Download James’ free Vocabulary Boosting Activity Pack for KS1 and KS2 that accompanies this article, here.


Vocabulary development is suddenly a hot topic in education, yet schools have long recognised the relationship between language development and children’s academic success.

Teachers in particular are attuned to the importance of helping children develop both the ability to understand spoken and written language, acquiring a control of language that enables them to express their ideas and feelings clearly.

One key aspect of a child’s language development is the growth of their vocabulary – the words they can understand and the words they use to communicate.

Not surprisingly, educational research suggests a strong relationship between vocabulary and comprehension, where a broad vocabulary (knowing lots of words) and a deep vocabulary (knowing those words well) correlates with better understanding.

When children write, a wider vocabulary gives them a rich palette with which to express their ideas, choosing a word to communicate with elegance and precision.

Most of children’s language development and vocabulary growth will come from organic sources, rather than direct teaching: the conversations they have with their families and their peers, and with adults at school, and through the books they read and those that are read to them.

That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t some ways we can help children to learn new words directly, and here are seven such approaches to building children’s vocabulary in the classroom.

1 | Display fascinating words

A great first step is helping children to be aware of any unfamiliar or interesting words they encounter. This might be in the classroom, the books they read, in conversation, or on television.

Having a wordarium on display (see Resource Sheet 1), where children jot down a new word on a sticky note and exhibit it, can motivate pupils to collect words. These can then form the basis of a class discussion, with everyone talking about the exotic new language displayed each week.

2 | Create word webs

Building a word web helps children to think carefully about the meaning of a new word and how it is connected to the words they already know. Resource Sheet 2 gives an example word web and a blank template for children to use as they learn new words around the same topic.

3 | Explore morphology

Morphemes are the smallest units of grammar that convey meaning. They include roots (happi), prefixes (un) and suffixes (ness). By adding them together, we can create words that carry a distinct meaning (unhappiness). Learning some of the most common morphemes can help to unlock the meaning of many different words. Resource Sheet 3 introduces some common morphemes and gives space for children to find some of their own.

4 | Collect words from reading

Learning the meaning of an individual word is trickier than you might think – so much depends on the context. Dog, for example, might refer to a common pet, but it might also mean to follow someone persistently. As the language used in books is often very different to that used in conversation, much of the rich language children learn comes not from explicit vocabulary teaching, but from reading. Resource Sheet 4 is a bookmark for children to collect words as they read and then share in class.

5 | Choose the words carefully

Selecting a small number of key words to introduce to children is a common method of vocabulary teaching, but time is limited so choosing these words carefully is important.

Selecting words linked to specific topic (the Romans, electrical circuits) or words that have been picked because they might be especially useful (‘analyse’ or ‘subtle’, for example – Beck, McKeown and Kucan’s ‘Tier 2 words’) is likely to have a greater impact than arbitrarily choosing some whizzy words for children to shoehorn into their writing.

Resource Sheet 5 is a template children can use to think about the words you have chosen to teach.

6 | Think about idioms

Sometimes knowing what words mean won’t help you understand the meaning of a particular phrase. With an idiom, for example, the meaning is well known, but isn’t reflected in the individual words: you might know what a fence is and you might know what sitting is, but that doesn’t help you know the meaning of sitting on the fence. Resource Sheet 6 gives children the chance to think about idioms.

7 | Explore different vocabularies

Sometimes the discussion around vocabulary teaching begins with mention of a ‘word gap’, where for a range of reasons some children are seen as not having the words or language that their peers can draw on.

Whereas this might be true of some school-specific language, all children are likely to have areas where their vocabulary is already well-developed – often richer and deeper than their peers and the adults around them.

This is especially true of words linked to particular interests – ballet, skateboarding, dinosaurs, gaming. Giving children a chance to celebrate their existing word power is a great starting point for beginning discussions around how we learn words and why we might want to. And who knows, you might even learn a word or two!

Resource Sheet 7 gives a format for children to share their own word knowledge linked to a particular area.

Of course, vocabulary is just one aspect of the broad area of language development. Control of language depends on the words, but also on understanding how to employ the words, matching the purpose and audience to an appropriate grammar and syntax.

If we want children to become as skilled as they can as communicators, it will take more than just learning lots of words. But helping to grow their vocabulary isn’t a bad place to start.

James Clements (@MrJClements) is an education writer.