Why support teenagers to learn new words?

There are lots of reasons to support teenagers to learn new words in the classroom. For example, the impact on literacy, increasing learning in the classroom and catering for those who have difficulties learning new words.


We know that there are close associations between how well teenagers read and write and their vocabulary skills. Supporting teenagers’ vocabulary skills has potential implications for reading comprehension (e.g. Hirsch 2003).

Vocabulary knowledge is both a product of engaged reading and a central mechanism for facilitating reading comprehension. Furthermore, the process of learning new words during the teenage years often involves figuring out meaning based on prior knowledge of other words (e.g. working out the meaning of clinician based on knowledge of the word clinic). This process often happens while reading, because new words are often encountered while reading rather than in causal speech.  There is also more time for active reflection on words while reading, compared to the fast pace of speech. Because already acquired words form a basis for figuring out the meaning of new words, there is a risk that teenagers with limited vocabulary knowledge will fall further behind their peers (e.g. Nippold 2007).


The work of educationalists such as Robin Alexander show how spoken language (including vocabulary) is important for all learning. Teachers teach using language! It is therefore a means of transferring new information and knowledge.

Pupils of all ages are also learning the language of a topic in lessons. To become good at physics, geography, maths – any topic – is to become good at understanding and using the particular type of language associated with that topic (see Alexander 2006). Teaching new words effectively will therefore help with curriculum delivery and students’ learning.

Some teenagers will find learning new words difficult:

Supporting teenagers to learn new words will benefit all pupils in secondary schools. However, some teenagers may have difficulties with vocabulary knowledge and therefore benefit most. Teenagers with language learning difficulties (often labelled as speech, language and communication  needs) will be at risk here, as well as some teenagers with other needs such as more general learning difficulties, literacy difficulties, etc.  Some teenagers will have unknown difficulties with vocabulary skills which will not have been picked up by teachers, speech therapists or parents when they were younger.

For example, Spencer, Clegg and Stackhouse (2012) used standardised assessments to compare the language skills of 103 adolescents aged 13-14 years in a school in an area of social disadvantage in the UK to those of 48 adolescents in a non-disadvantaged context. Adolescents in the socially disadvantaged area had lower vocabulary assessment scores when compared to their more advantaged peers, with 31% scoring -2 Standard Deviations below the normative mean on two or more of the language tests. Other research with small UK cohorts suggests that some teenagers in socially disadvantaged contexts are at risk of increased language difficulties, including lower vocabulary knowledge (Clegg et al. 2009; Stringer 2006; Myers and Botting 2008), though in the USA Snow, Porche, Tabors and Harris (2007) reported that most of 57 children aged between 11-12 years from low-income households scored within the normal range on vocabulary assessments (with a mean percentile score of 44.35).

We need to know more about undetected language and vocabulary difficulties: These studies all used standardised receptive vocabulary assessments in their design, a limitation given that standardised vocabulary assessment is most open to item bias on testing due to vocabulary reflecting individual experiences, the language of the home and familiarity with school curricula (Stockman 2000). However, it seems sensible to support word learning for all teenagers given the links with literacy and learning for all – and this would ensure that those who find it difficult to learn new words would automatically get support too.



ALEXANDER, R. J., 2006, Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk. Cambridge: Dialogos.

CLEGG, J., STACKHOUSE, J., FINCH, K., MURPHY, C. and NICHOLLS, S., 2009, Language abilities of secondary age pupils at risk of school exclusion: A preliminary report.  Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 24, 99-115.

HIRSCH Jr, E. D., 2003, Reading comprehension requires knowledge—of words and the world. American Educator, 27, 10-13.

MYERS, L. and BOTTING, N., 2008, Literacy in the mainstream inner-city school: Its relationship to spoken language. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 24, 95-114.

NIPPOLD, M. A., 2007, Later language development: School-age children, adolescents, and young adults (3rd edition). Austin, Texas: Pro-ed.

SPENCER, S., CLEGG, J., and STACKHOUSE, J., 2012, Language and disadvantage: a comparison of the language abilities of adolescents from two different socioeconomic areas. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 47, 274-284.

SNOW, C. E., PORCHE, M. V., TABORS P. O., and HARRIS, S.R., 2007, Is literacy enough? Pathways to academic success for adolescents (Baltimore: Brookes Publishing Company).

STOCKMAN, I. J., 2000, The new Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-III: an illusion of unbiased assessment? Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 31, 340–53.

STRINGER, H., 2006, Facilitating narrative and social skills in secondary school students with language and behaviour difficulties. In J. Clegg and J. Ginsborg (Eds.) Language and Social Disadvantage (London: Wiley).