Building vocabulary

Language and learning

In the second of a series of articles on Language: The Key to Learning, Orla Redmond builds on her tips for creating a communication-rich classroom and examines ways to develop vocabulary.  

Components of language acquisition

As educators, we are aware of the link between strong oral language skills and literacy attainment.  Skilled reading requires language comprehension and word recognition.  Scarborough (2001) lists 5 components of language comprehension:

  1. Background knowledge
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Language structures
  4. Verbal reasoning, and
  5. Literacy knowledge.

Raising language attainment should also raise reading attainment. It is therefore worth examining each facet of language comprehension individually.  This article concentrates on vocabulary development – a topic continuing to make headlines amidst ongoing ‘word gap’ concerns.

The Roots of Language Acquisition

Good language skills form during a child’s first years of life.  Key to language development are ‘conversational turns’ in which a parent responds to any child-initiated interaction e.g. gazes, gestures, or words and a conversation (verbal / non-verbal) ensues.  Reciting nursery rhymes, singing songs, reading and re-reading books, labeling objects, commenting on events and activities, recounting past experiences the child has had, and using sophisticated vocabulary and grammar further support language acquisition.

Faced with children with different levels of language experience, and some who may be EAL learners, how can we support vocabulary development?

Facets of Vocabulary

Vocabulary must be considered in terms of oral and print vocabulary.  Oral vocabulary includes a child’s receptive and expressive language, while print vocabulary refers to the words the child comprehends in reading and uses in writing.  Oral vocabulary is significantly easier to acquire than print vocabulary as it is supported by contexts and clues.

Developing vocabulary through reading

Pupils must be exposed to a wide variety of reading material through shared read-alouds and independent reading.  Written work requires a richness of language not necessary in oral conversation where gesture and shared knowledge can support meaning.  When planning it is important to ensure a diversity of reading materials from a range of genres is available to a student.  Look for books with familiar settings and characters that pupils can relate to, as well as ones that are out of the ordinary.


Prior to reading, examine the book and have the students predict what they think may happen.  If required, pre-teach vocabulary that relates to text content, especially concepts, so that children can comprehend the text. Throughout the reading process, model and promote the use of metacognitive strategies e.g. activating prior knowledge, inferring meaning, monitoring for comprehension etc.  Demonstrate how to use context clues to support deciphering meaning.  Explain your thought processes throughout and encourage pupils to join in such conversations.  Afterwards, review the book, asking children to evaluate it (explaining their rationale) and have them consider the author’s use of language.

Promoting Vocabulary Through Word Study

Encourage and promote word consciousness by getting the pupils to talk about and share new words from the text or examples of the author’s striking and memorable use of language, e.g., metaphors and puns.  Discuss unfamiliar words encountered and explore their meaning in class discussions.  While pupils must be taught how to use dictionaries, the familiar activity of looking up new words and writing them in sentences has been described as ‘pedagogically useless’ (Miller & Gildea, 1987).  Children must use language to understand it, so have them talk about new words and define them in their own words before encouraging them to add them to their writing vocabulary.

Other strategies to promote word awareness among pupils include:

  • Teaching word meanings and examining different prefixes and suffixes;
  • Identifying synonyms and antonyms and discussing related words;
  • Examining words with multiple meanings and highlighting their correct usage in different contexts.

Use word walls, posters, and anchor charts to highlight new vocabulary and encourage pupils to add interesting words and descriptions to the display.

Models for Vocabulary Study

Depending on their age, pupils may benefit from having a graphic organiser to support vocabulary acquisition.  Try using the Frayer Model, having children identify essential and non-essential characteristics and examples and non-examples of the thing/concept.  Semantic Maps, where pupils chart words associated with the concept, are also very useful.


Focusing on oral vocabulary expansion promotes the development of speaking and listening skills, is a foundation for success with print vocabulary, and may help close the attainment gap between pupils.


Orla Redmond MA (Ed.) is an experienced educator who has worked in teaching, managerial, and advisory capacities in both independent and government schools, in Ireland, the UK, and other regions worldwide. Her specialist interests include supporting disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEN.


Read more from Orla at where she shares resources and thoughts about education.


For further ideas about building student vocabulary see:


Feature Image: Qimono – Pixabay

Other Image: Tumisu – Pixabay