Digging deep: Vocabulary teaching is not just about breadth.


Thanks for explaining the word “many” to me, it means a lot.

I’ve always taken pride in describing myself as a lover of language.  Scrabble gets very competitive in my house, our favourite jokes are those that involve puns and I’m a big  fan of Susie Dent’s dictionary corner.  I’ve also always considered myself to be a good teacher of vocabulary – trying hard to share my love of etimology when pulling words and spellings apart with KS2 and delighting in my EYFS class when they use challenging and appropriate vocabulary in their play.  The books I chose were as much due to the rich and adventurous language they offered as the journeys they took us on and word games always featured heavily in my classrooms. I was great at delivering breadth – even if I do say so myself!

However, this year, I have begun to evaluate how to best teach vocabulary and came to the conclusion we were not delivering the other half of vocabulary instruction – explicit teaching for depth – with anywhere near enough rigour.  l would like to share some of the success of our new approach this year.  This little blog is by no means all my own work – it is very much a mish-mash of the wise words from ‘Reading reconsidered’ by Doug Lemov; various blogs and teach meet presentations by @Mr_P_Hillips and @Vocabularyninja; a lot of reading and discussion with the ever wise world of EduTwitter and trial and error at school.  I hope you can use what’s here and make it your own too.

So here it is. In addition to the rich implicit language teaching that came as part of our curriculum, we decided to teach three 10 – 15 minute direct, discreet explicit vocabulary sessions a week where the children would learn to master a word – to get to know it and all its nuances and subtleties to a depth where they could apply it precisely in a range of contexts. Often, but not exclusively, these sessions would sit before a reading lesson.

step-1Word choice (Plan!)

Immensely important and not a step to skip over.  We asked teachers not to rely solely on another teacher’s choice or ‘word of the day’ resources.  The words must be specifically chosen for their importance, utility or relevance to the context of their class.  Maybe they would appear in their texts (the children will be amazed at the coincidence!); perhaps they will be relevant to their writing or topic discussions.  Whichever words you choose and plan for, the children will need to have opportunities to use and apply them in that week, in different contexts and for different reasons – or they won’t stick!


Time spent reminding ourselves about the tiers of language was worth its weight in gold here and definitely worth exploring with your staff if it is unfamiliar.  We decided that we would focus our explicit teaching on Tier Two Words – the vocabulary often found in literature, important for language comprehension and key to increasing precision vocabulary.  Tier Three Words were often our topic words (such as germinate) and didn’t require such discussion about levels of meaning in different contexts.  We also acknowledged that many of our children had wide gaps in Tier One Words and this would have to be addressed with further intervention.

Word choice is now a crucial part of planning time and discussion in year groups teams.


Give an accurate and child friendly definition. (2 mins)

Again – reading ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was a game-changer here for me.  I own up to having spent many minutes in lessons asking students what they thought words meant, bouncing the discussion around before settling on a near-accurate definition that I would then tweak.  Lemov advocates giving a clear, pre-prepared definition so the inquiry time can be spent understanding the levels of meaning and applying the word and not guessing what it means, exposing students to several potentially wrong definitions!

Creating the perfect definition isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It can’t be too simple that the pupils will apply it incorrectly.  Overly complicated and the pupils won’t understand.  It must be accurate and concise.

It was @Mr_P_hillips that introduced to Collins Co-build and I’m yet to find a definition that I didn’t like or couldn’t use.

step 3

MODEL the use of word in a few different contexts. (3 mins)

Pride: a feeling of satisfaction which you have because you or people close to you have done something good

Images here are your friend, as are actions and voices. Your class need to hear the word used in a few different contexts with the parameters of use clearly explained.  Which words are commonly used with your word of choice?  In which contexts would you usually hear it?  Which suffixes/ prefixes are used with it?  Is it an adjective?  An adverb? Shades of meaning then should be discussed – and it is here that rich discussion can be had.  How is dejected different to upset?  Which is louder: knocked or tapped?  How would you tell if a character was frustrated – what would they do?  What might they say?


step 4Make it stick. (5 mins)

The key to this step is active practice.  Yes, the pupils need to be exposed to the word numerous times for them to remember it but it is not just about exposure.  It involves problem solving and should be intellectually challenging and/ or appeal to their emotions.  It should require them to master meaning and ponder usage.

A few key tips:

  • Make the pupils USE the word in context when they are answering questions about it.
  • Push for precision.  Don’t accept ‘nearly’ there and always correct during practice, whether the pupil has used the wrong form, incorrect tense or not got the context quite right.
  • If asking the children to write a sentence using the word, giving sentence stems or contexts for the sentence will require your class to demonstrate their understanding of the word better than just ‘write a sentence.’  For example, for the word ‘resent‘ ask your class to write a sentence explaining why the boy resented his brother.  A simple ‘use the word because in your sentence’ often works too.
  • Linking to your text could be possible at this stage too, though do be careful not to overload the learning.  eg/  In Holes, should Stanley resent Hector?  After all… he stole the trainers.
  • The children love miming the word – often to much hilarity and actions that can easily be referenced for memory later.
  • A quick sketch of the word is also powerful – it doesn’t have to be perfect!  In KS2, we especially love use of @Vocabularyninja’s vocabulary laboratory here to pull it all together.
  • My absolute favourite is developing a shades of meaning/ levels of intensity scale with the class.  It can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal and stimulates such deep discussion and love of words.  The class love it too.  It can be done in various ways – our Ks1 classes have scales fixed on their working walls where the children can place the words as they discuss eg/ words that mean happy from ‘content’ to ‘delirious’ or synonyms for said ordered by volume.  Is murmur louder than whisper?  What about mumble?  Can you imagine that discussion with 6 year olds?   20180331_231549.jpgFurther into ks2 the activity has also developed further through choosing which words are most appropriate to the context of a sentence from a given number, using dictionaries, ordering the words and then justifying their choices.
  • Some classes have also begun to send the words home (with definitions) to encourage families to drop them into conversation.  This is something we will be further developing next term.

Throughout the week, we obviously return to the words, model use in lesson context and actively encourage for them to be applied with whatever incentives work for each class.  Two terms in and we are beginning to feel the impact – and the children are certainly beginning to cherish words more.





5 thoughts on “Digging deep: Vocabulary teaching is not just about breadth.

  1. Love this post. Thank you for summarising so eloquently your ideas and research around this topic. I recognise many of your resources and have ‘crashed’ a Twitter community which has broadened my thinking as well as my access to resources and best practice. This is perfect for me as our school, Launceston Church Grammar School, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, has recognised a ‘gap’ in our reading comprehension and the explicit teaching of vocabulary would seem to be the key. I have volunteered to pilot a study then report back to staff with my findings. All the while I’m playing with words with my Year 5’s using many of the strategies you advocate and have noticed a dramatic shift in their understanding, attitude and enjoyment of language.Thank you for taking the time and care to articulate your ideas and your practice. I feel like I’ve found a nugget of gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh what a lovely comment- thank you so much for taking the time. I wish you lots of luck in your endeavour- I wholeheartedly believe building vocabulary with our children is one of the most important things we can do.


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