermore a teachers’ explanation of new words, their meaning in relation to related concepts and their use in other contexts is helpful. More effective is to create opportunities for students to use new language for themselves. Using speaking stems or other devices can help students to structure their spoken language, turning their unformed ideas into a more academic style. As with other aspects of learning, practise is key. Apparently, we need to encounter a word ten times before we are likely to reproduce it naturally in our speech or writing.