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Narrative Research

We worked with some of the world’s leading literacy experts to develop the Narrative Journey. Here’s what we know:

1. Vocabulary knowledge boosts achievement across the curriculum

  • Years of research have pointed to the importance of vocabulary to learning, knowledge, and academic achievement. In fact, some educational psychologists have identified vocabulary as the single greatest indicator of overall intelligence.

    Stahl, S. (1999) Vocabulary Development. Newton Upper Falls: Brookline Books.
  • The key reason behind vocabulary’s influence on overall learning is what some literacy experts call the “instrumentalist hypothesis” - very simply, greater word knowledge allows readers to understand more texts. Indeed, a number of studies have proven a direct link between a child’s vocabulary and their reading comprehension.

    Anderson, R.C. and Freebody, P. (1981) Vocabulary knowledge. In J.T. Guthrie (Ed.) Comprehension and teaching: Research reviews, pp. 77-117. Stahl, S. and Fairbanks, M. (1986) The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 56 (1), pp. 72-110.
  • Despite its importance, vocabulary instruction has often been overlooked in educational models. Experts agree that the two central pillars of literacy learning are phonics and vocabulary, yet many national curricula focus almost exclusively on phonics. Vocabulary has been described as ‘the missing link’ in reading and language instruction; phonics alone has a minimal impact on children’s reading comprehension.

    Biemiller, A. (2001) Teaching Vocabulary: Early, Direct, and Sequential. American Educator. 25 (1), pp. 24-28.

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2. Direct vocabulary instruction is more effective than reading

  • For children to meaningfully increase their knowledge of vocabulary, research shows that direct instruction is much more effective than unsupported reading. Studies have shown found that left to read alone, the average child will spontaneously ‘work out’ the meanings of just 15% of the unfamiliar words they encounter. Re-reading the same text, meanwhile, increases this to around 27%, while access to dictionary definitions still helps the average child learn just 37% of unknown vocabulary when reading.

    Biemiller, A. and Boote, C. (2006) An Effective Method for Building Meaning Vocabulary in Primary Grades. Journal of Educational Psychology. 98, pp. 44-62. Swanborn, M.S.L. and de Glopper, K. (1999) Incidental Word Learning while Reading: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. 69 (3), pp. 261-85.
  • For comprehensive vocabulary development, experts recommend a versatile approach that involves combining reading with the direct teaching of important individual words. In fact, research suggests that up to the age of ten, 80% of words children learn are acquired as a result of direct explanation, rather than just ‘figuring it out’ while reading.

    Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.

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3. Learning new vocabulary alongside its common word pairs accelerates acquisition and improves writing quality

  • Research has shown that children learn new vocabulary more quickly and effectively when they learn words alongside their commonest pairs. Word pairs (or ‘collocations’) are pairs or groups of words that occur regularly together in text or speech, and which you might say simply ‘sound right’ together.

    Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.
  • What’s more, research suggests that knowledge of word pairs increases the perceived quality of children’s writing. Texts containing many common word pairs feel fluent and natural, and demonstrate an overall awareness of and familiarity with the English language. In fact, studies show that children whose writing contains a high number of word pairs tend to receive higher grades in written examinations.

    McCulley, G. (1985) Writing Quality, Coherence, and Cohesion. Research in the Teaching of English. 35 (3), pp. 305-327.

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4. An early interest in language and literacy has profound long-term benefits

  • Studies have shown that children who develop an interest in reading and vocabulary when they’re young have a larger vocabulary when they reach adulthood. What’s more, children who read a lot from a young age are much more likely to enjoy reading as adults. And there’s even more good news: research also suggests that broad vocabulary knowledge and use in adulthood may even protect again general cognitive decline.

  • The same studies also suggested that it is not simply the case that ‘bright’ children read more. Children who get into the habit of reading more actually demonstrate faster cognitive progress than children of similar prior abilities. Furthermore, this progress is not linked solely to vocabulary - children who read more also make better progress in areas including mathematics.

    Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2015) Vocabulary from adolescence to middle-age Richards, M., Shipley, B. Fuhrer, R. and Wadsworth, M. (2004) Cognitive ability in childhood and cognitive decline in mid-life: longitudinal birth cohort study. British Medical Journal. 328 (7439), pp.552-554.

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5. Visual humour is a powerful educational tool

  • Research shows that visual media is an extremely effective learning aid, especially when it comes to vocabulary. Images were found to make studied content more memorable, as well as provide useful visual clues that instantly clarify meaning.

    Chambers, B., Cheung, C.K., Madden, N., Slavin, R. and Gifford, R. (2006) Achievement effects of embedded multimedia in a Success for All reading program. Journal of Educational Psychology. 98 (1) pp. 232-237. Manyak, P., et al. (2014) Four practical principles for enhancing vocabulary instruction. The Reading Teacher. 68 (1), pp. 13-23.
  • Humour, meanwhile, is also proven to have surprising educational benefits. Studies have frequently shown that humorous educational content is significantly more memorable than unfunny content. Humour makes learning fun and engaging, and is especially useful for capturing the attention of otherwise disinterested students.

    Banas, J., Dunbar, N., Rodriguez, D. and Liu, S. (2011) A Review of Humor in Educational Settings: Four Decades of Research. Communication Education. 60 (1), pp. 115-144.
  • Another reason for humour’s didactic value is purely chemical. Laughter causes the brain to release dopamine, the pleasure chemical that is proven by research to increase both motivation and long-term memory.

    Wise, R. (2004) Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 5, pp. 483-494.

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