Vocabulary – Cathedrals of Words

Vocabulary: A Cathedral of words

Jill Carter encourages teachers and students to spend time exploring and broadening vocabulary.

Vocabulary is power. And, like a lot of power, it is hard won and easily lost. Students’ vocabulary is becoming increasingly limited in a world where it simply isn’t fashionable to exploit vocabulary for effect – in a world of posts, texts and tweets vocabulary has to be simple, accessible and functional. Talking to students, I am shocked at just how limited Year 11 vocabulary is – clamber, squat and lanky are all examples of words some of them don’t know. They certainly don’t know the meaning of ‘exploit’ or ‘conscientious’. This slump in vocabulary has chosen a bad moment to creep in – it is directly in sync with the much higher levels of vocabulary (in my opinion) required for the new English GCSEs.

We need to explore what is being demanded of GCSE students. Firstly, there is the vocabulary of 19th century non-fiction – or, in the case of some exam boards, 19th century fiction.  That in itself seems like a lot to cope with but it is coupled with the need to comprehend longer passages of high quality prose from 20th and 21st century texts. The introduction of the new Grade 9 (A** as we all tend to think of it) surely means that the degree of challenge in terms of reading material has to be higher – and there are no tiers – so our former G grade students are reading material difficult enough to test someone expected to achieve this super-grade. We have to develop strategies to broaden vocabulary.

  • Make etymology fashionable again – explore roots of words and make connections that will help students to second guess unfamiliar words. Enjoy these roots and what they teach us – ‘climax’ comes from the Greek word for a ladder which is great way of looking at how tension is built rung by rung.
  • Use contextual clues to uncover meanings rather than just providing definitions.
  • Explore what writers have said about the power of words, for example:

As a rhetorician, I loved only words: I would raise up cathedrals of words beneath the blue gaze of the word sky. I would build for thousands of years.
(Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words, 1964) 


  • Explore webpages which will whet students’ appetites for exploring and arguing about words such as: https://www.thoughtco.com/beautiful-sounding-words-in-english
  • Task students with bringing three new words to a lesson each week.
  • Challenge students to find the most unusual (but precise) synonym for a commonly used word like big – and the most unusual antonym.
  • Use sites like https://www.vocabulary.com – set it as homework and explore it yourself as a means for identifying ways of expanding vocabulary.
  • Create a vocabulary focus for own writing – place a ‘V’ in the margin where students could find an alternative word and make suggestions.
  • Model higher level vocabulary – sometimes it is tempting to ‘dumb things down’ – start with higher level vocabulary and de-escalate it rather than starting ‘low’. For example, ‘How is Macbeth duplicitous?’ can always be reframed as ‘How is Macbeth deceitful?’ or ‘How does Macbeth double-cross others?’
  • Explore David Crystal’s Disappearing Dictionary and start using words like ‘crottle’ again.
  • Play with words – this might mean putting on silly voices, pretending to be ‘posh’, making up puns etc. Encourage students to use words which they find awkward at first. Encourage them to imagine they are two or three years old learning a word for the first time. So what if they mispronounce it or don’t find its exact meaning immediately? Gradually they will expand their comfort zone.
  • Ask students which words they would find hard to give up and why.
  • Avoid doing a Powerpoint about vocabulary – students are tired of Powerpoints – they often have 5 or 6 of them a day. Use whiteboards and pens or even bits of paper! Wherever possible write – the feel of words, the flow of the ink to create their shapes is an important part of reinforcing meaning and making words memorable.


Cathedrals are a tall order but that didn’t stop them being built.