Developing Vocabulary to Support Writing: A Study of Young EAL Learners

NALDIC publishes plain language summaries of Master’s and PhD research. In this post Jasen Booton summaries his MSc dissertation, conducted as a part of his studies at the University of Oxford, on developing vocabulary for writing in EAL learners.

Why did I do the research?

Evidence shows that many EAL children face challenges with their written compositions (Cameron & Besser, 2004), and that the writing attainment gap between children whose first language is English and EAL pupils persists in state-funded schools in England (DfE, 2019).  A UK study comparing narrative writing for native-speaking and EAL pupils, highlights that children with EAL face particular challenges with cohesion and expression of creative ideas in text (Murphy, Kyriacou & Menon, 2015). Murphy and colleagues’ study places significant importance on developing EAL children’s vocabulary depth as a means of improving writing skill.  With few studies exploring vocabulary development and written production for young EAL pupils, I chose to investigate how learning vocabulary supports narrative writing for EAL learners in a primary school setting. The central question is framed on exploring teacher practice within an intervention to inform pedagogical approaches. 

What did I do?

I chose a mixed method research design so that I could explore the perspectives of teachers and pupils, and cultural influences in real-life contexts.  My study was conducted in three phases, each focusing on a different type of inquiry (see diagram below). First, I collected interview data so that I could learn about vocabulary development practices that teachers were actually using.  Then, I used this information to identify a feature to be tested in an experiment. Finally, I tested the effectiveness of this feature. I did this by creating two groups of EAL learners with similar characteristics. In one group (26 pupils) the teacher taught new vocabulary by introducing words in isolation using a monolingual dictionary. The other group (23 pupils), were taught using multimodal approach, introducing new vocabulary in phrases, as well using dictionaries. All children were tested on how well they knew these words before and after the experiment. Receptive knowledge (knowing a word when you see or hear it) was tested using a multiple choice format test. Productive knowledge (remembering and using a word correctly) was tested by asking children to write descriptive sentences to accompany pictures and by asking them to provide the target words when presented with synonyms for them. Each group’s scores on these test were compared to see wether either teaching approach was more effective than the other.

What did I find?

A key finding of this study shows the positive effect of EAL pupils learning target vocabulary through phrases. The study findings show that both teachers and pupils think that encountering words in a variety of different ways helps when learning vocabulary and using it in their writing.  Responses suggested that this helps reduce the level of difficulty in learning words, what Webb & Nation (2017) call the “learning burden”.

Another aspect of teaching that the results suggested improved writing was using drama activities. Dobson & Stephenson (2019) say that ‘borrowing’ from the experiences gained during the drama activities improves writing by connecting children to what they are writing about.  The findings also support teaching new words in sets of formulaic phrases on the same or similar themes (Cameron & Besser, 2004). Interview data revealed greater confidence among teachers in teaching for vocabulary depth, with responses highlighting a marked improvement in children’s written expression of creative ideas. The results suggest that specific instruction for EAL pupils to use target vocabulary in their writing led to greater control of sentence structure, showing elaboration and a sense of flair.

The findings of this research project also suggest that using monolingual (English) dictionaries supports receptive vocabulary knowledge. However, it is not clear if this is the same for productive vocabulary knowledge, especially when dictionaries are the only way that vocabulary is taught.  

What does it mean?

Recognising that the individual characteristics of the EAL learners in this study were very diverse (just like the EAL population as a whole), I appreciate that this research cannot be applied to all EAL learners. Further study might focus on plotting data for individuals and different groups of home languages, with the intention of gaining insight into the effect of different teaching and learning elements on children with different home languages. 

The take home message of this study is the potential benefit of an interlinked, contextualised teaching approach for developing vocabulary depth.  Using a variety of different ways to teach vocabulary, such as blending words, images, sound and movement may be helpful for EAL learners. Perhaps the key message to practitioners is the importance of teaching and exposing multi-word vocabulary to EAL pupils, especially if this supports improvements in the quality of children’s writing.

The full dissertation can be downloaded here. is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit to become a member.