Beyond the word wall: building vocabulary in the classroom


20th March 2018

Beyond the word wall: building vocabulary in the classroom

Like all teachers, I am often fascinated by the things that children say and write. However, I’m only too familiar with the frustration they feel when they can’t find the words, despite the proximity of that word wall! It’s only when we look beyond the word wall and consider the many ways we use language in school, that we can truly help children build their vocabulary.

Beyond the word wall: building vocabulary in the classroom

In today’s 24/7 world, children need to be competent communicators. Research has consistently shown that having a varied and rich vocabulary vastly improves a child’s development in reading and comprehension skills. It’s also, as we know, essential for writing. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that the language and vocabulary of school starters has been declining over the past five years. Worrying stuff.

The national curriculum does address this. It states that children should acquire and confidently use new and varied vocabulary, actively build upon their knowledge, make links between known and new vocabulary, and understand shades of meaning in similar words.

So, how can we help children do this?

Here are my five tips for building vocabulary in the classroom.

1. Expose children to rich and challenging language

Share a wide range of texts and don’t worry if they are slightly beyond your children’s reading age – it’s a great way to introduce new words. Discuss pronunciation, spelling, meaning and origins (if appropriate), and provide plenty of opportunities for children to use the words. Display, and continually refer to, engaging and interactive word walls and vocabulary resources. It’s better to keep the word lists or word walls short and give the children time to master their new vocabulary before adding more. It takes around 12 exposures to a new word to develop a deep understanding.

2. Be brave, experiment, and have fun with words

Challenge children to find out the meanings of unfamiliar words, and teach them how to use glossaries, dictionaries and thesauri (we like the Oxford English range). Discuss how synonyms can have different shades of meaning, depending on their context. Trial, error, praise and a dash of humour are key here, as children can easily be put off using new vocabulary. Have fun exploring portmanteau, double meanings and tongue twisters. Play word games, such as Taboo and Pictionary, to learn statutory and topic word lists.

3. Plan, model and allow time for mastery

Children are masters of imitation, so always model how to use appropriate vocabulary for different purposes – not just in English lessons. Plan a small selection of words that you want to introduce every term, dropping them into your whiteboard writing and teacher talk – even on playground duty. Provide the children with a word bank to use during a discussion, observing how they use it. Above all, allow time for children to master new vocabulary so it becomes part of their working memory.

4. Give children real life reasons to communicate

Delivering presentations, writing real letters, talking to visitors and performing to parents, all allow children to learn the importance of communication in everyday life. Encourage them to select the right vocabulary for the job, considering the level of formality – a crucial language skill in today’s world of easy misunderstandings and nuances.

5. Be imaginative!

Incorporate a rich vocabulary into creative tasks. Writing and performing myths provides an opportunity for children to use more ambitious or formal language. Drama encourages children to think on their feet and use topic-specific vocabulary in role. Poetry, too, allows children to play with words combinations. Why not discuss the power of words themselves, by sharing books such as The Word Collector by Peter H Reynolds and The Word Collector by Sonja Wimmer?

Do you have any vocabulary teaching tips to share? Please add your comments below.

Free word wall and teaching resources

Early years

Seasons – display words


Synonyms – word dice
Synonyms – display words


Shades of meaning – display words

Useful links

National Literacy Trust
The Word Collector by Peter H Reynolds
The Word Collector by Sonja Wimmer
Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins

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