How do you help children become self-driven learners?

How do you help children become self-driven learners?

If words are the building blocks of knowledge, then children must want – in fact, truly desire – to learn more words in order to expand their intellect. The best way to make the most of that instinct is to foster a sense of ‘word consciousness’ in children.

“Word consciousness is an interest in and awareness of words”

Experts Judith A. Scott and William E. Nagy define word consciousness as ‘an interest in and awareness of words.’[1] Really, it’s a new way of thinking about words that enables children to become self-driven learners. And according to one of our favourite headteachers, ‘it shouldn’t be underestimated’.[2] It’s the holy grail of self-driven learning.

In the simplest terms, word consciousness means being receptive to new vocabulary and having the motivation to learn it. A person who is word conscious understands why certain words are appropriate at certain moments; they appreciate that the process of learning words involves more than just learning a definition; they are sensitive to multiple meanings and the complex relationships between words. Most importantly, though, they’re interested in words.[3]

Word conscious children do better at school because they are self-directed learners equipped with an effective and analytical way to look at the new language they encounter. They are able to notice, learn, and remember new vocabulary as they come across it in daily life, rather than relying on intense bursts of learning.

“Vocabulary learning should never involve cramming”

If a child is spending hours memorising lists of definitions the night before a test, then something is wrong. Vocabulary development should never involve rote learning and it should certainly never involve cramming. It goes without saying that words shoehorned into your head at the last minute don’t stick.

So how do you develop word consciousness?

Just 5 minutes spent learning new words every day is enough to foster a word-learning habit that cultivates word consciousness. Little and often is the key to vocabulary development. The secret is to have fun with words and weave word-conscious behaviours into daily life so that they become habit.

The good news? Habits are easy to form and difficult to break. Here are our tips on nurturing word conscious habits in children:

  1. Surround them with words: Stick words up on the walls, and change them up periodically. Use interesting vocabulary around your child. If you fill life with rich vocabulary, children will notice.
  2. Talk about words: Show your child that words can be talked about. When you read, pick out and discuss new words.
  3. Play with words: This may sound surprising, but laughing about double meanings, puns and enjoying the unexpected relationships between words teaches children a valuable lesson about vocabulary – that words are fun and meanings can be nuanced.
  4. Encourage them to collect words: Every time your child learns a new word that interests them, they should record it in a special notebook. These are their words, to use whenever they like. Once a child takes ownership of their vocabulary in this way, they have become truly word conscious.

When it comes to test time, word conscious children already possess a broad and confident vocabulary because they have been building it over time. Instead of skipping over words they don’t understand – like most children do – they can fall back and rely on a solid wordbase.[4] They are always learning, and the more they learn, the faster they are able to learn.

Developing word consciousness molds your child’s brain into a finely-tuned, word-learning engine. It’s a transformative mentality and it isn’t difficult to achieve.[5]

  1. Scott, J. and Nagy, W. (2004) Developing word consciousness. In J.F. Baumann and E.J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice, 35 (3) pp. 201-217. New York: Guilford.
  2. Emma Madden, Fox Primary School.
  3. Scott, J. and Nagy, W. (2004) Developing word consciousness. In J.F. Baumann and E.J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice, 35 (3) pp. 201-217. New York: Guilford.
  4. 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.
  5. Grave, M.F. and Watts-Taffe, S. (2008) For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers. Reading Teacher. 62 (3), pp. 185-193.