Teachwire Logo

A Growing Vocabulary is the Key to Unshackling Children’s Minds

"The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for" – Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • A Growing Vocabulary is the Key to Unshackling Children’s Minds

I’ve always been fascinated by the point at which a child with EAL switches from thinking and dreaming in their mother tongue to thinking and dreaming in English.

At that point, they’ll may have a wide enough vocabulary to get by, but take a moment to think of all the situations for which they do not yet have the language.

As teachers, it’s vital that we provide all children with the lexical dexterity to make sense of the world and to communicate their understanding.

In 2016 many schools will have experienced a dip in attainment, as indeed the national average did. The last two KS2 Reading SATs papers certainly were tough, and it was quite apparent, more so than in years gone by, that children with narrow or shallow vocabularies struggled.

Small children’s vocabularies do grow quickly as they hear and experiment with words, and as they get older, books open up a whole world of new words. This may not be enough though, particularly for our most disadvantaged children. So explicitly teaching vocabulary can vastly improve reading comprehension and more importantly, unshackle the mind to comprehend the many wonders of the world.

What follows is some advice on how to teach vocabulary so that it sticks.

Choose vocabulary to teach explicitly

Words only have meaning in context, so reading and discussing great stories is the perfect vehicle for language acquisition. The issue is knowing which words to teach when there are so many to choose from.

One obvious starting point is to consider which words children are likely to misunderstand, and teach those.

To supplement this thinking, Jean Gross’ work on language development categorises words into three tiers.

  • Tier 1 words are those that are spoken regularly and which form the basis of the language – common nouns and actions relating to day to day life.
  • Tier 2 words are tricky yet functional words. They are sometimes used in day to day conversations but much more frequent in writing and used in varied contexts.
  • Tier 3 words are subject specific, used in a small number of contexts.

It’s the tier two words that hold the key to comprehension.

Some words can be taught explicitly such as those central to understanding a passage, a chapter or the theme of an entire story. Some words can be taught while doing shared reading – the context of the story alone will be enough for children to attach meaning to the new word.

Practise the common usage of the word

To illustrate the practices explained in the remainder of this article, we’ll use the word ‘deceit’. 

Dictionary definitions are often clunky for unusual words, and often contain other words that a child might not know. We do not assimilate words into our vocabulary by knowing the definition, rather we hear them used in contexts and emulate that usage.

Think about the time spent and the outcome of that effort: looking up a word and reading the definition might take 1 minute; showing an appropriate image and telling the children what the word means will take less than half that time.

The dual coding of sounds and image is also much more likely to result in the child remembering what the word means than reading a dictionary definition alone.

Adding an action to perform alongside repeating the word, or acting out the meaning can also be beneficial. This should be done quickly, with more time spent on children hearing and repeating the use of the word in its most common contexts.

An extension to exploring a word’s common usage is to learn certain words which often appear with the target words. These tend to be clichés, but are useful nonetheless. ‘A web of deceit’ is a great phrase to know, drawing attention to how lies can become entangled and rely on each other to maintain their integrity.

Look for related words


Words should never be learned in isolation and the first link to make is with any related words. Verbs have different tenses. Prefixes and suffixes can be added to nouns that change the meaning. Word classes can be changed with certain suffixes, such as adding -ly to adjectives to make them adverbs. Knowledge of the base word and its derivatives can be rather helpful when it comes to spelling the variants of the target word.

Words that have a similar meaning and opposite in meaning

Further connections with other words can be made by finding and using words that have a similar meaning or the opposite meaning.

The synonym model of teaching vocabulary is rather crude (melancholy is not the same as sad!) but there is ample opportunity for rich discussion around shades of meaning and inappropriate use of a new word.

It is a normal stage for children to go through when they substitute a new word for a word they already know – we all refine out word selection through listening, talking and reading. 

Crafting sentences from images


Words only have meaning in context and if children are to successfully embed a new word into their vocabulary, they need to interact with that word multiple times, orally, reading and in writing.

The use of image provides a stimulus to apply a word to a slightly different setting and is a great scaffold to get children to use the word appropriately.  Children could use what they see in the picture to write a sentence using the word deceit.

For example, The wolf’s deceit was meticulously planned over many months and everything had gone according to plan.

A further scaffold can be the use of questioning – write a sentence about how a wolf’s deceit almost cost Little Red Riding Hood her life.

Multiple interactions over time

Evelyn Waugh commented that one’s vocabulary needs constant fertilising or it will die. Without repetition over time, a new word is not assimilated. A number of excellent question stems, taken from Isabel Beck’s Bringing Words to Life, can be used to revise the meaning of words, address misconceptions that the teacher has noticed and increase the need to differentiate between a number of new words being learned.

It is so tempting to ask a child, ‘What does ‘x’ mean?’. The answer you get invariably involves the actual word that you’ve asked them to define or a series of synonyms. Again, this may not be the best use of time. Instead:

Provide options to choose from:

  • Does deceit mean telling a lie or not telling the whole truth?

Get children to distinguish between an example and non example of the word in action:

  • Manny picked up his bag and in doing so, hid the book that he liked but did not want to pay for before walking out of the shop.
  • Manny picked up his bag and in doing so, accidentally and without realising, picked up a book that he liked before walking out of the shop.

Finish the sentence:

  • Jay discovered his brother’s deceit when he found…

It is also important to mix up newly learned words and get children to differentiate between their meanings. These examples are best used where children have a range of newly learned words from which to choose. Beck suggests:

Cloze – choose a word to fill the gap

  • The act of __________ meant that she no longer trusted him.

Word replacement – replace a word or phrase with one of the words that we’ve been learning

  • The business lost millions of pounds because of her double dealing and poor judgement.

Word association – which of the words that we’ve been learning does each sentence make you think of?

  • Freya knocks over a plant pot while playing in the garden, smashing it. She hides the pieces behind the shed so that her mum would not find out.

A school’s reading curriculum should have, at its heart, deliberate and sustained teaching of vocabulary. Pushing the limits of language pushes the limits of the mind and is an important step towards levelling the playing field for our disadvantaged children.

Nick Hart is a headteacher, consultant and trainer, specialising in English, maths and professional learning. You can find him at thisismyclassroom.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at @MrNickHart.

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Looking for great advice on supporting students with SEND?

Find out more here >