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5 Summer Holiday Vocabulary Activities for Secondary Students

Support your students towards better language use, with the help of our resident word-wizard, Alex Quigley…

  • 5 Summer Holiday Vocabulary Activities for Secondary Students

The summer is a time for rest and recuperation. Of course, for our pupils, the opportunity to learn new words never stops.

Those youngsters who read books, and who are lucky to have an array of experiences during the summer holiday can fill up their word-hoard over the long break; for others, it’s worth suggesting some proactive strategies to keep their vocabulary development going.

1 | Try this today: Vocabulary 7-Up

A pupil who uses words well is able to draw upon lots of sophisticated synonyms when writing an essay, or answering exam questions. ‘Vocabulary 7-up’ is a simple game that encourages learners to record as many synonyms as they can for common words (seven ideally!).

So, given ‘positive’, ‘effective’, ‘large’ or ‘small’, our students exercise their capacity to draw upon a range of synonyms for those words. This activity assesses their breadth of vocabulary but also overtly signals the necessary variety of words required in academic expression.

2 | One word at a time

Sometimes the most common words, in our plain sight, have intriguing etymologies hidden from view. One example is ‘science’.

Today, the most popular root of the word is its Latin meaning, coming from ‘scientia’ – with the root ‘scire’, which means ‘to know’.

However, the Indo-European origins of the word offer a rather more memorable link. The oldest known roots derive from the word ‘skein’ – meaning ‘to cut’ or to ‘separate out’.

You can see it in words like ‘scissors’ and ‘scythe’. Daringly for teachers, you can also see it in the word ‘shit’ – the cutting of waste from our bodies… try that one in your next lesson!

3 | I don’t think it means what you think it means…

Many of the words we expect our pupils to use have multiple meanings (they are polysemous) and they differ in different subject domains. For example, in music, ‘harmony’ is an important term to denote musical notes being played simultaneously (from Greek – ‘harmonia’ – meaning ‘joining together’).

Whereas, in RE, ‘harmony’ has a more specific meaning related to the merging of the gospels in the New Testament. It is also a common Tier 2 word used in many academic disciplines.

So, in English and drama, ‘harmony’ would describe relations between characters. In history, it might denote a period of peace.

4 | Cracking the academic code

For secondary school students, it can be hard to match useful word lists to the demands of the curriculum. Happily, Avril Coxhead, a researcher from New Zealand, has compiled what is known as the ‘Academic word list’ (AWL) which can prove helpful.

The AWL collates 570 word families that occur most frequently in university texts, and is thus very comprehensive. Just seeking out the first 60 words is instructive.

We can assess our students’ knowledge, whilst identifying some words to teach explicitly, ensuring learners have the academic language to access their GCSEs, and much more.

5 | One for… English students

‘Metaphor’ is a word that bedevilled my English teaching career. I must have taught and retaught it hundreds of times!

Put simply, it is a common literary figure of speech that sees authors making imaginative and creative comparisons. It is a fundamental concept every pupil must grasp.

The word metaphor comes from the Greek – ‘meta’, meaning ‘between’ – and ‘phero’, meaning ‘to carry’.

Ironically then, the word metaphor is itself a metaphor, meaning ‘to carry one thing to another’.

Perhaps a clear visual to go with this etymological explanation, alongside effective examples, would do the job? Who knows: it is a tough nut to crack!

Do they know?

There are around 500,000 words in the most popular English dictionaries. However, if you were to include scientific names for species etc, the lexicon would extend to over one million words.


Alex Quigley is the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap. He also works for the Education Endowment Foundations as National Content Manager, supporting teachers to engage with research evidence.

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