It’s no secret that students with better vocabularies are more likely to succeed in school. So how can we teach new vocabulary more effectively, to help all students access education and to maximise their learning? Kelly Coleman explains…

In 1986, Gough and Tunmer presented a scientific theory called the Simple View of Reading. This theory looked at a student’s ability to understand written words depending on how well they decode them and understand their meaning. If they could comprehend these things, their reading comprehension would significantly improve.

Gradually, the teaching of vocabulary is coming to use this theory to underpin the work that we do, notably, that word recognition and language comprehension work together and not in isolation. It is not just about teaching new vocabulary, it is about teaching it to a level of mastery that can be applied by students.

Mastery in early decoding leads to skilled reading. As readers become more proficient, they progress from sounding out each word to recognizing words instantly. ‘ (Parker, 2019) 

Nowadays, vocabulary is at the forefront of our teaching, and it is not just down to English specialists to achieve this, but requires a whole-school approach. Despite GCSE exam papers being written for the expected reading levels of a 15 or 16 year old student, researchers have concluded that by Year 9, most students are reading at least 3 years below their chronological age (TES, 2018). This impacts all GCSE exams, regardless of the subject.

vocabulary is at the forefront of our teaching, and it is not just down to English specialists to achieve this, but requires a whole-school approach”

It is no wonder then that there has been such an array of pedagogical books by teaching professionals as to how we can reflect on how we embed the development of vocabulary in our long term curriculum, but also how we can teach it to our students so that they can retain this information. One well-known book has been Alex Quigley´s Closing the Vocabulary Gap (2018). In it, he has identified 7-steps to developing vocabulary:

One of the key strategies that Quigley emphasises is studying morphology – breaking down words by components and roots. It is not enough to read the words, students need to explore them and understand where they have derived from and how they can be used.

Since reading this book, I have experimented with various strategies for each step. Step 1 and Step 2 can work well alongside one another. Firstly, whole school CPD is often required to agree the main objectives and how each department can work smarter by identifying any overlaps and looking at consistent strategies than can be applied across the school so that students are exposed to the same patterns when exploring new vocabulary. This draws in to Step 2 in which departments can look at their learning journeys and long term plans, focussing on specific vocabulary that will be both essential knowledge, as well as achievable retrieval over time. For instance, rather than a knowledge organiser, I have been experimenting with vocabulary organisers for each unit in English. Students receive this at the start of the unit and every homework task is related to it, which is then tested every lesson through short tasks and questioning.

It is not enough to read the words, students need to explore them and understand where they have derived from and how they can be used.”

Rather than over-burdening students, the 5 upgraded key words have created a manageable task for students with words that can often be re-used in many different units (examiner tip: pick words with more technical spellings for students to learn and use in any writing task to help them achieve the higher levels at GCSE).

Currently, I work in an International School and a majority of my students have English as a second language. I trialled many of these strategies with my Year 8 class and was amazed that by our final unit of the year (Macbeth) they were able to accurately use, and apply, many of the key terms they had learnt in the first term of studying Gothic literature.

By this stage, we were building their analysis of this new vocabulary. Rather than simply understanding what it means and being able to use it, they were able to use the words for higher level questions such as “explaining the effect of the writer’s choices” – What does the word ominous mean? became How does Shakespeare present an ominous atmosphere? Here, it became possible for them to connect the words on our vocabulary organiser: Shakespeare presents an ominous atmosphere through Macbeth’s barbarous behaviour and grotesque vision of reality. Intentionally, he has given in to temptation and been manipulated by the supernatural creating a sense of foreboding for the deeply religious audience who would be fearful of the consequences.

Once Step 1 and 2 have been agreed, it is about looking at what strategies will work with your students.

In English, students have to deal with unseen extracts in which they will never know the meaning of all of the words in it. However, in exposing them to the skills of morphology and etymology, they can make a fairly accurate prediction as to what this new vocabulary could mean. Likewise, learning this more advanced vocabulary can develop their writing skills by challenging students to spell more complex words, particularly if it is learnt over a period of time and used in every piece of writing that they complete in order to grow in both confidence and accuracy.

Similarly, modelling these words in our spoken language, and being persistent when questioning students shows students that their vocabulary is transferable between each of the skills they need to succeed both at school, and once they leave school. I regularly, “pretend” I can’t remember a key word and the students I teach definitely enjoy knowing something more than me!

In the past, vocabulary development was taught through a glossary – copy new words and their definition in the back of your book – something students rarely looked at again, nor did it have any meaningful impact in understanding what the words mean or how they can be used. Now with the vast array of pedagogical readings, strategies and changes to exams, the development of vocabulary can be both exciting and challenging for our students and over time, and with a consistent whole-school / department approach, can have a positive impact on student progress.


Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986) Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7, 6-10

Parker, S. (2019) Guest Post: The Simple View of Reading: Still Conclusive after 33 Years, The Snow Report, Pam Snow.

Many GCSE pupils have reading level of a 13-year-old | Tes Magazine (2018)


Kelly Coleman is an English teacher at an International School and previously 17 years teaching in the UK as Head of Department, Assistant Principal and Lead Practitioner as well as a GCSE Examiner.

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