Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 1: Starting point)

Word Power logo

This year, I had the pleasure of working with schools in Stockton as part of the EEF’s North East Primary Literacy campaign. Roughly 11 schools were involved in the KS2 ‘Raising achievement in reading’ project, facilitated by Stockton LA.  Strategic support for all schools to improve outcomes in reading was the prime focus of the project.  One of the key features was the opportunity to attend regular cluster meetings, facilitated by LA advisors.  As a result of discussions at these meetings, schools requested additional support with developing vocabulary instruction.  That’s where I came in!

  • How does the introduction and teaching of new vocabulary develop as pupils move from Reception to Y6?
  • What does this actually look like in action, in the classroom?
  • What opportunities can be provided to ensure immersion in high-quality language and daily opportunities to explore and investigate new words using ‘word solving’ strategies and word attack skills?

These questions formed the starting point for the ‘Word Power’ vocabulary training session that I created, delivered over two half days with a gap task for teachers to trial approaches in between sessions.  In this sequence of blog posts, I will attempt to share some big ideas from these training sessions.

When I worked as a teacher in the US, one of my teaching ‘bibles’ was Bringing Words to Life by Beck et. al.  I spent hours trawling through the advice and guidance, using the approaches to create a language-rich environment for my pupils.  When it came to designing the Word Power training package, I was excited to see that there was a new edition available (March 2013).

If you don’t have a copy of this book and you are interested in exploring and/or improving your approach to vocabulary instruction, this is absolutely essential reading.

bringing words to life

Expert linguist David Crystal tells us that ‘vocabulary is the Everest of language.’  There are a multitude words in our language to explore and investigate.  It is essential that we support pupils to develop strategies for tackling words (‘Word Attack’) and to make connections with other known words. Before launching a programme of vocabulary development, it’s important that pupils know where words come from, why they are important and how they work.

One interesting way to start exploring language with pupils is to consider where words come from.  This will lead to plentiful discussions relating to etymology (history and derivation of words):

  • Are there any parts of this word that look/ sound familiar? Why?
  • What is the origin of meaning?
  • Why do you think we adopted this word in our language?

Often pupils encounter new words but how often do they think of their significance in history?  Words are historical and cultural artefacts.  They are a window to the past.  They characterise the times and help us to make sense of our own world.  Language is power!

There is a useful video (link below) by the Open University – The history of English in 10 minuteshttps://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLA03075BAD88B909E  WARNING:  This video may not suitable to be shown in the classroom without some careful editing!  It can; however, be used as a good starting point to build an understanding of the history of words and possible areas for exploration.  Below is a summary of some words and their historical/ cultural/ religious links:

history of words

Did  you know that the Collin’s 2016 word of the year was brexit?  The 2015 word of the year was binge-watch and 2014 brought us photobomb. Why do you think that these words are relevant historically and socially?  How do you think they were created, by whom and in what context?  Click the link to explore the other top 10 words in 2016  https://www.collinsdictionary.com/word-lovers-blog/new/top-10-collins-words-of-the-year-2016,323,HCB.html  What might the word of the year be in 2030?  3000?  What might the word of the year have been in 1000?

Another good starting point is to explore with pupils how words are added to the dictionary.  Frindle, written by American author, Andrew Clements (The Landry News, Big Al) and illustrated by Brian Selznick (The Marvels, Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonder Struck) is the perfect book for this purpose.  I always chose this book as the read aloud choice to start each school year. The story is centred around Nick Allen – a 10 year old boy who is mischievous and likes to push boundaries to the limit.  One day, Nick decides to start a class movement, encouraging his classmates to use the word ‘frindle’ instead of pen. An all-out war then ensues with the antagonist, Mrs Granger (the austere, rule-bound language arts teacher) who bans any use of the word in school.  As you can imagine, her rejection of the word leads to its rise in popularity and use of the word explodes to new levels – not just in the classroom, but across the school, the town, the state and even nationally.  I won’t ruin the ending, but you learn more about Mrs Granger’s true intentions in her opposition to the use of the word frindle as Clement’s debut novel comes to a close.


In part 2, I will share ideas of how to choose words for instruction and offer some practical ideas and tips.  Part 3 will focus on developing word solving and word attack skills.

If you have any questions or comments about this post or if you would like to contact me to discuss vocabulary development or training needs in your school/ local area, please get in touch kellyashleyconsultancy@outlook.com or via Twitter @kashleyenglish

Copyright 2017, Kelly Ashley Consultancy





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