Closing the vocabulary gap in primary schools

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Experienced primary school teacher and English adviser Shareen Wilkinson (Mayers), tells us about one strategy for explicitly teaching vocabulary in context. This blog follows on from her free OUP webinar on ‘Closing the vocabulary gap in primary schools.

What is explicit teaching of vocabulary (in brief)? 

Within this blog, I will explore approaches to teaching vocabulary. Notably, perhaps this quote from Lemov et al (2018) fully encapsulates the salient aspects of explicit vocabulary teaching.

‘…A primary goal of Explicit Vocabulary Instruction is to model for students the depth of knowledge that is involved in mastering words: to own a word is to know not just its definition but its different forms, its multiple meanings, its connotations, and the situations in which its normally applied.’

In a sense, children are not just exposed to the definition of a word but have a detailed knowledge of its multiple meanings and the various ways that it can be used.

Both implicit approaches (e.g. reading stories to children and promoting reading for pleasure) and explicit approaches to teaching vocabulary (e.g. directly teaching new vocabulary) are essential for developing and broadening children’s language. There is also a need to explore vocabulary in reading, writing, for spoken language and across the curriculum.

Practical strategies in the classroom

Five years ago, I wanted to develop an easy way for children to really explore words that they had read in context. Upon looking through the national curriculum and reviewing the research, it seemed that there were lots of ways that words could be explored. RESCUE (explained below) was created and trialled in several different schools, as a way of deepening children’s understanding and developing word consciousness (Duke and Moses, 2003). Word consciousness involves recognising when children have encountered new words and noticing the characteristics of the words. There are other similar strategies which schools could use but this is just one approach.

Significantly, and often missed, is the important link between vocabulary and spelling. ‘Studies show that exposing children to the spellings of new vocabulary words enhances their memory for pronunciations and meanings of the words’ and ‘supports EAL learners’ (Ehri and Rosenthal, 2007). Therefore, the RESCUE approach incorporates spelling.  For EYFS, children could be encountering words orally, acting them out, drawing them and using them in spoken language. They can then write simple sentences when they are able to do so. A reception teacher I worked with made up the acronym ‘RUN’. It stands for ‘Read it (a word), Understand it and Now try it.’

All schools have the flexibility to teach vocabulary explicitly in a way that supports their pupils. A suggestion would be that explicit teaching takes place during the guided/ group, individual or whole class reading as an activity for children to complete once they have read a word in context. They could act it out, draw it and look at many examples (including pictures). Children should be encouraged to use the word or words later in the school year and once the words are taught, these can be displayed in the classroom. The RESCUE or similar activity can take place in school, as part of the reading curriculum and/or for homework. Additionally, it can also be used for subject specific words or Tier 3 words (Beck et al, 2013) across the curriculum, where appropriate. It is important to stress that vocabulary should be taught all the time and across the curriculum, especially when teachers are reading out loud and discussing unfamiliar words (this might also include pre-teaching vocabulary before the children have read a word.)

Here is what RESCUE might look like in practice (please see the webinar for more practical examples.)

Key Stage 1 (P2-P3)
Read it GLINT
(Children should read these words in context so they can learn from the examples.)
Can they write it in different ways?

Explore it
✓ find synonyms for it. For year 1 (P2), these could be given to pupils to develop their vocabulary.
✓ where appropriate, find other graphemes for it, e.g. blew/blue

Examples: shine, gleam, glitter, sparkle, twinkle, blink wink, glimmer, shimmer, glow, flicker, glisten, flash

Spell it
Write it out (use spelling strategies, e.g. phonics, sound out and blend.)

Check it
Check by using phonics, syllables etc (e.g. g-l-i-n-t)

Understand it
Look up the meaning in a dictionary (children should have read this in context first.)
✓ give out or reflect small flashes of light.
(use pictures to explain)
✓ for year 1 (P2), explain the meaning to pupils.

Explain it in different contexts
Write a sentence with the word and then explain it.
He immediately began searching for the glint of gold or silver.
Explain (could be oral): it means the sparkle from the gold or silver.
✓ Share different meanings for the word.
She looked at him with a glint in her eye!

Key Stage 2 (P4-P7)
Read it COURSE
(Children should read these words in context so they can learn from the examples.)
Can they write it in different ways?

Explore it (synonyms, antonyms, homophones and/or etymology, e.g. Greek or Latin roots, where appropriate).
✓ route, way, track, direction, tack, path, line, journey, itinerary, channel, trail, trajectory, flight path, bearing, heading, orbit, circuit, beat, round, run
✓ dish, menu item
homophones: coarse (adjective)

Spell it
Use spelling strategies (e.g. break down into syllables, mnemonics and add prefixes or suffixes)

Check it
Understand it
Dictionary work
1. a set of classes or a plan of study on a particular subject, usually leading to an exam or qualification.
2. a part of a meal that is served separately from the other parts.
3. movement in time, e.g. in a year.

Explain it in different contexts
Crucial to explore the range of ways that it can be used.
Write a sentence with the word and then explain it.
She completed her training course in one day.
Explain (could be oral): it means she has studied a subject for a day.
Stretch and challenge – children could write the word through applying their grammar knowledge and identifying word class(es).
E.g. Write the word using a relative clause or using the passive voice.

Exploring Words B. Levels 7-12. RESCUE words.
Possible template taken from the OUP Word Sparks Handbook for teachers (2020)

To stretch and challenge all children or for older children, they could explore the word class(es) and/or apply their knowledge through grammar, e.g. they might write a sentence using a subordinate clause or a command. (Please see my webinar and accompanying resources for further examples of this.) The RESCUE strategy can be used in one lesson but the explain section could be completed at a later date and/or the word could be applied to their writing.

Support for schools – Reception (P1), Year 1 (P2) and Year 2 (P3)

The OUP Word Sparks decodable books programme is fully aligned to Letters and Sounds and supports children with exploring vocabulary and reading comprehension, as well as enabling them to apply their phonic knowledge. It also contains generic activities for children to explore the words in more depth. Children begin by seeing the word being used in context so they can view examples. Uniquely, the selected Tier 2 words are repeated across the programme so that they can see words being used differently. These books can be used by parents, teachers, or support staff for group/guided, one-to-one reading, or whole class shared reading sessions as schools can access online versions.

Find out more information about the Word Sparks programme.

Series editors: James Clements and Shareen Wilkinson

Word Gap free resources – these are great for primary and secondary schools

Further CPD:

Closing the vocabulary gap in primary schools
Free webinar and resources for teachers who would like further CPD and training.

Read James Clements’s blog on how parents can support their children with vocabulary.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G. & Kucan, L. (2013) Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction 2nd edn. New York: Guildford Press.
Duke, N., Moses, M. (2003) 10 Research-Tested Ways to Build Children’s Vocabulary. New York: Scholastic.
Ehri, L., Rosenthal, J. (2007) Spellings of Words: A Neglected Facilitator of Vocabulary Learning. Journal of Literacy Research, 39(4), 389–409.
Lemov, D., Driggs, C. & Woolway, E. (2016) Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.