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Improve students’ vocabulary – 5 ways to boost word power

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

  • Improve students’ vocabulary – 5 ways to boost word power

1 | Try this today: Check specs

The act of writing, for a novice pupil, is incredibly complex. Researchers have argued that it’s tantamount to playing a game of check (AKA chess), and indeed, writing is full of ‘moves’ – handwriting, spelling, word choices, editing, revising and much more besides.

Because writing is so complicated, many pupils will struggle and habitually make seemingly simple mistakes.

A simple strategy for editing and revising any piece of writing is to get pupils to wear their (metaphorical) ‘Check Specs’.

This playful notion of wearing glasses can conceal the more serious purpose of having students take a more critical, bird’s eye view their work, and it also works well as a paired task.

2 | ‘Cracking the academic code’

Sentence fragments are one of the most common flaws that appear in pupils’ academic writing.

Put simply, a sentence fragment describes when a sentence is incomplete. The basic building blocks of a sentence typically require a main clause with a subject/verb/object (‘I love vocabulary.’), but fragments miss a key element, or wrongly detach themselves from a main clause (‘I love vocabulary. Because it makes my writing better.’)

Fragments have usually drifted away from the main clause in a previous sentence.

Sentence combining practice, using commas, colons and semi-colons, usually fixes the problem.

3 | One for: English students


Derives from: Greek – ‘grammatike’, meaning ‘the art of letters’
Means: The systematic rules and usages of language
Related terms: grammatical, grammar school, grammarian, syntax, morphology and glamour
Note: Grammar was linked to broader knowledge, such as magic, and so shares the roots of the word ‘glamour’!

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

New radical

In biology and chemistry = molecules with unpaired electrons that are unstable and damaging to the human body

In history, politics and general use = a ‘radical’ in history or politics advocates for major social change

5 | One word at a time

Many words change meaning over time. Some go from plain beginnings to taking on provocative meanings. ‘Vanilla’ is one of those rare words that has changed its meaning from something rather exciting and provocative to, well… something more vanilla.

Deriving from Spanish – vanilla itself comes from South America – the word ‘vanilla’ means ‘little sheath’, with origins in the Latin word ‘vagina’, denoting the sheath of an ear of grain.

The modern notion of vanilla, connoting something plain and dull, is likely linked to the ice cream flavour and its common white colouring. However, a little etymological exploration uncovers its much more interesting roots…

Do they know?

The ‘i before e’ rule only applies to around 75% of words in English (and not to, for instance, ‘weird’, ‘feisty’ or ‘heist’).

Alex Quigley is a former teacher and author of Closing the Reading Gap and Closing the Vocabulary Gap; he also works for the Education Endowment Foundation as National Content Manager.

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