What’s the best way to teach vocabulary?


I don’t think it’s controversial to say that being able to read, understand and write words is incredibly important to every child’s education. It might even be so plainly obvious as to not merit questioning. The more words my students can read and understand, the more complex and challenging texts they can acess. The more words my students can comfortably use in their writing, the more able they’ll be to write interesting and challenging pieces, in a wider range of contexts. Knowledge is power, and language is the gateway to knowledge.

So, the question is, what’s the best way to teach vocabulary? I’ll start by describing how I’ve often seen vocabulary lessons work, and how I’ve taught vocabulary in the past, before offering an alternative, based on a recent lesson.

A typical vocabulary lesson

You start with a group of words. These words are boring. Words like ‘big’, ‘nice’, ‘said’, ‘walk’, ‘and’. Then you find some alternatives, usually with a thesaurus, and students write them in their books. Now, instead of just having the word ‘said’ you have a list of alternatives like ‘grumbled’, ‘exclaimed’ and ‘bellowed’. These words are exciting. You might, depending on your approach to differentiation, assign APP levels to these words, so that ‘said’ is deemed a ‘level 4’ word and ‘exclaimed’ is assigned as a level 6. Now the onus is on the students being able to eschew ‘said’ for its more exciting alternatives.

Having definitely taught lessons similar to this in the past, I think I’m in a good position to be critical of them. Here’s my three main bones of contention:

1. My first issue here is with the idea that you can assign a word a different level. It fails to acknowledge the nuanced meaning of the words, their subtle differences, and precisely where they might be appropriate. Instead, it puts them in an artificial pecking order.

2. Said is a valuable word. Sometimes people just ‘say’ things. And in the right context, an A* student will use so-called ‘boring’ words effectively. By getting students to hunt for words in a thesaurus, away from the context of an actual piece of writing, we are not getting them to think carefully enough about how any of their word choices should be linked to the effect they hope to achieve for a specific piece of writing. If students were trying to write from a specific point of view, or as a specific character, ‘said’ might be far more appropriate than ‘exclaimed’.

3. I think there are better ways to get students to actually learn vocabulary, so they are still able to use that word weeks/moths later. Using a word that you’ve stumbled across in the thesaurus only once, may not be sufficient. There’s not enough deliberate practice.

At this point I’d like to reiterate that I’m trying to be critical of my own lessons. I’m sure there’s some value to how I’ve taught vocabulary in the past, but I think there are better ways.

A different vocabulary lesson

 photo (13)At the start of the lesson, students worked in groups, each group with one of these cups, filled with vocabulary. A little more time preparing then I’d normally like due to guillotine issues, but there was definitely a ‘buzz’ in the room regarding these mystery cups. On their tables or 4-5 students, their task was to divide the words into sub groups based on meaning. By working in groups, students were able to discuss and share ideas, and different thoughts on the given words. The class had begun planning a piece of travel writing, so each word had been chosen based on the suitability for this style of writing, with some deliberately challenging words. Here’s the list if you’re interested. VOCABULARY FOR TRAVEL

A few things struck me about this activity. Firstly, working out meaning, and putting them in groups became a puzzle, or a problem, and all groups were fully committed to finding a resolution. Also, it allowed a lot of discussion about different shades of meaning. For instance, discussing why ‘rare’ and ‘unusual’ might go in the same group, but how they might also be different. Exploring how both the words ‘captivating’ and ‘charming’ could both describe your impressions of a place, but still belong in different groups. I was also surprised at how many of the words the students could work with, placing in appropriate groups, even though I was fairly sure they would never consider including them in their writing.

After this activity, each student made two lists of words in their books: Words they did not yet understand and words they understood, but felt they wouldn’t use in their writing, which included new words from their discussions. The first list was more for me, to gauge what vocabulary I might introduce in later lessons. The second list was for them, to help expand their working vocabulary from words which were understood, yet unused.

Now it was time to practice. As I said earlier, I don’t think asking students just to write something, including words they have found in a thesaurus, provides enough practice for them to actually learn the word. It probably doesn’t provide them with enough support either. So when it became time to practise this vocabulary, I tried to follow a couple of principles. Firstly from Doug Lemov’s blog here on syntax play, where he mentions that good vocabulary instruction begins with discussion of meaning, then leads to playing with the vocabulary in multiple different sentences. I also wanted to model their practice in a way which helped them use this new vocabulary in interesting sentence structures. I used the ideas from Chris Curtis’ excellent blog here. Chris also very generously shared a great document with me which contains a list of exciting sentence structures.

On the right are the three sentence structures I used to get my students to practise their new vocabulary. I used the word ‘mesmerizing’ to model the process, discussing the meaning with the class before some shared writing. The 5 sentences on the left all came from my students, with a little help from me. Then, students practised writing, using these sentence structures and including vocabulary from the lists in their books. Here are a couple of the examples which were shared at the end of the lesson.

photo (1)

photo (3)



Now I feel I owe an apology. I started the blog posing the question ‘what’s the best way to teach vocabulary?’ probably misleading people into believing I had the answer. Sorry about that. But I do think this lesson, for the most part, dodged my three criticisms from earlier:

1. We didn’t need to mention levels to show progress in this lesson. We devoted our time to discussing shades of meaning and experimentation. Words didn’t need to be placed in an artificial hierarchy, as the onus was on engaging with new words, or words which were known but never used.

2. The lesson fitted into a sequence where students were producing a specific piece of writing. Throughout, we were able to return to the travel writing context and students had to be aware of which words would be best suited to their pieces of writing. Before they left for break, they were able to choose words based on the effects they intended.

3. The practise was structured, it was left less down to chance and students had to practise three sentences with each word. Will they remember all these words in 6 months time? I doubt it, unless this type of deliberate practice is revisited. But early signs are good.

photo (12)

6 thoughts on “What’s the best way to teach vocabulary?

  1. Pingback: Learning key words in Mathematics. | @SPorterEdu

  2. Interesting. I don’t remember ever having vocabulary lessons at school, but my gut (that old expert) does agree with you the simply looking up padding words in a thesaurus is probably a less effective way of getting students to engage with the alternative vocabularies available to them.

    Do you have to write for context at all at school nowadays? It might seem flippant, but writing for web is a different skill to writing for the printed page or ink-stained notebook, and is something people are called upon to do more and more. There is a delicate art that lives between txtspk and printed prose.

  3. Thanks for the comment Emma! Yes, I think context is everything, and every single word choice should be based on the how students want their writing to sound. I think that’s why placing words in a hierarchy is dangerous, because even simpler words could be more appropriate depending on context.

    My driving principle ( I think ) is this. Building word power is fantastic, as it builds choice and builds a student’s ability to express a wider range of thoughts / feelings. But, when asking students to write, the context and the intended effect on the audience must trump the desire for superficial complexity.


  4. Pingback: What does ‘showing’ progress mean anyway? | mrbunkeredu

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