Adolescents' understanding and use of academic vocabulary: assessment and intervention

There is some evidence that vocabulary intervention is effective for children. However, very little is known about the effectiveness of interventions to increase adolescent knowledge of cross-curriculum words.

  • Thu 26 Oct 17

    12:00 - 14:00

  • Colchester Campus


  • Event speaker

    Dr Sarah Spencer, University of Sheffield

  • Event type

    Lectures, talks and seminars

  • Event organiser

    Language and Linguistics, Department of

  • Contact details

    Victoria Mead

Indeed, much less is known about adolescent language in general when compared to development occurring during early childhood.

The aims of the talk are to:

  • discuss the challenges of measuring and increasing adolescent word knowledge
  • argue for the importance of adolescent vocabulary for educational outcomes
  • present an intervention programme designed to develop adolescents’ knowledge of cross-curriculum words.

The presentation will include reference to data from two projects (Spencer et al. 2017a, Spencer et al. 2017b). The first examined associations between language assessment measures and GCSE outcomes for 150 adolescents. The second delivered and evaluated a new intervention programme to boost the vocabulary skills of adolescents.

The intervention was rolled out to 35 adolescents aged between 12 and 14 years who were at risk of educational underachievement with low scores on a range of assessments. Participants received a 10-week intervention programme in small groups, targeting 10 cross-curriculum words (e.g., ‘summarize’). This was evaluated using a bespoke outcome measure - the Word Knowledge Profile.

Implications of the projects will be discussed, and I will argue that:

  • vocabulary knowledge is central to accessing the curriculum and gaining good educational outcomes during adolescence
  • functionally important cross-curriculum words are not consistently understood by adolescents at risk of low educational attainment
  • assessing knowledge of these words and boosting their comprehension and use is challenging
  • this can be done with an appropriate investment of time and application of evidence-based word learning strategies. 


  • Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Stackhouse, J., & Rush, R. (2017a). Contribution of spoken language and socio‐economic background to adolescents’ educational achievement at age 16 years. International journal of language & communication disorders, 52(2), 184-196.
  • Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Lowe, H., & Stackhouse, J. (2017b). Increasing adolescents' depth of understanding of cross‐curriculum words: an intervention study. International journal of language & communication disorders, 52(5), 652-668. 


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