Ways with words

I’ve always loved words and never ‘dumb down’ my language for children.

I had an early spat with one of the edu Queens of Twitter, who blocked me and called me ‘nasty’ because I said challenging vocabulary should be used and she… er disagreed:


The author of Wonder understands that children respond well to adults who don’t adapt their language:


There has been much interest in the ‘vocabulary gap’ which suggests that social disadvantage can be bridged with words. It was found that the number of words a child knows can be measured and children who know more words (usually middle class) do better. Social disadvantage and inequality within society is clearly a lot more complex than a vocabulary deficit within the student though.


Schools have primarily middle class mores and values.


The way they communicate these, and interact with parents and children, typically benefits the middle classes who know how to get the most out of the system. In my experience, this is even more pronounced during the Primary phase where competition is intense, a student’s trajectory is set by year 6.

SATs (when they occur) are used to predict GCSE grades.

The acquisition of language is a biologically primary function (we do it naturally). However, verbal ability is dependent to some extent on external factors i.e. an individual’s exposure to language, education and reading.


There are two verbal subtests in IQ related assessments: one explores the ability to define words, the other looks at analogies or relationships between words. These are primarily measures of receptive language – there are also measures of expressive language which require the participant to retrieve a word following a stimulus.


Performance here is affected by the ability to find a word quickly and can be related to difficulties with rapid naming (linked to reading difficulties).

The ability to retain speech sounds, and make semantic links ensuring vocabulary goes into long term memory is affected by working memory and the phonological loop (auditory rehearsal). Working memory in turn can be diminished due to poor sleeping patterns and diet. Low working memory affects a student’s ability to attend to lengthy auditory teaching input.

The ability to retain speech sounds is affected by the ability to feel the sounds in the first instance and for some children, proprioceptive feedback is low.

Studies suggest ways to facilitate language processing and acquisition: a pause after new vocabulary is introduced is beneficial, the orthographic representation of the word helps processing.

The visual aspect of working memory (Visuospatial sketchpad) can be strong and may be utilised to support low auditory memory – using a visual cue with the sound of the word. Actions also help with the processing of language and this is used to great effect in the early years – why not throughout the Primary phase?


The language of instruction, particularly in grammar, maths and science (in Primary) has Latin roots, and can be especially problematic- these words are frequently used but are also subject specific so confined to a particular lesson. They are often never explained so the students that need semantic knowledge struggle to master them. It’s not unusual for a KS3 student not to know what a noun is, let alone a subordinate clause (noun means ‘name’ in Latin. These students test teacher knowledge.

In maths, where new schema is often introduced, confusion can be caused e.g. in division, moving from ‘sharing’ on plates and repeated subtraction, to bus stop can leave students confused about what ‘division’ *is* (from Latin – to force apart, remove.)


Retention of vocabulary can be affected by syntax, clarity of speech and even tone:


Students with good memories do not need to be given semantic information- they retain the word – understand and use it, but may not be able to define it.

Students with dyslexia are assumed to have sequencing difficulties- in truth- they cannot learn without meaning attached. Simply chanting the seasons will not make them stick, same with days of the week, months and times tables. They need meaning.

1) Use actions and context, this example is based on the seasons:


In this example, actions are used to learn a quote from Shakespeare:


2) Use etymology:


3) link all aspects of a word: spelling and meaning (etymology here):


3) Use images:


4) morphology:


5) A repertoire of strategies is required, different methods suit different words:



Vocabulary is best taught in context where it carries meaning and will be retained:


Students may struggle to process language for many reasons: they may be learning English, have lower SES, have low working memory or an ASD-type profile which impacts on the nuance of language.

Dyslexics process language differently- the full extent of this is not yet understood but the processing of language impacts on reading too:


A thread with some ideas:

Ultimately of course vocabulary knowledge impacts on reading comprehension. However, reading and vocabulary knowledge have a reciprocal relationship.

Encourage curiosity and stimulate enjoyment of our rich, varied and nuanced language- this is the best possible intervention.

Start today.

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