Bring Vocabulary to Life in the Classroom

Teachers, not just in early years but all the way up to and including secondary school, are expressing concern for a stark and growing vocabulary deficit. The Word Gap has been widely used to typify the difference between children raised in language rich families where talk is everywhere and children who are not. Hart and Risley suggest this Word Gap could be as much as 30 million words. More recent research from Jessica Logan shows that some children may benefit twice over. Children who have a daily story time will have heard up to another 1.4 million words whilst listening to and sharing between one and five books with an adult.

This presents us with the ‘word gap’ problem.

So how do we address the problem? We need to start thinking more carefully and creatively about how to develop children’s vocabulary in the classroom.

Misconceptions about teaching vocabulary

It’s no use providing lists of words for children to memorise in rote form as we know that to truly achieve deep understanding of words they need to be meaningful to a child. When trying to memorise information, it is better to relate it to something meaningful rather than using repetition in the hope that it will stick.

Having children look up words in a dictionary isn’t much help either as this runs the risk of ambiguity — sometimes the definition can be so complicated it warrants a definition in itself — more confusion!

Furthermore, sending lists of words home for children to ‘research’ and report back on is also ineffective. Why? Because all we are doing here is testing the child’s home-support network. Children with great home support will come back week on week having learned and thoroughly embedded new ‘homework’ words, while the children who routinely skip homework or have less home support will miss out on the opportunity to expand their vocabulary. Using methods such as these, the word gap is actually more likely to widen. Which is why it’s essential that vocabulary is taught to children.

How to teach vocabulary effectively

So with that in mind, here are a few examples for teaching vocabulary to children in meaningful and fun ways:

Teach vocabulary using Tier 2 language

Isabel Beck et al. explain how important it is that children have a large enough vocabulary (15-20k words) before they leave primary school. It’s intrinsic to their ability to access academic texts and the wider literature required for secondary school education — and life.1

Tier 1 words are used in everyday conversation. Children should pick them up through talking and listening. Tier 2 words however, occur more often in children’s literature than in regular speech. These words need to be taught to children as they are key to comprehending and accessing complex. They also expand a child’s ability to express their thinking. Tier 3 words on the other hand, are linked to a specific subject — a domain of knowledge. They are often technical words that need to be taught in context and used regularly to become part of a wider vocabulary.

When selecting vocabulary, be sure to follow Isabel Beck’s second word tier, that is, more advanced synonyms that provide greater clarity. For example:

Tier 1: walked

Tier 2: meandered, strolled, marched, strode, ambled, wandered.

Plan for absolutely clear, helpful, directive context to eliminate misconceptions. Use mnemonics (such as images, films, and props) to match the new abstract idea to a concrete example and always connect the word to a known Tier 1 synonym.

Teach vocabulary through stories

Quality children’s literature contains more Tier 2 language than in any adult conversation, which is why reading to children is critical. Carefully choose stories to read to children that are of an age-appropriate interest level and with a rich vocabulary.

Use purposeful intonation and emphasis to help children understand the meaning of the words. Prosodic speech is an indicator of later comprehension so modelling this is well worth the effort. Do not interrupt the flow of the story. Remember you can come back to well-loved books after the story has been enjoyed, especially where there are opportunities to learn Tier 2 words in context. Bring these Tier 2 words to the classroom and use them in as many contexts as possible to cement them in the children’s long term memory.

Seize opportunities for book talk. If a child is sitting with a book, chat to them about it, draw out and connect meaningful vocabulary and make links to their own experiences or other books they know.

Build on what your children know

When teaching a discrete vocabulary lesson, make meaningful connections between new words you are going to teach and the prior knowledge.

First find out what the children know using specific questions, then make an explicit connection, showing how substituting a first tier for a second tier word can give them a more precise way of expressing concepts:

‘Look at how this character has been drawn, how does she feel? Yes she does look ‘very sad’, or we could say this in another way — she looks absolutely devastated! I felt absolutely devastated on Saturday when I realised it was the weekend and I wouldn’t be able to see you all!’

Making links between words and exploring those links helps children establish and remember meaning. As Daniel Willingham tells us: “Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought.” 2

Teach vocabulary through play

We teach vocabulary through the activities children are doing every day, but it’s easy to forget that we need to do it with purpose. You can plan for this by generating a list of words that match specific play activities, and placing them near activity stations to act as a reminder for you to introduce and repeat them while the children play.

For example: put a sticky note next to the water play area that lists the words: wet, water, liquid, pour, fountain, waterfall, splish, splash, icy, luke-warm, drip, drop, droplets, pool, transparent, see-through, deep, shallow, float, sink, whirlpool, waves. When you join the children at play later in the day, use the bank of words to feed a conversation about what they’re experiencing:

‘This water is icy! I love watching the droplets dangling from the tips of my fingers and then falling and splashing into the pool below… shall we use the whisk to create a whirlpool? Let’s see which toys we can capture in it as it swirls around!’

Teaching vocabulary in this way empowers children by providing them with words that lift their experiences beyond the sensory world, into the world of language and communication. This both liberates their experience and limits frustration.

Incidental Talk

Use Tier 2 vocabulary incidentally in front of the children, demonstrating how you make word choices, swapping out simple words for richer vocabulary.

Try it when describing something that happened out of school:

‘I was so tired after sports day I fell fast asleep as soon as I got home, in fact I collapsed into my armchair and fell into a deep slumber!’

Or maybe try something happening in the school that day:

‘What a noisy thunderstorm, don’t you agree that it’s deafening?’

There will always be opportunities to connect advanced vocabulary to simpler vocabulary in the moment — seize the day!

Close the word gap

Many children come to school with a vocabulary deficit. They’re starting a few steps behind, and if they’re not read to at home, that distance increases. The evidence tells us that this double deficit of language and reading experiences will only widen if we don’t do something about it. That’s where you come in.

Teaching vocabulary and sharing books as a core part of your practice will impact children far beyond the limits of primary school.


  1. Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, Linda Kucan in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2013)
  2. Daniel Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey Bass