Five easy ways to boost vocabulary learning

Suzie Jabarian sets out five sure-fire ways to ensure students explore, understand and retain more new vocab

Suzie Jabarian sets out five sure-fire ways to ensure students explore, understand and retain more new vocab

23 Jan 2024, 5:00


A teacher is reading enthusiastically to his Year 8 class. He comes across an interesting word. He pauses, lifts his head and proudly asks, as he always has done, “Can anyone tell me what that word means?” A pupil raises her hand and offers a brief explanation. Satisfied, the teacher continues reading and the interesting word disappears from the page, never to be seen or spoken again.

Despite decades of research on what makes vocabulary learning effective, this is a common classroom scenario. Vocabulary learning is, of course, often hidden or implicit – meaning that many students will acquire vocabulary from reading – but this is not always the case, especially for struggling readers.

Teachers can, however, ensure more students meaningfully explore, understand and retain new vocabulary simply by making vocabulary learning more visible.

Here are five simple strategies to try:

Pre-teach

Select a small number of words to introduce to students before they read a text. Word selection is a matter of professional judgement, but thinking about the words or concepts you want your students to confidently understand is a useful starting point.

Pre-teaching a small number of words will reduce the number of times you need to disrupt the flow of a text by stopping to explain. It will also help to prime students’ knowledge. When students meet the word in the text, they will be instantly provided with a contextualised example and any ensuing whole-class discussions will be more purposeful as a result.

Deliberately define

Provide a student-friendly definition up front. If pupils spend time guessing meanings, it is possible that they will cling onto and recall incorrect meanings later. But providing definitions from the outset means you can focus on getting them to spend more time on what really matters: deep processing.

The authors of Bringing words to life offer two basic principles for developing student-friendly definitions: capture the essence of the word and how it is used in the relevant context, and use everyday language.

Promote deep processing

It’s important not to see vocabulary learning as a ‘one and done’ activity. Word knowledge exists as a rich network of information, so prompt students to interact with the word in different contexts.

Encourage students to associate newly-introduced words with their prior experiences or with other words and concepts. There are many efficient classroom activities which can provide deep processing experiences for students: ask them to contrast word meanings; get them to consider when a word would and would not apply; spend a little time teasing out nuances between pairs of closely-related words; ask them to consider words along a continuum. The opportunities are endless.

Expose more to embed

It’s important to consider that students seldom learn a word after one encounter. Word learning increases in small steps over time, so providing multiple exposures is key. Revisiting words briefly in new contexts will help to ensure better integration into students’ vocabulary repertoire.

Time-intensive activities are not needed either. Simply prompt students through questioning to consider how previously-learned words apply to new contexts and situations. Try asking students to keep a vocabulary log. For younger children, perhaps add new words to a wall display as you progress through a scheme of learning – but remember to refer back to it frequently.

Activate interest

For me, this is probably the most important change. Attempt to ignite students’ interest in all kinds of words.

Utilise interesting etymologies, where appropriate, because sometimes the weird and wonderful origins of words can spark interest. Draw students’ attention to prefixes and suffixes; help them to see the sometimes puzzling yet fascinating connections within and between words.

Lastly and importantly, a common misconception is that teachers must know everything. In fact, it can be powerful for students to know that this is not the case when it comes to language. Let your students in on the secret that language is complex, confusing and ever evolving so what really matters is a willingness to embark on exploring it. And never stop exploring it yourself!

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