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Explicit vocabulary teaching

Written By: Driver Youth Trust
5 min read

What’s the idea?

This compact guide is concerned with explicit teaching to support vocabulary development in learners. Essentially, we are looking at what steps we can take in order to expand the functional vocabulary that learners use in lessons (and life). We are looking to empower learners so that they can draw on a rich and varied vocabulary rather than over-relying on secure ‘go to’ words which might not always be right for the context they are working in. It is important to support students’ language development because research has shown that early language ability is predictive of children’s social and academic outcomes in later life (see the SCALES project).

Speech and language needs have also been linked to higher levels of disruptive behaviour and government statistics show that over 74 per cent of young people in a youth offenders institute have below-average communication skills, and over 60 per cent have speech, language and communication needs. Although we need to be careful not to confuse correlation with causation, supporting  young people in developing their communication at an early stage certainly seems to be important for a range of reasons.


What does it mean?

Having more vocabulary at our disposal increases the potential for us to articulate ourselves with greater clarity and our ability  to communicate with different audiences. More importantly, the more words we are aware of, the more we can understand and make sense of what is being said within the classroom, and beyond: ‘Vocabulary is the glue that holds stories, ideas and content together… making comprehension accessible for children’ (Rupley, Logan and Nichols, 1998/99).

Vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95 per cent of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003). Initially, conversation is a great tool for developing vocabulary in infants. However, once children reach school age, developing vocabulary benefits from being taught in a more explicit and structured way, although conversation remains a useful tool. This does not just mean focusing on academic language. There is also a need to focus on language skills that are not developed in some households. Roy et al. (2014) found that preschool children whose parents or carers were of low SES (socioeconomic status) and unemployed scored significantly lower on standardised measures of core language processes than children whose parents/carers were of mid-range SES and employed.


Action points for teachers

Research has shown that children can learn vocabulary through incidental learning during shared reading, but effects are modest. Explicit teaching needs to be planned with the intentional delivery of specific vocabulary in order for learners to take on the meaning of new words. Children learn more words, and more about those words, when teaching is explicit (Johnson and Yeates, 2006). Stemming from the work of Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) one focus for the explicit teaching of vocabulary would focus on Tier 2 words – these are unfamiliar to children but can appear frequently in texts, so are essential to support understanding.

There are a whole host of ways to develop vocabulary in the classroom. The benefit to the teacher in all of these is that they present several opportunities for gauging the stage of vocabulary acquisition and whether learners know where, when and how to use specific words. Where gaps are identified, teaching can be adapted to reinforce targeted vocabulary.


There is another compact guide which focuses on reading in more detail and will support teachers with their approaches in the classroom.

Reading to children is a great vehicle for developing knowledge of vocabulary with plenty of opportunities for exploring the meaning of different words. For example, using picture books can help at an early stage as you can refer to the text but also explore what might be happening in the pictures. Think of the Gruffalo when the mouse is exploring the deep dark woods in an attempt to get a nut. This is a great opportunity to explore the different words children might use for different parts of the story. Other questions that could be explored with the children include:

  • How would you describe the mouse? (we know how the Gruffalo is described so build on this, looking at the physical features of the mouse in the pictures)
  • What other words could we use to describe the Gruffalo? (big, massive, hairy, scary)
  • The Gruffalo has claws, what do you have instead of claws? (extend this to other physical features)


Set learners a synonym challenge where they have to list some words from the text and then suggest words which have a similar meaning. This is a great way to explore what words the learners come up with and their understanding of such words. This may well present as an opportunity to correct any misconceptions with regards to the learner’s understanding of a specific word.


Create a set of words which learners have to describe without actually saying the specific word. This is a great opportunity to gain an insight into how learners go about describing specific words. This may give you an idea of their relative stage of language development and their understanding, or in some cases their misunderstanding, of key words. The Communication Trust’s resource, Universally Speaking, gives an outline of the stage of language development you should expect to have for children by certain ages.

You could start with fruit – can they describe a pineapple clearly – green spiky top, brown/yellow exterior, yellow flesh on the inside, sweet and juicy. Do they actually classify it as a fruit?


Ask for words to be placed into a sentence so that you can gain an understanding of whether learners can use vocabulary in the right context. This could be part of an activity that looks at synonyms, then asks for a definition and finally the word to be placed into a sentence.


From the Gruffalo to a view of an enchanting landscape, you can present a picture to learners and ask them to label it. Where learners are more confident you can increase the element of challenge by asking for similes and metaphors to be included so that there are opportunities to demonstrate more sophisticated use of vocabulary.


The Driver Youth Trust is a charity committed to improving the outcomes of young people who struggle with literacy.

Want to know more?

If you are concerned about language development then you can find some useful resources on:

Oxford University Press (2018) Why closing the word gap matters: Oxford Language Report. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Law J, Charlton J and Asmussen K (2017) Language as a Child Wellbeing Indicator – Early Intervention Foundation. London: Early Intervention Foundation.

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