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5 Ways to Help GCSE Students Bolster Vocabulary Skills in the Run-up to Exams

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

  • 5 Ways to Help GCSE Students Bolster Vocabulary Skills in the Run-up to Exams

Spring is here. For most of our students, this means the pleasantries of nicer weather and longer evenings… but many will also be experiencing the dread of impending summer exams.

Though we don’t want them to overdo it, Easter promises revision efforts as much as chocolate eggs.

Ultimately, it is the pupils whose vocabulary is broad, deep and even colourful – like a spring flower bed – who will flourish; so how can we help more of our young people reach that point?

1 | Try this today: word mapping

Our students are familiar with using graphic organisers in all sorts of guises, from Venn Diagrams to Fishbone diagrams. There is good evidence that they help translate tricky vocabulary and hard concepts into visuals models that aid understanding.

There are of course lots of ways to record and organise words visually. ‘Word mapping’ borrows specifically from concept maps, in that they are organised hierarchically, with the head word proving the main topic.

For example, with ‘geothermic processes’ as a head word in geography, this would be followed by ‘endogenic’ and ‘exogenic’ processes.

Each of these headings then connects conceptually to other related words and processes. It is simple stuff, but it brings coherence and clarity with subject specific ideas that can prove difficult and abstract for some students.

2 | One word at a time

For many students, the mere mention of the gym inspires excitement; for others it is a place of fear and loathing. A little etymology of the word is likely to spark the interest of curious and reluctant athletes alike.

The word ‘gymnasium’ has ancient Greek roots… that are rather graphic! The Greek word ‘gumnazein’ means, in fact, ‘to exercise or train naked’; the gymnasium then had a very literal meaning, that we don’t associate with it in modern times.

In the late 19th century, the word gym had a renaissance, but without the naked associations. How many other words hidden in the school day offer similarly provocative and hidden historical truths?

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

Sometimes the roots of words in our language are revealing and connect expressions together – but at other times, we can come across ‘false friends’.

‘Aftermath’ falls into the latter category; it’s a sophisticated word we’d like our students to learn, but its apparent roots may give a misleading impression of its meaning.

First, ‘aftermath’ has nothing to do with mathematics.

Though the ‘aftermath of a battle’ may aptly describe the impact of a lesson on algebra, the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ is actually Old English and not from the Greek ‘mathema’ – meaning ‘knowledge or learning’.

Instead, the Old English root of ‘math’ – meaning to ‘mow, is wedded to the suffix ‘th’ – akin to ‘birth’. An aftermath is then literally the ‘after mowing’ – a harvest scene.

4 | Cracking the academic code

When our students write in their ‘normal’ fashion, be it in an email or a social media message, they strip bare their style and express themselves with a very personal flourish.

For academic endeavours, however, there is an impersonal, formal style that our learners need to utilise.

One key factor in writing in an academic style is to be concise and precise. In subjects like science, in particular, such a style is paramount, offering a more formal and objective presentation.

So, ‘sort of’ becomes ‘somewhat’, ‘due to the fact’ becomes ‘because’, ‘reverted back’ is simply ‘reverted’. Each subject has its own features we should define explicitly, but in all good academic writing, economy of style matters.

5 | One for… RE students

The study of religious education requires a demanding grasp of worldly – and otherworldly – knowledge.

Many children are immersed within a religion in their daily lives, but the essential vocabulary to describe faiths can remain inscrutable to them. The words ‘theology’ and ‘theism’ are key to unlocking understanding.

The root of the word ‘theism’ is the Greek word ‘theos’ – meaning ‘god’. The root ‘the’ is at the heart of so many related terms: atheism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, Judaism, theology, theocracy, and more.

By securing these linguistic roots, the very roots of religious understanding are uncovered for our students.

Do they know?

The words and language used in children’s books is more rare and sophisticated than the conversation of university graduates.


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

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