Building Vocabulary: 10 Strategies for Closing the Gap

Over summer I read Alex Quigley’s ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’. It has really hit me how the quality of a student’s vocabulary can be indicative of not only what they learn, but what they can access, and how they can respond both verbally and in written work.

After my return to school, I think two more aspects of vocabulary have hit me. The first is seeing the GCSE papers returning, and looking at grade 9 ones from last year, and thinking really hard about what separates a 30/30 response from a 23-25/30 response. I think it’s the vocabulary.

As an examiner myself, I’m not suggesting that the words a student uses can dupe the examiner into thinking they’re more intelligent. And actually, whilst I teach a lot of vocabulary to students, it is only the ones who actively work to apply that vocabulary that can use it seamlessly. I think it’s more about how they can express their knowledge of a text, and their understanding of it, that the vocabulary supports.

For example, I teach two classes at year 10. One class read a lot and therefore their vocabulary is expansive. The others find reading difficult. I posed the same question to them this week, regarding the character of Mr Birling from ‘An Inspector Calls’. One list of words included mean, horrible, and greedy. The other list included capitalist, arrogant, and self-assured. I also studied the same poem with both groups, and their comments on the poem are worlds apart. But these are all nuances of vocabulary, because the reality is that I’m teaching the poems in a very similar way, and the students from both groups are enjoying the content; it’s how they express their response that limits them.

So my focus for this term is to start building vocabulary into the curriculum and the lessons I teach, and really embed it into my everyday lessons. I had already planned a lot of this at Key Stage 3, but I’m now working on it in KS3, KS4 and KS5. Below are some of the ways I’ve been doing this.

1. Providing high level literature with ambitious vocabulary

For KS3, we have decided to have one piece of high level literature which links to that unit of work in order to build our students’ ambitious vocabulary. I trialled this last year with our Year 7 Shakespeare unit, and used this article about how Shakespeare should be taught in schools. Words are taken from the article, and become our ‘ambitious vocabulary’ list for that term. The first three homework tasks are used to read the article, understand the vocabulary and then apply it.

Fry 1.PNG
An extract from the year 7 high level literature. The bold words form the vocabulary list

Some of these words are difficult. Good. The  above example is an extract used for the first Y7 unit, which involves looking at autobiographies. It comes from the opening of Stephen Fry’s autobiography. Students are given concise definitions, with synonyms and antonyms, which are in their unit booklet so it’s with them every lesson and at home when needed for homework. This is now the homework system across KS3.

fry 2

2. Application begins as a homework task


For three weeks students get a chance to get to grips with the vocabulary at home, before I start to really encourage the application and discussion in lessons. I feel this gives them a chance to be familiar with the words and try to apply them before they have to do so in a classroom setting. Initially this means they encounter the words independently, when reading the literature, and in theory this in some way mimics the best way students can encounter words- through reading, and reading the right stuff (which we know, they just don’t do enough!)


We use ‘Show My Homework’ and this is how we initially monitor how they are learning the vocabulary. Again this is low-stakes; they can have the glossary in front of them to check and there’s no way to know if this is happening. The quizzes essentially ask them to choose the right word for a sentence, or which word might be used to explain a certain topic.


You can extrapolate a range of useful data from SMHW. In this example, I’ve picked one student and I can easily see where their misunderstanding is and which word this relates to. I can then close this gap later on, when we begin using these words in other scenarios.

3. Using the words in a range of contexts

I read a lot of blogs and articles and I read something the other day (via Twitter – sorry I can’t remember where…) that students need to be exposed to a word numerous times in order to have it as part of their vocabulary. They should also be given chances to say the word, to use it in a sentence and discuss if it’s the correct use; this is where the homework now starts to lead to the lesson, where my word knowledge begins to enhace theirs.

In the first week the quiz just tests that they understood the text, the second week they must read the definitions and try and use the words in isolated sentences followed by a vocabulary quiz and finally in the third week they must write a paragraph using all of the words in perhaps a mini story or piece of non-fiction. This is again part of a homework task:

Applying 1

Up until this point I avoid reference to the words, allowing students to play with their understanding at home. However, when this homework is due I select students at random and get them tor read their paragraph. I note down misconceptions. I then select another student at random who, simply from listening to the paragraph, must select one of the 10 words and repeat back to me how the student used it.

We then discuss any misunderstandings. At this point I can given them concrete correct examples. We then go back to the sentences in week 2, and explore whether there were any misunderstandings at that point.

4: Say it all out loud

I try to ensure that all students have been involved in saying the word – if the same word is pronounced incorrectly more than once, I will get students to repeat it back to me as a class. I’ll then ensure that we have to use that word again that lesson, for whatever reason, to ensure students are now pronouncing it correctly.

These are the best kind of teaching moments – where students read out their use of a new word and you can immediately feedback on their understanding of that word. I feel that this must happen orally, as you cannot explore these mispronunciations and misunderstandings in a piece of writing, and if a student has reached this stage and used the word in the incorrect context, that’s now a misunderstanding that’s permanently in their memory.

Finally, I try to get students to use different versions of the word. So for example one of the year 8 words is vacated, so I might ask them to write a sentence using vacant instead, and explore how this word connects with the other. My next plan, and how I taught vocabulary from ‘Animal Farm’ last year, is to look at the root words within some of the ambitious vocabulary and see how I can build on their new word knowledge. Thanks to Alex Quigley, I already have some ideas in place about how I will do this!

5. Using our 5-a-day starters

The wonderful Rebecca Foster’s blog on this explains the idea behind these five question starters. When I visited Rebecca’s school in the final term of last year, she explained how they were using these starters across KS3 as well as 4, so I returned to school and discussed this with my HoD, and we now have 5 a day starters across KS3. Although this started with a focus on knowledge, I have now started to vary the questions to include the words in the vocabulary list. This repetitive exposure to the vocabulary is proving beneficial, as the students are now able to quickly identify which word is needed. Some examples of how I mix this up are below:

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A typical sequence of these starters would be:

  • Whilst the students are learning new vocabulary, the questions asked are simple recall of the last term’s vocabulary: what word means to give someone the power?
  • Then students are then asked the reverse of that, again on words from the last list: what does vitality mean?
  • Students are then asked to recall the words with simple definitions from the knowledge organiser/ vocabulary list: what word means the skull/head area?
  • After the 3rd week of homework, students must select the correct word needed for a sentence “The _______ of the trolley …”
  • Finally, students are given combined sentences where they must improve the vocabulary using a combination of both lists. The boy fell and the movement… (should be replaced with plummeted and momentum)

These starters are not only great for recalling knowledge but are good way to ensure constant exposure to new vocabulary, and encouraging students to adapt that vocabulary.

6. Building character vocabulary banks

After the discussions mentioned at the start of the lesson, I decided to return to each character in ‘An Inspector Calls’ (they studied this at the end of Y9) and form a vocabulary bank for each character. For the class who identified words such as “mean” I would ‘upgrade’ their words, teaching them more nuanced vocabulary and discussing how these words might be applied. This has been a good way to improve their vocabulary using a topic they already have knowledge about.

When the time comes, and they need to write a response to one of these characters, we will use this vocabulary bank to form our initial topic sentence for each paragraph. Mr Birling is a mean and greedy man soon becomes Mr Birling is a callous and avaricious character. 

7. Using the vocabulary from the text

Far too often, when teaching a text, I have told the students what the words mean, or given them a glossary, and that not done anything with it. So for example I’ll provide them with Dickens’ adjectives used to describe Scrooge, but never then think to do much more with this. I’m trying to be a lot more careful with separating language and literature nowadays – I’m trying to show students how these two subjects lend themselves to each other (and the same with the frustrating separation between reading and writing)

text vocab

So when studying ‘War Photographer’ recently we spent some time unpicking the words. I’ve gone back to them in later lessons, and used the 5-a day starters for this, as above. The next stage is to use this vocabulary when we complete the writing (currently we have creative writing Fridays so this works nicely). I’m going to give them a paper 1 image and ask them to use merciless, or dispel, or intone, or blundered. Why haven’t I already been doing this?

8. Modelling sentence structures

After an initial look at ‘Bayonet Charge’, I asked students to quickly extract a semantic field from the poem which they felt was indicative of the way conflict was being presented. We had some interesting ones picked out – a semantic field of heat, clumsy movements, nature. I wrote the following on the board:

Interestingly, Hughes establishes a semantic field of _________ with words such as “________”, “__________”, and “___________”. This reinforces to the reader…

We then discussed what type of adverbs could work at the start of this sentence – students came up with notably, significantly, importantly, and crucially. They then thought about the first verb, and we agreed develops, creates, builds might also work. We then thought the final verb could have been evokes, conveys, illustrates and highlights. I told them suggests is banned, because there are so many better words to say what you really mean.

Students then wanted to focus on one particular word within the semantic field, and again we came up with a sentence where the vocabulary was the focus. I wasn’t really interested in what they said about the semantic field, it was all about how they said it. 

9: Replicating Wider Academic Reading (KS5)

We have identified that our class at KS5 seem to be still very much in a GCSE phrasing mode. Obviously, we don’t expect them to write at A Level standard overnight, but in order to ensure they write like academics, we need to spend a lot of time reading academic writing. The problem is, that as soon as you provide students an article on ‘Juvenile crime in Oliver Twist‘ then they will spend their time looking for information about crime in Oliver Twist – understandably.

For the last pieces of academic reading I have given to Y12, I have asked them to read using two highlighters (or re read with a new highlighter) and to pick out sentence starters, phrasing or vocabulary that they don’t know/feel established a clear point.

After completing this for homework, we then created a list on a separate area of their notes entitled ‘Academic Phrasing: Golden Nuggets’ (some chose a less exciting title) and this created some interesting discussions. They asked, for example, what notorious meant and then someone followed that by asking what notoriety meant, so this initiated a discussion over Fagin, but also the word root of notorious. We also found phrasing like ‘This is further evidenced by‘ and ‘readers were initially ambivalent’ – we thought of the same phrase in a less concise or academic way, and discussed why the writer may have used this phrasing. We also looked at the following introduction:

Novels such as Oliver Twist have made Victorian child-thieves familiar to us, but to what extent did juvenile crime actually exist in the 19th century? Drawing on contemporary accounts and printed ephemera, Dr Matthew White uncovers the facts behind the fiction. The success of Oliver Twist owes much to the biting satire and keen social observations contained within its pages. The misery of workhouses, the morally corrosive effects of poverty and the degradation of life in Victorian slums all received Dickens’s close attention. The novel’s prominent theme though is criminality, witnessed most vividly in the activities of Fagin’s gang of nimble-fingered child-thieves. But how realistic was Dickens’s portrayal of criminality among Victorian boys and girls?

We discussed the use of the questions, how these were building to a well-constructed argument – where the writer knew the answer already, but was posing it to the reader. We explored the density of the introduction, how it covered contextual factors, but also offered opinions on the text. We looked at words like criminality, degradation, and satire. There’s so much more time at A Level to discuss these elements of texts.

10. Modelling academic speak

I remember the old spoken language element of the GCSE English Language. My school used to do a study into how teachers talk, and we used a clip of a primary school teacher explaining mini beasts and a secondary teacher (I can’t remember the topic…). Students would always focus on the tone, the pauses, the fillers, the way the primary teacher would repeat each word 3 or 4 times. And whilst yes, the secondary teacher did use  more sophisticated terminology, what always used to strike me was how their sentence structures and phrasing was very much the same in both transcripts.

I was filmed on Friday as part of CPD, and I watched a short clip back on the camera, and was immediately thinking about how I speak. This was with year 8, with a very able group, and I’m left wondering whether my speech and phrasing is really stretching them. And am I doing the same at GCSE, and A Level? David Didau delivered an INSET day at my former school some years back and spoke about this – how we must encourage oral literacy, and ensure students are verbalising their ideas in the right way. And I did do it with my GCSE class that year, constantly asking them to rephrase what they said.

But now I wonder, am I modelling this phrasing, this vocabulary, enough? Or do I, as a teacher striving to make the learning accessible, sometimes not use the vocabulary I might use, for example, in a meeting with other teachers? I think now about my GCSE German teacher, who very rarely spoke a word of English and still we managed to learn, and know what she was talking about (and despite my brain really struggling with language learning, I somehow scraped a B).

I’m going to watch the full video when it is sent to me, and use it to think about my vocabulary and how I model analysis to students. How can I expect them to speak like an academic, to use high level vocabulary and sophisticated phrasing, if I’m not doing it?


Thanks for reading


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