Vocabulary is V.I.T.A.L

From a young age we start to build our receptive language by identifying sounds and words spoken to us, make links between them and develop an awareness of language and the world around us. We are constantly learning new vocabulary incidentally from our surroundings.

By Sarah Dean on 03 Oct 2019

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” ― Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Why is teaching vocabulary so important?

From a young age we start to build our receptive language by identifying sounds and words spoken to us, make links between them and develop an awareness of language and the world around us. We are constantly learning new vocabulary incidentally from our surroundings.

Learning, however, is an ongoing, infinite process. It is essential that, as teachers, we support and encourage children’s development of language to enable them to be successful in school, ensure they are ready for the next stage of education (EIF) and provide them with the ability to communicate confidently in the outside world.

Research carried out by Hart and Risley (1995) shows that there is a vocabulary gap of approximately 30 million words between people from different social classes. They suggest that children from professional, high income families are exposed to approximately 45 million words during childhood compared to children with a working-class background being exposed to around 26 million and those from low income families just 13 million words.

However, this doesn’t merely apply to one’s childhood and academic success. Studying 11,000 children born in Britain in 1970, Law and Rush (2009) suggested possible disadvantages in the later life of a child possessing limited vocabulary. The results demonstrated that those with poor vocabulary at age 5 were four times as likely to have difficulties in adulthood, three times as likely to have mental health concerns and twice as likely to be unemployed.

In his book ‘Closing the Vocabulary gap’ (2018), Alex Quigley explains that this gap can begin early, possibly before children even start school. He suggests that a significant cause of this was limited communication levels at home after determining that parents employed in the professions spoke 32 million more words to their children than parents in families receiving welfare.

With this knowledge under our belt, it is essential that schools take on the challenge to reduce this gap. If children are not exposed to enough fresh vocabulary through reading and communication at home, then it is crucial that we, as educators, provide them with the opportunity of daily exposure to new vocabulary through sharing high quality texts, discussing words in different contexts, exploring word origins and families in order to significantly increase their word banks.

How can we reduce the gap?

In their ‘Improving Literacy in KS2’ (2017) document, the EEF state that the approach to developing vocabulary can be split into two groups: (1) explicit teaching of new vocabulary and (2) exposure to a rich language environment with opportunities to hear and confidently experiment with new words. Alongside this document, a highly recommended read from Alex Quigley, ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ (2018), describes, in great depth, how to successfully achieve this. He talks about creating ‘word rich classrooms’.

Let us start with one of the most important aspects - reading for pleasure which is key to developing vocabulary. It is obvious that the more a person reads, the more words they encounter. Providing our pupils with challenging and exciting high-quality texts; an environment in which to discuss books and encouraging a love of reading are the essential foundations to foster a wide range of opportunities for the development of a rich vocabulary. It also enables them to see vocabulary used in a range of different contexts (EEF, 2017) developing their understanding through receptive learning and enabling them to make links across meanings.

Quigley also discusses the effectiveness of academic conversation in the classroom as a means of enhancing vocabulary. During our everyday dialogue, teachers should be models in the use of vocabulary previously unknown to our pupils or use alternative and more advanced synonyms to familiar words. If we use them in a context that is comprehendible or familiar to them then they can make links, broaden their understanding and learn new vocabulary effortlessly (Amy Benjamin, 2017).

Below is an example of how we can make simple changes to the language we use daily:

Significant though the above approaches are, in order to provide pupils with a fully effective vocabulary bank Ofsted say that it is no longer enough to just teach words implicitly. They explicit an approach through direct, coherent planning of specific and relevant vocabulary making connections and categorising words. EEF 2017 ‘Improving Literacy in KS2’ found extensive evidence for the efficacy of explicit teaching of new vocabulary. The document suggests that words may be pre-taught and discussed to aid reading comprehension, vocabulary should be explored in different contexts and digital technology to be used to help develop and teach vocabulary.

At One Education we have explored how explicit teaching of vocabulary can work successfully within schools and have developed an approach to achieve this through manageable and effective planning.

Vocab is V.I.T.A.L

1. Valuing Vocabulary

Ofsted have acknowledged the central role of vocabulary within their new draft inspection framework. Although we must retain a certain amount of autonomy with regards to the direction we take in matters of the curriculum, it is encouraging to see this being recognised in their documentation, reflecting the important role that a coherent vocabulary strategy has in a robust curriculum. Consequently, it is important that vocabulary is a part of every subject and a central part of a school’s curriculum.

It is pertinent to ask ourselves where we place the importance of vocabulary in our school curriculum. How do we value it? How do we teach it? Are our classrooms language rich? Is there opportunity for our pupils to learn and collect new exciting vocabulary to embed in their speech, writing and improve their reading comprehension? Or is vocabulary seen as a chore, somehow external to lessons, something we ‘teach on the side’ to ‘tick a box’?

Our aim when teaching every subject is to capture a pupil’s interest, as this is essential to fully engage them and improve their understanding. We need to replicate this approach when teaching vocabulary.

In order that children’s breadth of vocabulary grows it is crucial that we, as teachers, provide and demonstrate a wealth of words and instil a love for words. This can be achieved by creating a word consciousness amongst pupils, by making the learning visible and valued.

@MrMclugash - Working walls of ‘language we love’ collected from class novels.

Word parades – creating an excitement and buzz about words across the whole school.

2. Identifying vocabulary

It is important that we are exposing children to concepts (words) within subjects and studying them in more depth in order to strengthen their understanding of topics and allow them to build on knowledge acquired in previous year groups. The stronger a child’s understanding of a certain word is, the more likely they will be be able to attach new vocabulary and knowledge on top (Marcus Jones, Huntington Research School).

This approach can potentially unnerve teachers and there may be reasonable support for the argument that the teaching of every individual word is impossible due to sheer volume. We needn’t worry about this, as teaching less vocabulary, but in more detail, will unlock meaning and links between words and language. So how to do we successfully select the words that we want our pupils to learn and utilise? Looking at your curriculum and the topics that you want to teach throughout primary education, what are the crucial concepts that will best support pupil understanding in any specific subject?

For example, in Science children are introduced to the concepts of mammals and amphibians in KS1. This terminology needs to be embedded at this stage for them to be able, in Year 4, to successfully explore and use classification keys to help group, identify and name a variety of living creatures in their local and wider environment. Furthermore, knowledge of these animals is needed to describe and compare different life cycles later on in KS2. We must ensure that we are identifying vocabulary we want to ‘embed’ to enable this progression and explicitly teach it and not just insert bland and tedious glossaries in books at the start of a topic for children to memorise definitions by rote.

For example: The word amphibian comes from the Greek word amphibios, which means "to live a double life." The noun amphibian has its roots in the words ‘amphi’, meaning of both kinds, and ‘bios’, meaning life. Meaning they can survive both on land and in water. Imparting this to children will enable them to make links when they study animals and their habitats later on.

Although this terminology is crucial to understanding and learning, it is important that we don’t solely focus on teaching tier 3 vocabulary. We must also spend quality time teaching the tier 2 vocabulary that almost invariably supports the understanding of that subject-specific terminology.

With the increasing demands of the curriculum, we need to expose our pupils to the use of academic language, that tier 2 vocabulary that we want them to be able to understand, but also apply in their own writing and maintain within their vocabularies. It is more likely that this exposure will occur through reading rather than everyday conversation therefore the texts we choose to share with our pupils are crucial. When selecting extracts or texts to use across the curriculum, it is essential that we plan ahead and consider the following:

  • Are the texts high quality and appropriately challenging for the pupils’ age?
  • What prior knowledge may pupils’ need to relate to the text?
  • When identifying specific vocabulary to teach, what is going to be most useful to your pupils?
  • Are there any abstract words that represent ideas, concepts etc? If so, more time will needed on these.
  • Are there any groups of words that can be taught together rather individually?
  • Does it contain any existing vocabulary in new contexts (EEF, 2017)?
  • Use resources such as Oxford 3000, or One Education’s vocabulary progression document (available through the Reading Award).

These are merely pointers to think about when selecting texts. Once chosen, it is important to identify the most useful vocabulary; that which either is going to teach the children more about the topic, or develop their reading comprehension.

The following extract taken from “Cogheart“ by Peter Bunzl, demonstrates how children may need prior knowledge of the topic to help them understand the text. The subject specific vocabulary is in red.

It is clear from the passage that some prior understanding of airships would be required. Perhaps it would be beneficial to show the pupils’ pictures or videos of these beforehand so that they can relate to the text when read. The words in green are the tier 2 words that would need to be taught explicitly. An understanding of these words and use in other contexts would be necessary to understand their meaning within this extract. The words are essential to allow comparisons between the two ships and subsequently form any inferences.

For each topic, tier 2 and 3 vocabulary can be planned beforehand in a coherent and organised way in order to ensure understanding. Download the example vocabulary planning to see how vocabulary can be planned for “The Water Cycle” with an explanation text outcome for Year 4.

3. Teaching Vocabulary

When we have selected the vocabulary we wish to teach our pupils, we must then decide how this will be taught and when. This doesn’t have to be extra sessions to fit into already overcrowded timetables. It can be done whilst reading and enjoying a class novel together, whilst limiting interruptions to the reading flow; using guided reading; word of the day sessions or perhaps cross-curricular, introducing texts, topics or concepts etc.

The amount of time spent will depend on the complexity, history and word families and remember, it might be easier to teach certain words in groups rather than on their own.

Example: Realistic, unrealistic, reality, really – they all share the same root word ‘real’.

Once children have a word consciousness built in them, you will find that conversations about vocabulary will happen freely and naturally within all lessons or times of the day.

In her workshop ‘Infusing vocabulary into the reading and writing’, Amy Benjamin suggests that to really understand and remember a word, we need to spend some quality time with it, get to know its history and family (etymology), subtleties, synonyms, near synonyms, antonyms, near antonyms, spelling and morphological forms (word parts). These are all strategies that we call upon as confident readers when we are faced with unfamiliar vocabulary. Teaching pupils to use morphemes (root words, prefixes and suffixes) can develop their vocabulary while also improving phonological awareness, decoding, and spelling. It can develop their reading comprehension and help them make links to other words and start to build a word consciousness that will only develop as they learn more.

To teach new vocabulary, we suggest that you use a simple structure that is easily adaptable depending on time limits or complexity:

  • Hook (if possible, show an image or film clip to get children thinking and linking the concept to their background knowledge)
  • Introduce (introduce the word)
  • Sound out (focus on sound (phonology), e.g. initial sound, syllables, rhyming words etc)
  • Define (model how you use the word and explain the term – this could include using videos, pictures etc)
  • Use the word in different sentences, e.g. The sphere is a 3D shape. The ball is a sphere. The Earth is shaped like a sphere. An example of a sphere is a globe or a football.
  • For the definition use the COBUILD definition.
  • Use the word (pupils to put the information given into their own words, e.g. in a sentence, their own definition, what it is or isn’t)
  • Represent (children to draw, act or symbolise the word)
  • Relate (find synonyms)
  • Be a word detective (explore the morphology and etymology)
  • Talk (use it in conversation and oral rehearsal)
  • Play Games (practice using and exploring the word through rhyming, acting and competition)

Download our Word Map resource template

4. Applying new vocabulary

For children to apply this new vocabulary it is important that we as teachers enable time for them to practice using them orally, in a written context and explore them further and reduce the support provided.

We have an extensive list of suggested games and activities to play within lessons that will be shared in our training ‘Vocabulary is V.I.TA.L research project’ on Wednesday 23rd October. These can be used to help children try out their new vocabulary; explore it in different contexts and create links to other words.

Here are some examples of quick activities to help practice using new vocabulary:

Spin wheel - act words out, draw them and use them in sentences. Great for practising and building confidence!

Great ideas on twitter, thanks @MrBoothY6 for this game of Heads Up with new vocabulary – easily adaptable to any subject!

Click here to download this resource

Beck (2005) + www.

5. Knowing that vocabulary is learnt

How can we ensure new words ‘stick’ so that children can remember them and use them confidently in different contexts?

Research indicates that we need repeated exposure to any new word (up to 28 times!) before becoming fluent in its use. Of course, achieving this for all words taught is impossible. Repeated exposure is the key to success and recapping activities for words taught yesterday, last week, last term will let pupils revise their learning.

Vocabulary vessels are effective; simply place target words in a pot and occasionally draw one out and revise its meaning. Or add target words to PowerPoint presentations and replay some of them. Download example resource here of a presentation used for Mrs Armitage’s Wheels - Year 2


Vocabulary is V.I.T.A.L research project

If you would like to learn more about how you can plan a coherent and organised progression of vocabulary for your school why not sign up to our CPD research project starting on Wednesday 23rd October.

The vocabulary project will explore current research and best practice for the teaching and learning of vocabulary across the curriculum.

Delegates will engage in two half day CPD sessions (23rd October and 1st July), set up a support network between those involved, receive project support by email, and it also includes a bespoke face to face support session in school. This allows for the project to be adapted to support the needs of your school.

If you wish to attend the two half day CPD sessions plus have one half day bespoke support in school, the price is £450. Alternatively, if you wish to just attend the two CPD sessions, it is £180. Click here for more information or to book your place.

Support from One Education

If you are in the middle of adapting your current curriculum and want to put vocabulary and reading at the heart of it, we can certainly help you plan vocabulary to suit your topics and texts throughout the school so that it is progressive and clear. We also offer bespoke training to staff on vocabulary and how to keep it V.I.T.A.L.


  • Alex Quigley, 2018 ‘Closing the vocabulary gap’. Routledge. London
  • Amy Benjamin, 2017. Infusing Vocabulary Into the Reading-Writing Workshop. Routledge. New York
  • EEF 2017 ‘Improving Literacy in KS2’ found extensive evidence for the efficacy of teaching vocab – exposure to a language rich environment and explicit teaching of new vocab.

Please get in touch or visit this page for more information.

Go back

Other news & Blogs

Share post

Want to know more?

Contact Us

Find us:
Universal Sqaure,
Devonshire St N,
M12 6JH
Main Contact:
0161 276 0160
One Education Music:
0844 967 1116
One Education ICT:
0844 967 1113