Blog: Why vocabulary is the backbone of all learning (Part 2)

Beth Southern, founder of EAL Hub

I set up EAL Hub to provide high quality literacy boosting resources when it was difficult for me to signpost those individuals who were asking for support tools, to the right resources.

We are passionate about helping pupils to continue learning in the mainstream classroom as much as possible and at the same time providing versatile and holistic EAL support for teachers in need of training.  Through the collaboration with Alliance for Learning ( we’ll be able to support a vast number of schools, delivering best practice learning across the North West with hundreds of resources available to boost vocabulary and to help pupils to access the curriculum more confidently.

Vocabulary is the backbone of all learning

By the age of three, there is a 30-million-word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. This gap is calculated by looking at the number of words that children from different socio-economic groups hear each hour and multiplying it over a set period. A study by Fernald et. al. (2013),1 highlights that the gap is evident even in toddlers as young as 18 months.  Vocabulary affects everything from speech and language to reading, writing and comprehension – essentially the backbone of all learning.

The wider the vocabulary a child has, the easier they will find writing and comprehension. It is not enough to assume that children will know and understand words.  If they don’t have many conversations, or access to books at home, then it is quite likely that they won’t understand words that you or I would consider to be ‘common’.

Vocabulary broken down

In 2002 Isabelle Beck and colleagues developed the idea of tiered words and concluded that vocabulary can be divided into three tiers:2

Tier 1 – Everyday high frequency oral language (e.g. baby, quickly, drive, unkind)

Tier 2 – High frequency words in written texts (e.g. analyse, significant, required)

Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (e.g. osmosis, photosynthesis, onomatopoeia)

In general, EAL children will pick up Tier 1 words through general conversation and the immersive nature of being in an English-speaking country. Tier 3 words must be explicitly taught to all learners as specific topic-based language which is exclusive to that area

Tier 2 words are general academic words that feature across almost all subjects. These are the words often found in textbooks and tests and are essentially the glue that holds academic text together. Where there is a lack of understanding of these words, meaning can be misinterpreted or completely lost.  Clear teaching of Tier 2 words will build a confident learner and improve comprehension skills enormously.

When working with EAL pupils, here are my top tips to keep in mind:

  • The silent phase is a normal stage of early development. Despite not communicating in English the learner will still be absorbing new language – keep teaching vocabulary and conversing as much as possible. Use videos and picture books to immerse learners in language, use repetition to work on pronouncing the new sounds.
  • The language/culture needs of multi-lingual children can be vastly different. Activating prior knowledge is key because you don’t know what building blocks they will already have, whether there are language barriers or whether the child is connecting their previous experience with the current lesson. Using image activities, real objects or flashcards can help hook them in and make the connections real.
  • Group EAL learners in mid/top sets or top groups to ensure they are scaffolded by able peers, appropriately stretched academically and listening to good role models of English.
  • Use Knowledge of Language (KAL)3 to try and empathise with the different languages in your class. Word order in English may be completely different to that of the first language of your EAL children. New words may be physically hard to pronounce. Use activities to look at the root of words, e.g. hyper is a Greek/Latin word meaning ‘too much or excessive’, with this understanding the words hyperactive, hypercritical and hypersensitive become more easily understood and processed. Continue to build meaning through synonyms, antonyms, word families and word games.
  • Rehearse academic language in appropriate contexts and allow children lots of opportunities for speaking and listening prior to writing. This will enable ideas to consolidate and become ordered in a learner’s mind before they need to write them down.
  • Introduce Wait Time to your lessons. In an average classroom, this can be as little as one-second from asking the question. This is not enough time for some EAL learners to process language within the question, think of the answer and be able to offer it. One-minute partner talks are helpful because the question can be asked and the children can whisper their ideas with a partner before being asked for an answer. It builds confidence and enables more EAL children the opportunity to contribute.


1 Fernald A, Marchman VA, Weisleder A. SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science. 2013;16:234–248, PMC free article, PubMed

2 Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, New York, NY: Guilford Press.

3 Deutscher, G. (2005) The Unfolding of Language. New Hampshire, William Heinemann


Alliance for Learning
Cavendish Road, Bowdon
Altrincham WA14 2NL
Proud to part of the Bright Futures Education Trust