Practical ways to engage children with expanding their vocabulary from the Word Up Podcast series

Oxford Children's Language

From Wilfred Owen to Stormzy, and everything in between, Shareen Wilkinson joined Helen Prince as part of our Word Up podcast series to talk about ways you can expand your pupils’ vocabulary and help close the Word Gap. We’ve pulled together some of her tips here, or you can listen to the full podcast episode.

Are you already teaching vocabulary explicitly?

Vocabulary is something that you teach implicitly, whether that’s through reading a story to your class, reading for pleasure, or children naturally picking up vocabulary as they go along. But explicit vocabulary teaching is something that you might not have been doing so much, which is understandable when there are so many other things to think about when teaching reading!

It’s likely you’ll have taken time to consider the definition of a word with your children, but explicit vocabulary teaching goes further, taking that word and really unpicking it and its connotations. It means actively pre-teaching vocabulary, looking at synonyms, and perhaps even antonyms. And it might involve drawing or acting out a word, or delving into its etymology.

It’s this explicit approach that will really help children understand the meaning and story of a word so that they can go on and apply it to their reading and writing. 

Shareen’s top tips for teaching vocabulary explicitly

Use music, drama and poetry
From pop song lyrics to acting out words or stories, using the things that children are already engaged with will activate their metacognition, and help them to visualise vocabulary and make inferences. Take a look, for example, at any of Adele’s songs and you’ll notice that they’re packed full of idioms, which have come up repeatedly in Key Stage 2 SATs in recent years. 

Engage parents
We need to support families and parents as much as we can with fostering a talk environment at home. Board games are a fun suggestion that involve lots of talk around what’s happening to help understand words and questions. 

Make sure it’s age appropriate
Be mindful of what’s appropriate for different age groups. In Key Stage 1, it’s important to act out the word so that your children are hearing and visualising it. In Key Stage 2, moving on to exploring etymology is a powerful way to give children a deeper understanding of meaning.

Know your class when it comes to pre-teaching
As primary teachers, you have to cover a lot of subjects, so pre-teach the Tier 2 and 3 words (academic and technical words) within these subjects, whether that’s science, history or something else. You don’t have to unpick every word – just the trickier ones you know will benefit your class. 

Think it, say it, hear it, like it, write it
Rehearse language and encourage talk so that children hear and experience vocabulary before using it in their writing.

Tell the story of a word
Exploring etymology and linking a word to its story will give it extra meaning, and knowing this background will not only help children with their understanding of the vocabulary, but also with spelling.

Help children feel ownership of vocabulary
Teaching vocabulary explicitly in a way that’s relevant to children will encourage them to take ownership of words. If they understand a word really well, they’re much more likely to include it in their writing. 

Shareen Wilkinson is a primary school senior leader, former LA lead Primary English advisor, and an established educational author and series editor of the Word Sparks series. She advises at national level, including as a DfE grammar and reading (KS1 and KS2) subject specialist. 

Want to find out more about the Oxford Education Podcast?

Shortlisted for Learning Ladders’ ‘Best Educational Podcast 2021’ awards, our first podcast series is ‘Word Up’, a collection of episodes hosted by English advisor and education author, Helen Prince. Join Helen and her guests from the worlds of education, children’s books and TV as they explore what we can do to bridge the Word Gap from Early Years to Key Stage 4.

Listen to the episodes so far >>

You can read more about Oxford University Press’ research into the Word Gap here.