In this guest post, Sarah Pavey, joint School Representative of the CILIP Information Literacy Group, blogs about teenage vocabulary levels and how in an increasingly digital world, these will need to be developed in order to be able to find and select relevant information.
By 2025 the world’s data will have grown to 175 Zettabytes. One Zettabyte is the equivalent of 36,000 years of high-definition video. 175ZB on CD would reach the moon 23 times over. The average person will have nearly 5,000 digital interactions per day up from the 700 to 800 or so that people average today. (Patrizio, 2018). Mastery of vocabulary will be essential in the digital age if we are going to be able to sift through all of this available information effectively and efficiently. Unfortunately, recent evidence shows that teenagers have difficulty finding and selecting the relevant information they need even now – despite believing they have this expertise. (Brazier, Walton, & Harvey, 2019). This attitude also illustrates the Dunning Kruger effect (Murphy, 2017) of overinflated opinions of self which could have dangerous implications within the confines of information literacy. So do we need to concentrate more on developing vocabulary skills in order for teenagers to be able to understand, select and apply the information they find?
How does the level of vocabulary used by teenagers today compare with the past? Last year the Guardian published an article based upon a report by the Oxford University Press which found a third of teachers felt vocabulary declined between the start and end of secondary education. (Adams, 2018). Many teachers blame the decline on fewer children reading but given the interventions placed upon reading for pleasure in the National Curriculum and positive statistical trends from the National Literacy Trust in recent years it seems unlikely this is the sole cause. The level of deficit is most apparent in the poorest students and the Report claims this leads to low self-esteem and impacts upon academic achievement.
If vocabulary is this limited, then teaching Information Literacy skills becomes difficult because students do not have the most basic of tools to search for information let alone evaluate what they find. Teenagers have a social vocabulary that they use to communicate on a daily basis and an academic vocabulary learned through the subjects they take which is pretty much prescribed. Much of the vocabulary deficit concerns a lack of range and ignorance of synonyms. For example, with an everyday word such as “spoon” as adults we might recognize different types of spoon eg teaspoon, soup spoon, tablespoon and even runcible spoon but a teenager might only use the broad term. More worryingly, given the finding that lack of vocabulary leads to low self-esteem and mental health issues how do we really understand the depth of these issues if a teenager is unable to vocalise a range of feelings between happy and sad? Does this affect our own information literacy and interpretation of research findings around mental health? The limitations of vocabulary are also present in the academic language delivered to teenagers and it could be argued this is even actively encouraged by exam boards and the National Curriculum with their rigid interpretation of words. Academic language is often written rather than spoken and so may require explicit teaching for comprehension. (Bennett, 2018). But the guidance given to teachers in England and Wales for the use of this terminology is often specified in a mark scheme giving the impression there is only one interpretation. Hence words such as “research” and “evaluate” have very different meanings to those we might use as an information literacy practitioner. We will be doing students no favours in the school environment if we enlighten them in this respect and may even risk animosity from teachers keen to guide their students through their exams successfully.
How has this deficit in vocabulary arisen and why is it a modern crisis? Maybe the digital environment is in part to blame. The reliance on technology and mobile devices in particular may be limiting oracy – just look how many people are fixated on their phones even during meal times where previously there might have been conversation. There is also a safety issue in that fitting into the social norm is now of greater importance and people may be more reluctant to experiment with new words or show off their knowledge but stick rigidly to what they have in common with others. Society is changing more generally with the emphasis on continuing academic education which may not suit all. How can a parent with their own reduced vocabulary pass on oracy skills to their children and we know it is the poorest in society where the greatest deficit in language occurs. We can also argue that the education structure has been having an effect on language acquisition. There are limits on vocabulary and levels attributed in children’s reading for pleasure books. Some reading schemes define and measure proficiency through fiction rather than taking a cross curricular approach. Teachers are under pressure to gain statistical evidence of improvement and so become trapped in “teaching to the test”. There is little opportunity afforded to students to play with words and to listen to others and copy the vocabulary they use. Even games and TV programmes are altered to use simple words or specific specialised vocabulary and maybe unwittingly add to the deficit.
If we accept the finding of the OUP Report that those with low self-esteem have the lowest levels of vocabulary, does the low esteem also engender a lack of motivation and curiosity? Treadway, Cooper and Miller (2019) argue that the suppression of our immune system and dopamine levels from stress may be causing a lack of intrinsic motivation to learn. Would this mean there is a physiological reason for not exploring and widening vocabulary among teenagers? We know they are now placed under greater stress with the move away from coursework to end of course exams so maybe this drives them to keep their ambitions under check and limits curiosity and exploration more generally too. Information literacy relies on people being able to test their understanding and to step outside their comfort zone so how can we develop these skills in teenagers so they can survive in the digital world?
Since 2008 for various reasons, including curriculum changes, examination restructuring and austerity in school funding, many school librarians have been repositioned from their cross curricular role to becoming an adjunct of the English department responsible for reading for pleasure or have even been made redundant. Now that Ofsted, the inspection body have turned their focus away from reading for pleasure and placed more emphasis on the mechanics of reading and intervention, they have also introduced evaluation of careers advice and preparation for the workplace and Higher Education (Ofsted, 2019), maybe there is scope to tie in increasing vocabulary with the criteria on new Information Literacy definition in lifelong learning. School librarians could help if they are employed in a cross-curricular role and could develop the use of vocabulary games, use displays and discussion and debate to redress the deficit and allow a better understanding of information literacy.
Adams, R. (2018) Teachers in UK report growing ‘vocabulary deficiency’. Available at the Guardian
Bennett, C. (2018) 10 Test question terms and what they ask students to do. Available at thoughtco.com
Brazier, D., Walton, G. and Harvey, M. (2019) “An investigation into Scottish teenagers’ information literacy and search skills” Information Research, 24 (1) pp.1368-1613
Murphy, M. (2017) The Dunning-Kruger Effect shows why some people think they’re great even when their work is terrible. Available at Forbes.com
Ofsted (2019) Inspection handbook. Available at Ofsted
Patrizio, A. (2018) Data and storage predictions for the year 2025. Available at Networkworld.com
Treadway, M.T., Cooper, J. A., and Miller, A.H. “Can’t or won’t? Immunometabolic constraints on dopaminergic drive”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23 (5) pp.435-448