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5 Ways to Improve the Breadth and Depth of Secondary Students’ Vocabularies

Alex Quigley shares some more simple strategies to help you narrow the word gap for your students...

  • 5 Ways to Improve the Breadth and Depth of Secondary Students’ Vocabularies

The new school year beckons a fresh batch of pupils trying to settle into their classes, as teachers start to get to know them. We observe their behaviours and peculiar peccadillos, and seek out how they learn best.

Grasping the breadth and depth of the vocabulary of our students will prove crucial, too. We need to find out the limits of their word power, and teach them accordingly.

1 | Try this today: Pictograms

Humans communicating through symbols is older than language itself. Pictograms – a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase – were found back ancient Egypt over 5,000 years ago.

From Egyptian hieroglyphics to contemporary emojis, we have always drawn upon our capacity to remember imagery with a little more ease than complex language.

Given the wealth of complex vocabulary pupils now have to learn for the bigger, harder GCSEs, using memory strategies like pictograms becomes timely.

Why not try converting literary terms (or whatever is relevant for your subject) into icons? With a little memorising, the symbols become speedy code for crucial words and academic concepts.

2 | One word at a time

Every teacher begins the new school year looking to assert their authority. It just so happens the the word ‘authority’ itself proves an important academic term. It features in Avril Coxhead’s Academic Word List’ – the most common words featured across a wealth of university level texts.

The word is multi-functional with countless uses in academic contexts – from ‘authoritative sources’ in history, to abuses of authority in politics – so it is well worth learning. It shares it roots with ‘author’ – meaning to invent or promote.

Basically, it describes power, and social status, and offers our pupils authority when they can use it themselves in their talk or their writing.

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

So many words in science challenge students, because their general meaning simply doesn’t match their specific scientific meaning.

Take ‘force’, which means something very specific in the physics classroom, which is distinct from how it is used in English, history or sociology.

As it is so central to physics understanding, teachers typically invest time in helping pupils understand the difference, but it still requires close attention.

4 | Cracking the academic code

‘Discourse markers’ describe those words that link words and phrases together into a coherent whole, such as ‘firstly’, ‘furthermore’, ‘consequently’ and ‘conversely’.

These can subtly mark out pupils as better communicators than their peers, but they require lots of explicit teaching. You can see many a discourse marker adorning the walls in English classrooms, but they need to be reinforced and practised across the curriculum.

5 | One for… the biologists

‘Parasite’ isn’t a pleasant sounding word, nor does it summon pleasing images. The roots of the word, however, prove compelling, and offer pupils a memorable hook for remembering it:

The term derives from ancient Greece, describing a class of men who made themselves welcome at the homes of the rich by providing entertainment, especially at dinner time. The Greeks called these characters ‘parasitos’ – with ‘para’ meaning beside and ‘sitos’ denoting food or grain.

Over time, the word has morphed in meaning to describe a plant, animal or organism that uses another organism to gain advantage in the form of food or shelter.


Do they know?

ante = before
anti = against


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


For more helpful and practical advice for teaching vocab skills in KS3 and KS4 check out 8 Great Ways to Improve Vocabulary Skills in Secondary Schools.

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