Teaching Vocabulary


If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.


I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7


16 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary

  1. Love this – thank you so much. We are currently developing how we teach vocabulary and spelling in order to develop knowledge across key stage 3 and I will be sharing this with my team. I don’t suppose you/Joe are willing to share grids for other year groups?


  2. Reblogged this on Connecting to Learn and commented:
    Much of my learning this year via the collaborative inquiry I participated in was around vocabulary. Essentially, I came to the conclusion that I need to do a lot more work on explicit vocabulary teaching. And like, Jo, I have not been a huge fan of rote learning. But this year I have been thinking more about the role of background knowledge plays in students being able to generate their own ideas. They do need more exposure to the world, but they also need the words, the language to articulate their discoveries.


  3. I hear you about building confidence as well as vocabulary. I do think the culture of the school makes a huge difference. Children can get downhearted but that thought which says I will redouble my efforts rather than give up comes from the culture of the teachers and schools. I actually think the way we rushed through the curriculum in the past made matters worse as we didn’t revisit or revisit often enough in primary schools. Think this idea would work as brilliantly in primary as in secondary.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My only query would be whether the synonyms as definitions narrow students’ understanding of the subtle distinctions between words? We are going with a short definition of each in our list. Thanks for sharing the impact too – the paragraph from a Yr 7 is astonishing!


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  6. I was really taken by this blog, and for the last maybe four weeks of term, taught my year seven almost bottom set students three words a week using the table you provide here. I tested them each lesson, as you recommend. Some of the things that came up:

    – As dhgenglishreflect points out, the definitions are narrow. E.g., ‘coerce’ is basically just ‘force’, but ‘charismatic’ is probably not just ‘influential’. However, I assume this was done because it makes the definitions easier to take in.
    – Students misuse the words A LOT. It really showed how big a gap there can be between knowing and applying. One typical sentence one week was ‘I’m going to alleviate this paragraph as a result of feedback’. So I think a lot of practice and correction is needed.
    – The testing and retesting is really important, I think, otherwise they just forget all the vocab. I kept remembering Didau’s post on the testing effect (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/afl-have-we-been-doing-the-right-things-for-the-wrong-reasons/).

    I’m moving to a new school in September but will be keep doing this. Orwell’s ‘1984’ and newspeak kept coming to mind – what happens with this is the opposite, adding to the students’ vocabulary to empower them.


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