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Great teaching techniques: Deliberate vocabulary development

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What’s the idea?

Build students’ confidence and fluency when using technical, subject specialist or new vocabulary through explicit teaching and practice.

What does it mean?

Learning new content almost always means introducing new vocabulary. It is not enough to note unfamiliar words, explain them and move on, however. If you want to support long-term mastery, each new word must be taught discretely and deliberately through repetition and practice.

This approach ensures that students go beyond simply reading new words aloud; they can spell and pronounce them, use them appropriately in their writing and – crucially – store and recall them for future learning. Once mastered, specialist vocabulary helps students to articulate sophisticated ideas and concepts, which can dramatically enhance outcomes.

What are the implications for teachers?

Here are four steps which should ensure that new words become fully embedded:

  1. Reading: Start with choral repetition by saying the new word together as a class. Go over its pronunciation and practise, practise, practise. Once it seems like everyone has it, test some individuals to confirm this. Make sure everyone in the room is familiar with the way the word looks and sounds. If not, practise some more.
  2. Understanding: Teach the definition of the new word. Explain the meaning then check for understanding using quizzing, word scrambles or multiple-choice questions. This will help you to tease out and correct misconceptions. Remember that the same word may not carry the same connotations across all subjects. For example ‘analysis’ is a slightly different task in English and science, despite sharing some common features. Be specific about what the word means in your subject, but also invite comparisons for added clarity and understanding.
  3. Fluency: Ask students to use the newly-learned word in multiple contexts, out loud and in writing. Listing new vocabulary on a whiteboard can help students gain confidence and develop fluency.
  4. Recall: Be clear that students are expected to learn and remember new words, and that you will return to them in future to test for meaning and spelling. Plan to revisit new vocabulary frequently with spelling tests and multiple-choice questions. Over time, this should help pupils to recall the words and use them correctly, but take any chance you get to correct misunderstandings and support confidence when speaking.

Top tip: Ask students to store new words in the back of their books or to create a knowledge organiser for later reference. This is an excellent strategy, as long as you support pupils who may not be able to do this independently by preparing vocabulary support sheets, for example.  

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