I want to give them that starting point so they can compete with anybody. So, just because they’ve come off the Seacroft estate doesn’t mean they can’t go for a job interview and use the required vocabulary to get them that job.
Vocabulary knowledge is a key issue in education: Studies show that 43% of Year 7 students arrive at secondary school with a poor vocabulary that limits their learning.
Researchers have also found that children from lower-income families speak up to four times fewer new words per day than their wealthier peers and that there are dramatic differences in the number of words children in different socioeconomic groups understand. One study in a secondary school in a disadvantaged area of Sheffield found that 83% of students had poor language. But the situation was much different in a school based in an affluent area nearby.
The pandemic has only served to widen this “word gap”.
It was in 2020, during the first lockdown, that teacher Lucy Huelin conceived the idea of Vocabulous as a way of tackling this problem.
While creating her own online-teaching materials, Lucy began to envisage a fun and engaging online resource, for 10-13-year-olds, that would bring some of the benefits of learning Latin and Ancient Greek to all students, not just those in schools where classical subjects are offered.
After successfully applying to Let Teachers SHINE for a grant of £25,000, Lucy was able to begin developing her site.
She originally planned to work with 10 local schools in 2022–23 but after Lucy received almost 100 expressions of interest from schools across the country in its first month, SHINE awarded Vocabulous additional funding so that the trial could be expanded to 50 schools.
The thinking behind Vocabulous is that Latin and Ancient Greek make up the foundations of around 60% of English vocabulary, and in some fields, such as science and technology, this figure is closer to 90%.
The 26 roots that make up the Vocabulous programme give rise to almost 1,000 English words. By learning these specially chosen roots, students will have access to many new words in English, and particularly to many words that typically appear in secondary school textbooks and exam questions.
“Having a good knowledge of vocabulary is key for every child, no matter what their background is, because if students don’t have a good vocabulary, then they are less able to access their lessons.
For example, from the root ‘scrip’ meaning ‘write’, Vocabulous explicitly teaches ‘description’, but then expects that students can use their knowledge of the root and this one derivative to work out the meaning of other, related words, such as ‘describes’, ‘describable’ or ‘nondescript’.
Lucy said: “Having a good knowledge of vocabulary is key for every child, no matter what their background is, because if students don’t have a good vocabulary, then they are less able to access their lessons.
“Secondary school students are exposed to 3,000 to 5,000 new words each year. Children moving from primary to secondary are being exposed to all this new vocabulary and they need these skills to be able to decode the words that they don’t know. That’s what Vocabulous tries to do.”
Vocabulous combines videos, animation, gamification, original music, and bright graphics to ensure students have fun while their vocabulary develops. Lucy herself provides a voiceover, showing the correct pronunciation of words, and their meanings.
One of the schools taking part in the pilot is Parklands Primary, in Leeds, where 59% of pupils live in an area that is among the 3% most deprived in England.
Sam Rennison, a Year 6 teacher at Parklands, said of Vocabulous: “I just think it’s been an amazing tool and really opened their eyes to the wider world, the wider vocabulary. It’s introduced them to a whole new range of parts of words that they haven’t come across before.
“The children are just so engaged. They ask to do Vocabulous. It’s pitched at their level, with the Greek gods and goddesses, which makes it a bit more interesting.
“It’s amazing really because they’re actually trying to use these words in their writing. Especially for our children who don’t have that great vocabulary, it’s building it up ready for high school.
“I want to give them that starting point so they can compete with anybody. So, just because they’ve come off the Seacroft estate doesn’t mean they can’t go for a job interview and use the required vocabulary to get them that job.”
During the SHINE-funded pilot, Vocabulous has been used in 50 schools with students aged 10–13. In the first 6 months of its trial, over 200,000 quizzes were completed on the site and over 2 million questions were answered.
Of the 50 pilot schools, 12 have been participating in a research project conducted by a research trial led by Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Christ Church, Oxford. The schools involved are using the website for the academic year and completing pre- and post-trial assessments to analyse the change in pupils’ progress. The research team is also visiting participating schools to talk to students and staff about their experience of using the site.
The project will evaluate the impact that Vocabulous has on students’ vocabulary knowledge, skills, and confidence during the transition from primary to secondary school. The findings will be published later this year.
From September 2023, Vocabulous became available for school subscriptions, which give schools access to the site for a year. Primary and secondary schools can visit the Vocabulous website to find out how the resource can enhance vocabulary teaching in Years 5-9.
For more details, see www.vocabulous.co.uk.