Vocabulary and struggling readers

Odds are extremely high that in a typical class of 25 students there will be a few with vocabulary difficulties. For some, this will be due to environmental factors. There is a strong link between a child’s level of socio-educational advantage and their spoken and written language abilities (Babayiğit et al., 2021; Jerrim et al., 2015; Snowling & Hulme, 2021).

Students who speak English as an Additional Language or Dialect may have smaller English vocabularies than their peers when they begin school.

For others, vocabulary difficulties will be associated with a disability such as Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder.


Vocabulary difficulties may also stem from broader spoken language difficulties, which are not otherwise attributable to a student’s background or diagnosed disability.

A surprisingly high percentage of students – around 7.6%, or two in every class – meet the criteria for Developmental Language Disorder (DLD; Norbury et al., 2016).

Prof Courtney Norbury on stability and change in DLD

Regardless of the reason for their language difficulties, all these students will benefit from adjustments and additional support.

Support in the classroom

Explicit vocabulary instruction will be beneficial for students with language difficulties, though they made need more exposures to the word across a variety of contexts. Students with language difficulties may also benefit from exposure to vocabulary targets before they are encountered in the context of a storybook or lesson (Nelson, 2010; Paul & Norbury, 2012). This pre-instruction or additional instruction can be provided in a small group.


Following the Response to Intervention model, a high-quality Tier 2 oral language intervention program typically addresses vocabulary in a more scaffolded way, and may also work on story comprehension and narrative skills (Clarke et al., 2010; Fricke et al., 2017; Lee & Pring, 2016; West et al., 2021).

Following assessment and observation, if children’s difficulties appear particularly pronounced, or if they do not respond to Tier 2 instruction, teachers may decide to recommend referral to a speech pathologist. Speech pathologists will be able to administer more thorough diagnostic assessments and thereafter deliver targeted Tier 3 intervention to accompany any support that is provided by schools. The younger the student is when this intervention is delivered, the better. Hence, as a general rule, teachers should screen and refer as early as possible.


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