Building Vocabulary

Building vocabulary is essential for all pupils to ensure that they are able to access the curriculum and reach their full potential academically. Of course, vocabulary building continues to evolve throughout our lives, but creating a curiosity around words from a young age can have a big impact.

Embedding positive reading and vocabulary-building habits can stay with children, aiding acquisition of new words, throughout their adult lives. All of us – teachers, journalists, authors, even 9 year olds in the playground – know the frustration of not having the right word immediately available to express ourselves. It can also be frustrating when the meaning of a word in a newspaper or book that we’re reading eludes us.

For example, 2017 saw youthquake crowned as Word of the Year by the editors of The Oxford Dictionaries, whilst other new words such as ‘broflake’, ‘gorpcore’, ‘newsjacking’ and ‘unicorn’ (the adjective, not the noun!) also made the shortlist. You only have to watch one episode of Love Island to start decoding the lovers’ language. With words like ‘grafting’, ‘melt’, ‘prangy’, ‘peng sort’, ‘muggy’ and ‘pied off’ appearing in almost every episode, you’ll soon realise that you might not have such a firm grasp on the language of today’s youth. Luckily, the Oxford Dictionaries website gives a handy run-down of definitions of those new-fangled words on the shortlist and The Independent have even created a handy guide to Love-Island’s niche lexicon.

The amount of words we can understand and use, our own personal ‘word banks’ as it were, directly reflect the ebb and flow of the culture around us. Each year, new words are added to our communal lexicon. Whether we like it or not, in this digital, multimedia world teenagers are the ones who are leading the way, creating and using new slang terminology whilst also keeping abreast of what’s falling in and out of linguistic fashion. Sometimes, it’s hard to keep up!

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Whilst writing this blog post, I discovered that youthquake is ‘a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people’ and the term isn’t just used by kids, like many gems that have emerged, the term is soon widely adopted and universally used. I can recommend this great video by Oxford Dictionaries about 2017’s Word of the Year here. I wonder what 2018 will bring…

I suppose it was only a matter of time, but even emojis have now even been added to a major online dictionary, making the first big reference publication to add explanations of the face symbols. Essentially, we’re witnessing the birth of a whole new era of language in this digital age. In 2016, Schnoebelen – a linguist and the chief analyst for a firm that interprets linguistic data – analyzed one million social media posts containing these familiar little pictograms and found that a whopping 92% of people online now use emoji. On Instagram, almost half of all posts contain emoji, a trend which began in 2011 when the emoji keyboard was added to our phones and apps, with rates soaring even higher when Android followed suit. Emoji are now so popular they’re eradicating ‘text talk’, otherwise known as ‘netspeak’. For example, the more we use 😂 and imgres.jpg, the less we feel the need to use LOL (laugh out loud) or idk (I don’t know).

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However, whilst teens seem to be leading the way with slang, text talk and emoji, when it comes to the acquisition of academic vocabulary this can be a real stumbling block. It’s a particular challenge for those with speech, language and communication needs but you may also find a language gap between those children from low-income backgrounds and their high-income peers. Cultural experiences and socio-economic backgrounds can have a huge impact on language aqcuisition and this ‘vocabulary poverty’ can create barriers to success for children if the word gap becomes too wide.

Poorer students simply do not have the same level of exposure to a rich and complex vocabulary; they may not interact with, speak with, or listen to as many words as their wealthier peers. They may not have as much support with at-home reading or as much access to enriching cultural events and experiences. It’s therefore all the more important to instil a love of reading and books within children who are not receiving this type of support at home. It’s important to try and ‘level the playing field’ by ensuring that they receive adequate stimuli to expand their vocabularies – and sharpen their thinking – within school. If necessary, this could be done as an intervention to pre-teach new words.

Practical Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

So, how exactly can we help children to build their word banks and teach vocabulary effectively? I like Marzano’s simple six-steps to better vocabulary instruction, which includes the following:

  1. The teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the term – I would suggest ensuring you use a wide range of quality texts to expose children to new language.
  2. Linguistic definition – encourage children to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Nonlinguistic definition – children then construct a picture, pictograph, symbolic representation, or act out the term.
  4. Extend and refine understanding – the teacher supports understanding of the word by engaging children in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in vocabulary or Literacy notebooks.
  5. Discussion – periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another. Do this the following day or week to ensure they are retaining the knowledge. Celebrate children who manage to use the word in their own writing. Support with great working walls that link to new vocabulary too.
  6. Vocabulary games – Involve children in games and word play that enables them to explore and experiment with the words, reinforcing word knowledge and understanding. You can find ideas for fun and challenging word games here.

Print out this neat infographic from Kimberly Tyson, the Do’s and Don’ts for effective vocabulary instruction as a reminder of what works and what doesn’t.

You might also like to check out my Top 20 Tools for Teaching Vocabulary.

Ultimately, word learning is most effective when it is done in context and so it helps if parents can be kept informed of the topics being covered in class along with the key topic words. I absolutely LOVE the Verbivore Teacher’s Vocabulary Vault. Not only does it categorise words by setting, emotion, character, taste, smell, action and weather, it also includes a planning documentPowerpoint Presentation and, my personal favourite, Fridge Words (with definitions) to be stuck on the fridge at home. It helps if parents can be kept in the loop of the topics being covered in class along with the key topic words and this resource is perfect for encouraging those discussions at home too.

Another way of promoting learning new words in context, is to encourage children to find and understand their own new words. These words and definitions could be added to a working all, written in their reading diaries, added to a special book mark or simply scribbled on some durable paper. Ask the children in your class to start writing down any new words that they discover in their reading. This should not be limited to ‘levelled’ reading books, it could include magazines, comics, newspapers, texts in class, posters, internet reading, poetry, novels etc. It can be any material that challenges them in terms of vocabulary.

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A book mark or reading record is ideal as they can carry this paper with them always. In the pauses of their busy school day – when they’ve finished work early, after lunch, during reading for pleasure time – encourage children to review their new vocabulary words and share them with others. Persuade children to pursue words actively, to become alert to words which they cannot define. Praise those who do bring in new words: add them to the working wall or reading corner, celebrate their independence with dojos or stickers.

Be sure to pick out new or unusual words when sharing books yourself and model how to investigate these words with young children. Highlight all the different features of a word when teaching it including semantic (meaning) and phonological aspects (sounds). You could even nominate two children to take on the role of a Countdown-style Dictionary Corner expert when exploring a whole class text and task them with looking up and sharing the meaning of the words with the class at the end of the lesson input. Dictionaries and thesauruses should be readily available to children at all times, place them somewhere children can access and use independently.

countdown corner

From personal experience, I think it’s really important to develop an inquisitiveness around the origins of words. At least half of the words in the English language are derived from Greek and Latin roots. The Verbivore Teacher has some excellent free resources, including flashcards, word matching activities and posters to support exploration of Greek and Latin roots. Knowing these roots helps us to grasp the meaning of words before we look them up in the dictionary. It also helps us to see how words are often arranged in families with similar characteristics. I also love the Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayton (pictured below).


Of course, using dictionaries and thesauruses is key, but in order to encourage the children to become logophiles (word lovers) you could go one step further by investigating the origins of words. Perhaps introduce a ‘Word of the Day’ in your classroom or indulge in a range of word games and activities that explore language in a fun, engaging way.

It’s also key to learn about prefixes and suffixes. Of course, this too will help us to understand the meaning of words and to ‘have a go’ at guessing the meaning of a word by using our knowledge about prefixes and suffixes before looking it up in a dictionary. Prefixes can show quantity (e.g. semi = half, uni = one, bi = two, cent = hundred, milli = thousand), negation (de = do the opposite of e.g. devalue), time (post = after, re = again) and even direction/position (super = above/over, circum = around). Suffixes, on the other hand, modify the meaning of a word and frequently determine its function within a sentence. Suffixes can show if a word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb or a verb. Take the noun nation, for example. With suffixes the word becomes the adjective national, the adverb nationally and the verb nationalize.

Using a variety of strategies to embed knowledge is important; visual approaches and diagrammatic representations of words are always useful – this could be a symbol, mnemonic or picture to represent the word; acting out the words is also helpful (we often play charades with chosen words relevant to topic and children absolutely love this!); making up songs and rhymes about what a word means also helps to reinforce word learning; encourage reading for pleasure so that positive reading habits are formed from the start; create opportunities for sharing new vocabulary throughout the day; lead by example and model how to become an independent explorer of vocabulary; borrow fiction and non-fiction books from the library which extend learning on particular topics (and increase their exposure to key terminology in context); above all, make learning words fun with quick and easy word games. I Spy is great for younger children, whilst word webs, word chains, vocabulary apps, word matching games hangman and ‘I hear with my little ear‘ (similar to I Spy but children give clues about the meaning of the word for others to guess e.g. ‘my word is a word that describes the character’s evil smile’) are great for older children.

In summary, you cannot underestimate the impact an importance of vocabulary development. Building vocabulary is critical to reading and writing success. Comprehension improves when children have better understanding of what words mean, children can communicate their thoughts and ideas more accurately and their confidence – socially and academically – will improve too.

👍 Did you find this blog post useful? Hit the like button below. Has this blog post inspired you to do something different in your own classroom? Would you add anything to the list? I’d love to hear from you – simply add a comment below. Thanks for reading! 





3 responses to “Building Vocabulary”

  1. […] writing with quality texts, writing for pleasure (or free writing), engaging ways to teach or build vocab, as well as ways to use working walls to inspire writing and, most recently, widening our […]


  2. […] writing with quality texts, writing for pleasure (or free writing), engaging ways to teach or build vocab, as well as ways to use working walls to inspire writing and, most recently, widening our […]


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