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Should you Teach Vocabulary Directly or Learn New Words Through Reading?

Taught or caught? Is it best to explicitly teach vocabulary or help children access new words by exploring meaty texts, asks Teresa Cremin...

  • Should you Teach Vocabulary Directly or Learn New Words Through Reading?

Children need a rich and ever-widening vocabulary to succeed in school, of that there can be no doubt. Studies indicate a strong relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension and as educators we recognise that those youngsters with extensive vocabularies draw upon this in their written work. It’s win-win for those with a wide vocabulary.

But not all young people are ‘word-rich’, to borrow Geoff Barton’s phrase, and it’s our professional responsibility to offer vocabulary instruction and create environments in which a rich and diverse language is heard, assimilated and used by children for their own purposes.

Children learn from the company they keep: from the oral language used by teachers, friends and family, from the books they read and that are read to them, and from their online and media engagement. New words are both caught and taught.

Interaction and hearing the abstract language of texts are key to widening vocabulary, alongside work with texts which involves specific attention to targeted vocabulary. Both are valuable; they mutually reinforce each other and operate in complex combination.

We need creative and engaging ideas to develop children’s vocabulary. Here are four ways which can enrich children’s pleasure in reading, invoke their interest in word meanings and widen their vocabulary. All offer opportunities to engage in language in the context of its use.

Reading aloud

This is crucial. Hearing stories read aloud exposes children to a wider than usual range of grammatical structures and vocabulary, especially if the books chosen are literary and read with emphasis and inflection to help surface the meaning.

Without skilled use of the voice to engage children and help convey the meanings of words, the potential of reading aloud as a tool for widening vocabulary is reduced.

Pausing occasionally to invite pair talk, re-read a passage and explore any challenging language through discussion can help, but avoid destroying the pleasure of the tale with constant interruptions and interrogations.

If you are going to base later literacy work around a chapter, for instance, then try to read it initially without questions, revisiting it another day to explore the language and layers of meaning.

Words through drama

Bringing words to life through brief drama activities can support explicit explanations and embed the meanings of words. Invite children to walk into the classroom in the manner of a word (for example, the adverbs ‘clumsily’ or ‘haughtily’) or adopt a position that depicts a character as described at a point in a text.

Alternatively, in groups, create short improvisations to reveal words in action, but without using them.

Do this by creating a scene in which words drawn from Tier 2/3 or your class novel (eg ‘tyrant/oppressive’, ‘nervous/hesitant’ or ‘delighted/unimpressed’) are demonstrated by the actions of those involved. In guessing the words depicted, the class will generate synonyms.

You can then write short sentences or paragraphs using these words.

Poetry performance

Due to its condensed nature and language which draws attention to itself, poetry offers children the chance to notice ‘the best words in the best order’ (as Coleridge described it) and then voice and inhabit these.

Help children explore word meanings by performing poetry (using it as a form of play script) and chanting, adding actions, body/musical percussion, ostinatos and such like.

Encourage pupils to use this new vocabulary as they play their way forwards in groups: repeating, rehearsing and beginning to own the layered language of their chosen poem. Invite them to use some of this vocabulary in writing, sooner rather than later, to help embed it.

Audio books

Access to audio books well-read by actors and authors further enriches opportunities for hearing and enjoying fiction and poetry. It also introduces children to new writers and establishes ‘books in common’ which can be discussed.

Establish an audio library (with the text too) or create resources for your school website (eg staff recordings of picture books or chapters of a novel) to support children who are not read to at home.


Listening to potent texts enables children to gain access to new words and target language. Interacting with this language through dramatising and performing stories, poems or words prompts active engagement and helps to avoid the teaching and learning of vocabulary becoming an atomised, decontextualized experience. Caught or taught, the research is clear, language is best developed in the context of use.


Teresa Cremin is professor of literacy in education at the Open University.

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