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I am an ESRC funded PhD student in the Centre for Language and Communication Research. My research is in the field of vocabulary development, specifically children's ability to decode and analyse the meaning of unfamiliar and/or complex academic words. Taking an historical and socio-linguistic approach, my doctoral project aims to trial and test creative intervention strategies which could aid both children's vocabulary development and pedagogical practices in the English language classroom.

The ability to cope with different levels of lexical complexity when reading, writing, spelling and speaking is not only fundamental to children’s academic success, but also to understanding semantic nuances in social relationships and life post-education. However, recent GCSE pass-rate statistics suggest that there is a 'gap' between the vocabulary children and teenagers are expected to know and understand and what they actually know and understand. My research, therefore, explores to what extent explicit teaching of word history, word deconstruction and word-part meanings—through integrated Latinate, Classical Greek, French and native prefixes, root words and suffixes—influences children’s vocabulary development and aids growth of key communication skillsets.

Previously, I worked as a secondary school Teaching Assistant with students who have additional learning needs. This experience showed me that many children and teenagers appear to lack both the skills and confidence to access the high-level vocabulary used in the recently reformed English language and literature GCSE examinations. By working closely with schools, teachers and students, this project hopes to understand how we could develop English language teaching strategies to support the diverse and varied needs of our young people.

I completed a BA in English (First Class Hons.) at the University of Southampton before moving to Cardiff University with a Master's Excellence Scholarship to study for an MA in Language and Linguistics. For my Master's research, I was awarded the Nicholas Coupland Prize for Best Performance in Sociolinguistics.

Research interests

I'm particularly interested in whether increased etymological and morphological awareness, that is, the ability to decipher the meanings of individual word parts and map their root meanings onto the mental lexicon, influences children's knowledge and confidence when faced with difficult words in the school environment. My other research interests include: 

  • The school-vocabulary 'gap'
  • Vocabulary development in children and teenagers
  • Morphological and etymological awareness 
  • First language learning and teaching - specifically, reading, writing and spelling skills
  • Historical linguistics: The developmemnt of the English language
  • Historical languages (Latin, Greek, Old English, French etc.)
  • Sociolinguistics: Language variation and change
  • Literacy pedagogical practices 
  • The National Curriculum

Professional Memberships:

  • Member, British Association for Applied Linguistics 
  • Member, British Association for Applied Linguistics Special Interest Group: Linguistics and Knowledge about Language in Education
  • Member, English Speaking Union 
  • Member, National Literacy Trust
  • Member, United Kingdom Literacy Association 
  • Member, Lexical Studies Research Group

Thesis

An historical and socio-linguistic investigation into English language vocabulary pedagogy in schools in Wales

The primary objective of this doctoral project is to understand if and how English language pedagogical practices could be developed to ensure a child continues to acquire the high-level of academic vocabulary required throughout their education. The National Curriculum for Wales purports to expose children to the high-level vocabulary required for academic progression; however, statistics show that 1 in 4 children do not reach the expected standard in reading or writing by the age of eleven (end of Key Stage 2). Additionally, GCSE pass-rate statistics suggest that many children in Wales continue to find it difficult to access these expected literacy and English language standards as they advance through the education system. This year, the English language GCSE pass-rate in Wales dropped 4.1% with just 59.2% of students achieving an A*-C grade compared to 61% in 2018 and 63% in 2017 (Qualifications Wales 2019); there is a ‘gap’ between the academic vocabulary children should know compared to what they appear to actually know.


Taking this ‘gap’ as its central concept, this project draws together historical and socio-linguistic theories to examine if and how explicit teaching of word etymology and morphology—through integration of  word history, word deconstruction and word-part meanings in literacy education—influences children’s vocabulary development and aids growth of key reading, writing and spelling academic skillsets. 

Funding source

ESRC Wales DTP

Sara Pons Sanz

Dr Sara Pons-Sanz

Senior Lecturer