Thinking and Reading

Apr 14, 2022 | Effective Practice

The well-known statement, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” is attributed to the philosopher Wittgenstein. In anthropology, we studied the same idea as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: the proposition that language influences, and even limits, our perceptions of the world. For example, it’s thought that Inuit have 40 – 50 words for snow, while Scots Gaelic allegedly has 421; Irish is said to employ 32 words for field; and the Sami have over 1,000 words for reindeer. As the linguists in this article on naming of colours in different languages point out, ‘we label things that we want to talk about’.

When we turn to the internal world of thoughts and feelings, being able to name things precisely becomes even more important to communication. If, as it appears, language has a role in mediating thought, we cannot expect students to become good thinkers without proficiency in language. In other words, how do you know you have a thought if you don’t know how to put it into words? And if you acquire more words, does this enable you to think more precise thoughts?

I sometimes reflect on a class I taught, consisting of ‘borderline’ Year 10 students who were preparing for their GCSEs. They had to write a practice exam response on tone in poetry. When I marked their papers, I found that they literally had only four words to describe tone – sad, happy, angry and upset. We spent three lessons analysing tone in poems focusing on the vocabulary needed to describe the tone concisely. We added words like cynical, sardonic, pessimistic, bitter, optimistic, wistful, yearning, nostalgic, and elegiac. Their results, as one might expect, improved dramatically in the next practice round. I think that I learned more than my students from this experience, specifically about the importance of vocabulary, and the role of language in mediating thought.

Why does this matter? Because if students do not have a sophisticated vocabulary, it is much more difficult for them to have sophisticated thoughts. For example, is it possible for a student to respond to an exam question about Hamlet’s tendency to histrionics if they do not understand the word histrionics? Of course not. But assuming that the question is written in a more student-friendly way, and the student understands a reference to Hamlet’s ‘self-dramatisation’, can they then write about the nuances of Hamlet’s character – his ambition, his sense of destiny, his disillusionment, his sense of duty, his moral perfectionism, his self-criticism and even self-loathing – with words like sad, angry, happy and upset? Perhaps, but without the power of the nuanced and precise response of a student with a more sophisticated vocabulary.

I think that most teachers understand that we need to teach vocabulary in secondary school. But conversations with middle leaders and classroom teachers in many schools suggest that most teachers are less familiar with two key issues: the amount of vocabulary that students need to learn, and secondly, how students can acquire and remember that vocabulary.

How many words do students need to learn? Most students arriving at secondary school have a working vocabulary of around 6,000 to 8,000 word-families (Treffers-Dellar and Milton, 2013). By the time they leave secondary school for higher education or training, they need a working vocabulary of 15 – 20,000 word-families (or 50,000 individual words, depending on how you count). That’s a gain of about 10,000 word-families over five years, or roughly 2,000 words per year. Some of these will be technical, subject-specific ‘Tier 3’ words, while others will be more adaptable, academic and formal ‘Tier 2’ terms (Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2013).

We can teach some of these words in the classroom. Specifically, Tier 3 words for a given curriculum will tend to be incorporated into most schemes of work, although not necessarily in ways that will increase the probability of students recalling them accurately. When it comes to Tier 2 words, there are two particular challenges of which we need to be aware . First, there are a lot to choose from, so how do you select which ones to teach as part of your lessons? Even core subjects will normally have a maximum of 140 hours of class time per year. Which words should we teach in that time? Teaching 2000 words at one minute per word would require 33 hours and 20 minutes, shaving off about a quarter of the curriculum time available. A realistic target is up to five words per lesson, allowing the teacher to ensure that 700 essential words are taught explicitly, using up about 8% of curriculum time. The payoff is that students will access the curriculum more successfully if they have a more sophisticated vocabulary). So, schools need to have mechanisms for working out which words are the most beneficial to teach in each curriculum area, and a procedure for doing so quickly and efficiently.

Secondly, students are unlikely to encounter many of these Tier 2 words if they don’t read. Cunningham and Stanovich (2001) point out that the kinds of words that students need to learn – the ones that they will not encounter in normal daily conversation – are 20 to 100 times more likely to occur in print than in speech.

This is why we need all our students to be able to read well, and to read a lot, so that they encounter thousands of new words which they can integrate into their vocabularies. To read widely and efficiently, they need to be both accurate and fluent. Given that even children who read accurately often have vocabulary deficits, and that about 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading well behind, schools need to have a co-ordinated strategy for:

  • effective classroom vocabulary instruction;
  • a rich diet of subject-related reading;
  • a wide variety of personal reading; and
  • effective intervention for those with decoding or comprehension difficulties.

It’s necessary to tackle all of these together in order to ensure effective literacy provision for all students. We label what we need to talk about, and if we don’t have a label for something, it’s hard to talk about. It’s even harder if we can’t read fluently enough to encounter new words; and it’s harder still if we can’t read accurately enough to recognise the words on the page.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the most serious learning needs require the highest levels of pedagogical skill. Investing in staff time to think about the links between curriculum and vocabulary, and in intervention training to help staff transform the life chances of struggling readers, are essential. Given that reading, and by extension vocabulary, unlock so much word-wealth for students, the returns are well worth the initial investment.

Unless effective classroom strategies work in concert with effective reading intervention, some students will experience our efforts as no more than a re-arrangement of the deck chairs while the ship goes down.


Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. London: Guilford Press.

Treffers-­Daller, J. and Milton, J. (2013) Vocabulary size revisited: the link between vocabulary size and academic achievement. Applied Linguistics Review, 4 (1). pp. 151­172. ISSN 1868­6311 doi:­2013­0007 Available at

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The Bridge Over the Reading Gap Revisited (Part 2): Classroom Support

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From Novice to Expert: 7 signs your school is dealing with reading effectively

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