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5 vocabulary ideas to boost secondary students’ word power

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

  • 5 vocabulary ideas to boost secondary students’ word power

1 | Try this today: Word Detectives

We can and should explicitly teach the vocabulary of our subject, but for real success we need our pupils to grapple with new challenging vocabulary themselves.

One handy way to help our pupils to become word conscious is to give them the role of ‘Word detectives’.

The strategy is simple: when faced with extended reading tasks, give out the role of ‘word detective’, either to individuals or the entire class. They have to note down interesting or uniquely challenging vocabulary, before finding out and exploring their meaning.

This task amplifies the importance of vocabulary for every pupil.

2 | Cracking the academic code

One of the subtle aspects of all academic writing is the words we choose.

We should stop the misconception that good academic writing means simply more words. We can often be more precise and concise.

One example is using strong verbs to convey our ideas.

We can substitute ‘made up’ with ‘produced’; ‘wiped out’ with ‘eliminated’; and ‘put together’ with ‘assembled’. We can stop redundant phrases and ensure our writing is sharp and effective.

3 | One for: Computer science students

  • Derives from: Arabic, named after an ancient mathematician called Al-Khwārizmī
  • Means: a sequence of unambiguous instructions to solve a problem.
  • Related concepts: ‘program’; ‘optimisation’.
  • NB: Another mathematical term with Arabic origins is ‘algebra’.

4 | One word at a time

The word ‘decimate’ has a colourful and memorable history. Though somewhat disputed, the most interesting etymological story attributed to the word is the gruesome fate of Roman soldiers.

To ensure the Roman soldiers didn’t mutiny or break ranks, the leaders of the Roman Empire undertook the punishment of ‘decimation’.

With the hint in the word root ‘dec’ – meaning ten – the brutal punishment saw one in every ten soldiers beaten to death as a dire warning to their colleagues.

Though the modern meaning of decimate is about destruction, few people know just how specific the word origins prove.

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


In geography = when rocks that the sea is carrying hit each other and break apart, leading to erosion.

In English or history = reducing someone’s strength with sustained pressure or attack.

Do they know?

1 in 5 pupils in England are now classified as EAL – English with an additional language. For many of our pupils, it means they are experienced at learning new, challenging vocabulary.

Alex Quigley is the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap. He also works for the Education Endowment Foundation as national content manager, supporting teachers to engage with research evidence.

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