Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 3: Word Attack!)

This is the 3rd in a series of blog posts about vocabulary instruction, outlining key messages from my Word Power vocabulary CPD programme.

Word Power logo

To access Part 1: Starting point.

To access Part 2: Choosing words.

In this post, I will be exploring approaches to developing word solving and how to promote ‘Word Attack’ skills – helping children to develop their word knowledge and word solving skills.

WORD ATTACK? The phrase sounds painful!  I’m sure that the many talented artists and graphic designers that I follow on Twitter would have a very creative visual representation for this word.  ‘Word attack’ is a phrase that I first encountered when teaching 3rd grade (Year 4) in a large elementary school (4-form entry) in Raleigh, North Carolina (USA).  At the time, the Common Core curriculum had not yet been adopted.  At present, Common Core has been adopted by 42 states (including NC) and outlines common, academic standards (K-12) for language arts and mathematics.  Before the introduction of the Common Core, each state followed its own curricular approach.  The Common Core was introduced to develop consistency of approach, across the US, ensuring higher attainment of pupils and greater access to higher education.  If you would like to know more about these standards, follow this link: http://www.corestandards.org/

If you would like to read more about my  ‘Charter School Adventure’ (sharing the power of picture books) when I visited schools in Raleigh, North Carolina back spring 2017, follow the link above.

Along with Bringing Words to Life (Beck, et.al), another teaching ‘bible’ that got me through my first years in teaching was Word Matters (Pinnell and Fountas, 1998). Their research helped to build the foundation of the language arts curriculum design in America at the time, particularly their approach to guided reading.  They are still highly influential and respected today, both nationally and internationally, as prominent figures in the world of primary literacy.  Click here to read about their publications: http://www.fountasandpinnell.com/  I remember spending hours in my teaching practice (Thank you Terry Torbert, my professor at the University of Central Florida who sparked my initial interest in English and literacy as a specialism after introducing me to Pinnell and Fountas!) trawling through their advice and guidance, highlighting with fury every approach that I wanted to adopt in my own classroom.  They speak with eloquence about the importance of providing frequent opportunities for children to become ‘word solvers’ as part of a balanced curriculum, which is where this term has originated.


As a further development of the Word Power CPD programme, I have developed a training programme to develop teachers’ knowledge of how to help pupils move From Phonics… to Spelling.  To read more posts regarding the application of phonic knowledge, follow these links:

Gruffalo: Application of Phonic Knowledge 

Dinosaur Dig: Phonics to Spelling in Year 1

Phonics – Practice and apply… and again… and again!

In using word-attack strategies effectively, pupils will be more efficient at decoding, pronouncing and understanding unfamiliar words when encountered – but what does it actually look like, in practice? How can we encourage pupils to look for familiar units of meaning within words to facilitate understanding?

To launch a focus on developing word-attack or word solving skills, it is important to first ensure that pupils understand the key features of words and are able to use a dictionary (online or print) effectively to access important information about new words.

If you ask your pupils what a dictionary is for, how will they respond?  Will they tell you that it has lots of words? Might they offer that it can help you to spell?  Might they (hopefully!) also offer something regarding finding the meaning of unknown words?

How many pupils; however, would mention the information that dictionaries contain regarding word class? multiple meanings? synonyms? antonyms? related words? history and derivation?  If we want to explore all of these features of words, are the resources that we are currently using in school fit for purpose? It’s at this point that I recommend using an online dictionary as a useful tool to supplement classroom resources and to support development of word-attack and word solving skills.  A few that I have found useful for planning are Dictionary.com ; Collins Co-Build Online Dictionary ; Word Hippo ; Thesaurus.com and the Online Etymology Dictionary.

So, we have managed to get children interested in and excited about words.  They are starting to notice words more frequently.  We have thought carefully about which words we are choosing for direct instruction.  What is the next step?

  1. Provide opportunities for children to engage with and analyse the features of words that can be explored in dictionaries – meaning (semantics), pronunciation, spelling, morphology (more on this below), syntax (grammatical function – word class), connections with other words (synonym, antonym, related words, homophones, homonyms).  Which categories can we find?  Are there any features/ terms that are unfamiliar?  Which categories will be most useful in helping us to make connections with other words that we already know?
  2. Ensure that children know why they are exploring words in such detail.  The purpose is to have lots of information that they can use to connect to other words, hence exponentially increasing their vocabulary. You may find it useful (using those handy words that you’ve carefully chosen to focus on for direct instruction each week) to play the Taking Words Apart game (shown below).  Depending on how many features children are familiar with, determine the number of categories (and the number of dice to use).  Using the bank of words from direct instruction, or new words that children have recorded in their word solving notebooks, roll the dice and use the dictionary to investigate and discuss the given feature.

taking words apartIn order to analyse words, children need to have sufficient word-attack skills to break words apart into their constituent morphemes.  A morpheme is a unit of meaning within a word.  The word divide has one morpheme (one unit of meaning), however, dividing has 2 morphemes with the addition of a suffix.  The meaning of this suffix might indicate tense (We are dividing 4 by 2.) or it may be an adjectival suffix (The dividing wall created a boundary.)  The word undivided is also within the word family, but this contains 3 morphemes (prefix un-, root -divide-, suffix -ed).  Whilst suffixes change the tense, word class or make the word plural, prefixes change the meaning of the root.  In this case, the prefix un added means ‘not’ divided.  See below for more examples:

analysing morphemes

To go into more depth with particular words, or to use as a supportive model/ scaffold, you might want to incorporate the use of a vocabulary web.  There is an example below, but these are most effective if pupils create their own webs, based on which information is new and what they would like to explore further.  This format might be a good starting point for inclusion in pupils’ word solving notebooks as it provides a useful structure (see part 2).

vocab web

Several years ago, I attended a literacy conference in Manchester with John Murray (@ReadingExplorer as the guest speaker.  He shared his thoughts about developing questioning skills and approaches to developing vocabulary in the classroom.  In one of his examples, John spoke of the word ‘weathered.’  He used visual representations to elicit thoughts of a weathered statute and then a weathered man.  This opportunity to move from the concrete (literally!) to the abstract got me thinking about morphemes (as you do!).

Etymology (word origin) – Old English ‘weder,’ Dutch ‘weer,’ German ‘wetter’

Morphology – weathered has the -ed suffix which is adjectival (describing the man and describing the statue)

Example 1 – ‘a weathered statue’ (concrete)

Syntax: Word class – adjective

Semantics (definition in context) – worn by long exposure to the air or environment


  • Synonyms – eroded, worn, disintegrating, exposed
  • Antonyms – softened, shiny
  • Related words – seasoned, timeworn, weather-beaten
  • Homophones/ near homophones – whether, wither (Orthography)

Example 2 – ‘a weathered man’ (abstract)

Syntax: Word class – adjective

Semantics (definition in context): effected by life/change of time


  • Synonyms – get through, overcome, ride out, suffer, survive, withstand, enduring
  • Antonyms – give in, surrender, yielding
  • Related words – accomplished, battle-scarred, competent, familiar, matured

Morphology/ Meaning: What are other meanings of the root, weather?

Weather (verb)
To wear away the appearance or texture of something by exposure to the atmosphere
For a ship to come safely through a storm
To make tiles or boards overlap downwards to keep out rain
To allow a hawk to spend a period of time perched in open air

By exploring or ‘attacking’ words in this multi-layered way, how many opportunities are available for children to investigate not only the target word, both other, related words? The potential for making connections and adding these words to their arsenal of word-attack and word solving strategies is limitless (which just happens to have 2 morphemes).

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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