Do we write better if we know more words?


Having a rich vocabulary, or “deep” in linguistic terms (a high knowledge of synonyms and antonyms), is essential for writing a text. We not only have to be able to select the most appropriate terms for the expression of that content, but also know what other meanings they may have depending on the context and how those terms are associated with each other and with others.

Although lexical knowledge is one of the fundamental resources in the elaboration of a text, it is usually analyzed in relation to reading comprehension, that is, with how it helps us to understand and assimilate what we read. But it also has a huge impact on the quality of the texts we write.

For this reason, we wanted to investigate its role in Primary Education in two ways:

  1. To see how the level of depth of vocabulary and the quality (that is, the extension, syntactic complexity and textual structure) of the texts produced during the first years of Primary Education evolve.
  2. To check the effect of the vocabulary depth level on the quality of the texts produced.

828 texts from 332 students

We asked each of our 332 participants (monolingual Spanish speakers from seven schools in Almería, Cádiz, Ciudad Real and Valencia) to write five descriptive texts, after having individually assessed their vocabulary depth.

We took into account four aspects in the evaluation of the depth of vocabulary, asking the boys and girls for synonyms and antonyms of certain words: that there was a change of lexeme (that a different word was provided than the given word); that it fit the requested sense of meaning; to maintain the grammatical category (an adjective) and that the participant provide a word that appears as a synonym or antonym in four dictionaries taken as a reference.

In order to respect the characteristics of children’s language, highly valued responses were considered those that, complying with the aforementioned characteristics:

  1. They were the result of a metaphor or comparison – for example, noodle as a synonym for thin or dwarf as an antonym for tall.
  2. They could be considered valid in a certain register or variety – for example, machote as a synonym for strong or “cagao” as an antonym for brave.
  3. They could be considered valid in a child context: for example, good as a synonym for smart (as a consequence of the frequent evaluation by adults “he is a very good and very smart child”) or angry as an antonym of handsome (as a consequence of the frequent appreciation of adults “when you get angry you get very ugly”).

The quality of the texts produced by the participants was evaluated based on the following aspects: productivity, subordination index and textual structure.

More vocabulary, better texts

The results obtained confirmed our hypotheses: there is an evolution both in the depth of vocabulary and in textual quality as the children progress through the year.

Regarding the depth of vocabulary, it was verified that, as the Primary Education course increases, there are changes in the answers that imply a greater knowledge of the operations involved in the elicitation of synonyms and antonyms.

Regarding the textual quality, it was evidenced that there are differences between the texts produced by the first-year children and those of the fourth: as the course progresses, the texts produced are significantly better structured.

At the end of the first years of compulsory schooling, many of the participants in the sample were able to construct a descriptive text with more prototypical components (introduction and conclusion and a series of descriptive clauses that were also justified).

An evolutionary increase in the number of words was also observed.

But the greatest finding of this study consists in demonstrating that those students who obtain better scores in terms of vocabulary depth write longer texts, with greater syntactic complexity and with a higher score in terms of textual structure.

Didactic implications

Although the teaching-learning processes were not analyzed in this study, a series of didactic implications can be extracted from the results obtained.

On the one hand, we have a body of evidence that makes it possible to specify some of the learning outcomes of written expression that, at least in the Spanish curriculum, are formulated somewhat imprecisely.

On the other hand, it has been proven that there is a relationship between the evolutionary gains regarding vocabulary depth and the evolutionary gains regarding textual quality. Vocabulary instruction is therefore useful not only for the development of reading comprehension but also for learning textual composition.

Our study also points to the need for research on language acquisition and on the teaching-learning processes of grammar and communication skills to be carried out, like educational research, but with a linguistic approach, that is, as in this case, by specialists in Language Didactics.

Author Bios: Maria Dolores Alonso-Cortes Fradejas is Professor of the Area of ​​Didactics of Language and Literature, Maria Teresa Llamazares Prieto and Mercedes Lopez Aguado who is Professor of the area of ​​Research Methods and Diagnosis in Education all at the University of León