Published on: 18 Oct 2018

Teaching vocabulary

By Lucy Hadfield, Commissioning Editor, GL Assessment

Our words are what we use to express ourselves, how we make ourselves heard and how we understand what others are saying to us. Having a wide and varied vocabulary allows us to articulate what we really think and feel whether in our speech or when writing, and it follows that vocabulary will have a huge impact on a child’s attainment, self-esteem and future opportunities.

If we cannot find a word to convey what we really are thinking, then we must substitute an alternative word which may not be quite right. For example, if I had been stuck in a traffic jam which had made me late for an important meeting and I wanted to explain how I had felt at the time, I might say that I felt ‘upset’ or ‘irritated’ but these words don’t convey the same meaning as feeling ‘frustrated’. ‘Frustration’ is defined as ‘feeling or expressing distress and annoyance resulting from an inability to change or achieve something’, which more accurately expresses my feelings when delayed.

We often only associate vocabulary with literacy but it is an important aspect of any subject. If a student is unable to understand the word ‘monarch’ they may have difficulty being able to follow a history lesson. A lengthy maths or science question may include unfamiliar words and ask students to explain why they came to their conclusion, and this can be a struggle if their vocabulary is poor. 

A recent Oxford Language Report, Why Closing the Word Gap Matters, stressed the importance of a rich vocabulary, stating that ‘children with a poor vocabulary at five are four times more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood and three times more likely to have mental health issues’. Often children who don’t read for pleasure have a more limited vocabulary than their peers and the vocab deficit in early years widens as children grow up.

At a recent PiXL English Conference, there was a clear focus on vocabulary and PiXL Strategy Lead Rachel Johnson spoke about effective and creative ways to help students to use varied words in their writing.  Rachel explained that providing students with a long list of definitions is only helpful to a point because children need to be taught the origin of a word, how to use it correctly in a sentence and how to pronounce it to fully understand it and to feel confident enough to include in their own vocabulary.

It’s very important when teaching vocabulary not to rely too heavily on thesauruses and to make clear that simply swapping one word for another similar one can confuse the original meaning. Rachel gave an example of when she had taught a group of students about describing art and that she had described a painting of an eagle as being ‘beautiful and majestic’. While the meanings of the two words do overlap slightly, beautiful and majestic do not mean exactly the same thing and they are certainly not interchangeable. We often describe new born babies as being ‘beautiful’ but it would be unheard of to describe a new born baby as ‘majestic’.

Rachel cited a further example from Doug Lemov’s book, Reading Reconsidered, about the word ‘excerpt’. A student had understood this to be ‘a piece of something’ and had spoken about having ‘an excerpt of pizza’. While the student’s understanding of the word ‘excerpt’ wasn’t completely incorrect, it also wasn’t the right use of the word and a further explanation was needed to make clear that an ‘excerpt’ was only applicable when referring to a piece of text.

Many of us will remember the episode of Friends when Joey discovers a thesaurus for the first time and decides to replace every single word in a letter with an alternative one, even signing his name as ‘baby kangaroo’. While this scenario has been created for comic effect, it also makes clear how we must understand exactly what a word means to use it effectively and successfully. A rich and varied vocabulary is an essential tool for a full education.