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How to teach vocabulary – help pupils make connections between words

Encourage personal links and fire up the power of association to get your pupils invested in developing lexical knowledge

Kelly Ashley
by Kelly Ashley
Scarlett Fife teaching resources
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

As a child, I loved ‘connect the dots’ games. Do you remember them? They involved a series of numbered dots that, when connected, revealed a hidden picture. I spent many hours on car journeys working to uncover these images. Just as we connect the numbered dots in the pictures, we also use our lexicon (or language) to paint a picture of the world around us – connecting the vocabulary dots to unlock what we know about words and the world.

The images we create with language are crafted from our own unique experiences, identities and interests. The bespoke, personal nature of these connections invites new words into our mental libraries of language (our ‘word hoard’) in different ways, as we organise and reshuffle to connect the dots between new and known knowledge.

It’s this connection between the new and the known that will help strengthen pupils’ word knowledge and aid them in building word depth over time.

Let’s exercise these mental library muscles by thinking about the word comfort. Does this make you think of a place, a thing, a person or an experience? How do you connect the dots around this word by activating personal links? As it lights up in your mental library, you may also think of associated words, contexts and memories.

For instance, you may link comfort to similar words such as contentment, safety, warmth or wellbeing. Alternatively, you may relate to opposite words, for instance sadness, gloom, discomfort or displeasure.

Additionally, you may be reminded of a specific time when you felt comfort – enjoying a favourite meal, spending time with a loved one or reading a favourite book. Word learning is personal; we are all unique in our connection capacity.

These links are powerful in the process of language development. When learning new words, our mental library highlights pathways – akin to a lexical motorway – connecting language, concepts, experiences and memories.

The teacher’s role here is to help learners to be more aware of word learning strategies to activate in order to connect their own, unique pathways, and forging roadmaps of linguistic connection within the mental library.

As part of the approach to vocabulary instruction I outline in my book Word Power, children can enlist the help of the dynamic team of superheroes to ‘power-up’ learning strategies.

Each superhero of the Word Power League has been designed for learners to zoom in on different features of language such as listening to sounds in words, spotting visual features, exploring word history, investigating meaning, and uncovering root words (including prefixes and suffixes).

Two special members of this lexical band of heroes are focused on helping children forge stronger connections both inwardly and outwardly. Professor Personal helps learners to unlock personal links with new language and ideas: what does this word make me think of? What associations can I make?

Captain Connector, on the other hand, helps learners springboard associations beyond the target word: what other words can I connect that mean the same, the opposite, share a root word or share a visual pattern? Which other words can I link to help me communicate more effectively about this idea?

Professor Personal and Captain Connector help learners connect the dots when learning new language. Consider the following routes, outlining two different starting points for exploring word meanings…

Route 1: Link new words to familiar experiences

Teach children a new or unfamiliar word and actively link to words and concepts that are already known.

When learning about the idea of conservation, there are many fantastic texts to explore such as The Promise, a picture book by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Laura Carlin; The Lost Words, a collection of ‘nature spells’ by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris; and The Last Bear, a novel by Hannah Gold, illustrated by Levi Penfold.

The word conservation may be unfamiliar; however, it provides a golden opportunity to unlock existing language and ideas related to this concept.

Forge connections with familiar words such as care, keep, save and protect. Help children to build roadmaps with coupled words to build strong mental schema and foster knowledge of semantic relationships. Teach words in related groups to communicate the approach with a clear purpose.

As a cross-curricular example, consider fieldwork in a geographical sense. While this term may be new to some children, highlighting the morphology of the word (familiar root words – field and work) can help pupils connect new and known.

You could also highlight other linked words, to support description of the process of carrying out fieldwork, such as: study, look, find and explore.

Route 2: Link new language to familiar words

Start with something familiar in their mental library and then extend into new ideas and linked language.

One word that will be very familiar is playtime! By starting with a known idea or concept (play or playtime), we have the opportunity to open new pathways into more challenging words such as recreation, relaxation, leisure or entertainment.

Don’t pass over the opportunity to focus on seemingly simple words. The key is in the connection; teach words in groups rather than as isolated units.

In a cross-curricular context, consider how the word art could springboard connected word learning. Art may be familiar as a subject or as something that is produced (artwork), but how do children describe the processes when creating art?

You could launch a purposeful investigation into linked words such as material, creative, product, sculpting, technique or designer. Think carefully about which words will be most useful and let the connection commence!

By connecting the vocabulary dots, we are starting from a place of celebration rather than of deficit. Children bring a wealth of knowledge to the table; let’s bring this into the conversation.

Launch the connection journey by unlocking what children already know. Next, Power-Up by explicitly teaching language alongside word-learning strategies to deepen connections.

Model strategies and teach related words in semantic groups to forge new mental pathways. Finally, don’t forget that mental motorways need maintenance. Ensure regular opportunities for learners to charge and recharge newly learned words with a purpose.

Find more vocabulary in context ideas and activities from Kelly here. —————————————————————————————————————————–

Six word game ideas

  • Hexagonal learning: Write each target word onto a hexagon shape. Encourage children to physically connect hexagons by articulating how words are related (e.g. by meaning, sound or visual features).
  • Word web: Start with a target word (from instruction) and create a ‘web’ of connected ideas (mind map). Link words with the same or similar meanings (synonyms), words that mean the opposite (antonyms), and other ideas or related contexts.
  • Noughts and crosses: Are you ready for the O & X challenge? Set up a game board with familiar target words written in each section of the grid. To ‘capture’ the square, get pupils to share a personal connection with the chosen word – what do they think of when they hear it?
  • Word riddles: Come up with a word-themed riddle to describe a target word. For example, for playtime you might write: “This word has two syllables. It is made up of two root words. The first root word rhymes with stay. We have this every day in school.”
  • Personal link: As a group, share personal links to target words. What does this word make you think about? How do we connect with words in different ways?
  • Question master: Recharge knowledge of new words with these question stems: How might… Who would… How could…

Kelly Ashley is a freelance English consultant based in Yorkshire and author of Word Power: Amplifying vocabulary instruction (2019). Follow Kelly on Twitter @kashleyenglish and see more of her work at

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