Research reveals efficacy of online literacy-boosting platform

The result of a year-long research trial, a new report from Christ Church classicist Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Classics Education Research Assistant Katrina Kelly reveals the effectiveness of the online learning platform Vocabulous in teaching primary and secondary school pupils word roots and empowering them to deploy this knowledge to decode unfamiliar English vocabulary. 

Launched in 2021, Vocabulous is an online resource predominantly used by 9- to 14-year-olds to learn 26 word roots and more than 1,000 English words over the course of 36 pre-prepared lessons. The platform is the creation of Lucy Huelin, an Oxford Classics alumna (St Anne’s) and former Latin and Classics teacher who had encountered students in the classroom giving up when trying to decipher the meaning of new English words. Huelin set about trying to devise an engaging way of training students to work out unfamiliar vocabulary using their pre-existing knowledge of word parts such as prefixes and roots – and thus Vocabulous was born. 

Vocabulous enables pupils to explore the connections that exist in English vocabulary – particularly Greek and Latin root patterns – and reveals to pupils how they can use problem-solving skills and knowledge of these connections to work out the meanings of complex words in any subject area. As Professor Holmes-Henderson explains, Vocabulous is ‘innovative in its gamified approach to teaching Greek and Latin root words’. After viewing videos introducing new roots and how they are used to form a variety of English words, students compete to win badges by working through quizzes that test and consolidate their knowledge of the meaning of newly encountered roots and the roles they play in words formed from them. 

Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE
Professor Arlene Holmes-Henderson MBE 

But does this innovative tool really work? That was the question Holmes-Henderson and Kelly sought to answer through their study. Working with 11 participating schools in the North of England over the 2022/23 academic year, the efficacy of Vocabulous in teaching word roots and vocabulary at the transition from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 was gauged through a pair of tests: a baseline test taken at the beginning of the students’ Vocabulous use and a final assessment (with similar but not identical questions) following 7–10 months of training on the platform. 

Holmes-Henderson and Kelly’s research trial, which was funded by the Christ Church Research Centre, yielded very encouraging results indicating an ‘upward trend in pupils’ ability to recognise and use new vocabulary’. The results, which bring together both quantitative data (survey responses, school contextual information, test results) and qualitative information (collected from text responses, school observations and feedback sessions with learners and teachers) are set out in the final report, ‘Learn the root. Conquer the word. Investigating the efficacy of Vocabulous in teaching word roots’.

Classics pedagogy and EdTech is a winning combination, in my view.

Professor Holmes-Henderson thanked Christ Church for making her study possible: ‘Christ Church Research Centre has contributed to a better understanding of “what works” in young people’s literacy development and, for this, the project team is very grateful.’ Reflecting on the study’s findings and the role of Classics education in the modern-day classroom, she continued: ‘Contrary to some people’s perceptions, Classics teaching in the 21st century is seldom old, dusty or dead. Vocabulous showcases the fusion of Latin, Greek and digital technologies in creative and innovative ways. Classics pedagogy and EdTech is a winning combination, in my view.’