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10 Creative Ways to Teach Vocabulary

“Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world.”

Steven Stahl (2005)

Developing vocabulary knowledge is so much more than word lists and student-friendly definitions. Even the most careful curation of vocabulary on a knowledge organiser may only give the illusion of knowledge. Pupils may be familiar with new words, but they cannot use them confidently in their writing or talk.

It is crucial that we help pupils develop a curiosity about words and make rich connections between them, their families, synonyms and antonyms. The need to make countless creative connections. They need to know words, but most crucially use them by weaving them into their writing.

Rather than dishing out the dictionary and thesaurus (they will routinely use these tools badly without careful training and practice), we need to ensure creative vocabulary strategies promote an awareness of words in use and how they fit in the world.

Here are 10 strategies that can be used to teach pupils to connect new vocabulary:

  1. ‘Connect 4’. This strategy is a simple way to isolate, emphasise and connect key vocabulary, whether it is reading a textbook in science, or exploring the Great Fire of London in Year 2. For example, in history, you could select the four words – ‘continuity’, ‘monarchy’, ‘power’ and ‘conservatism’ – thereby priming a given topic. Then you ask pupils to make as many connections between the words as possible – the more the better.
  2. ‘Simple <> Sophisticated’. With this modelling strategy, teachers can quickly and repeatedly model apt word choices, in both verbal responses and in their writing. For example, if a pupil uses the word ‘sweat’ in Biology, then the teacher may model the use of ‘perspire’. We can use such pairings repeatedly and discuss the choice e.g. old ><archaic, or ask >< interrogate etc. Crucially, pupils need to develop an awareness that often the simple word is more apt, thereby avoiding the excesses of ‘thesaurus syndrome’.
  3. ‘Engaging Etymologies’. A common strategy for all learning is to tell memorable stories. Given this fact, telling the story of the history of academic vocabulary can make for great teaching. For example, to better understand social attitudes to sex, you can help (older) pupils understand contentious words like ‘slag’, including how this industrial term became a label for promiscuous women. Common words we use can routinely have their history unveiled: did you know the Latin origins of the word ‘trivial’ emerge from casual chats where three roads meet?
  4. ‘Said is dead’. In English, but also in history, geography, religious education and more, the use of ‘said’ is part of the fabric of academic writing. A concerted focus on alternatives, such as ‘shrieked’, ‘wailed’, ‘exclaimed’, offer alternatives in fiction writing. More neutral terms for essays can include ‘stated’, ‘observed’, ‘explained’ and ‘revealed’. We can also be more intentional about where said makes sense, but be creative about its variation too.
  5. ‘Vocabulary triplets’. A historian writing an essay, or an artist annotating their sketches, all require well-chosen academic vocabulary. This strategy simply offers pupils three words to choose from, or synonyms, so that we can begin to shape their apt vocabulary selections. For example, in history, you may offer pupils the choice between ‘possibly’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘certainly’, to describe a specific source. By offering up potential answers, you let pupils concentrate on precise word choices, thereby honing their writing skill.
  6. ‘Word chains’. We want to make explicit to our pupils that they should connect academic words to words they already know, along with other ideas and concepts. With this approach we encourage students to make as many connections as they can. Those pupils who can add most links create the strongest chains. For example, in Music, GCSE students who are given the term ‘pitch’ need to make links like ‘range’, ‘register’, ‘sharp/flat’ and ‘pentatonic’. Verbal explanation of these chains is a natural next step.
  7. ‘Word building’. The ‘word building’ approach is about generating as many words as possible from common roots. For instance, in science it may the root ‘photo’ – meaning ‘light’ – that can prompt inquiry into words like photosynthesis, photon, photography and photobiotic. Similarly, in music, ‘phon’ – meaning ‘voice or sound’ – can generate words like polyphony, symphony, cacophony and euphony.
  8. Word mapping. Akin to concept maps, ‘word mapping’ connects words with the head word proving the main topic. For example, with ‘geothermic processes’ as a head word in geography, this would be followed by ‘endogenic’ and ‘exogenic’ processes. Each of these word headings then connects conceptually to other related words and processes. It is simple stuff, but it brings coherence and clarity with subject specific ideas that can prove difficult and abstract for some pupils. Asking pupils to explain their visual representations of their maps can lift the approach up a level.
  9. ‘Six degrees of separation’. The simple idea of this game is that all living things in the world are connected, or by six or fewer steps. Well, this little knowledge game works well enough for making linguistic links too. Take the following vocabulary links between ‘abnormal’ and ‘supercilious’. Straight away, pupils need to draw upon their vocabulary knowledge – of synonyms, antonyms, and more – before then drawing upon their personal word-hoard. My effort? Abnormal > strange > mysterious > special > superior > supercilious.
  10. Keystone vocabulary. Pupils need to build rich connections between words and how they represent concepts or topics in the world (often labelled schema development). ’Keystone vocabulary’ is the identification of a small number of key words that may offer foundational understanding of a topic. For instance, if pupils are learning about the Great Fire of London, we may select ‘capital’, ‘natural disaster’, ‘inferno’ and ‘urban’. Talking about these words, unpicking them, and linking them up, can make vital connections.

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