How we teach vocabulary building

How we build vocabulary at Blackhorse


At Blackhorse we believe a child’s vocabulary impacts on their knowledge and understanding of the whole curriculum. Children need an increasing vocabulary to comprehend what they read, master mathematics and to make sense of the different enquiries. Children must be able to read new words, understand what they mean and use them in different contexts.


To increase children’s vocabulary we use the Word Aware Approach which gives children across the school the opportunity to enjoy words, experience explicit teaching of new words and learn strategies for independent word learning. Through this approach vocabulary is taught through multi-sensory learning where age appropriate tier 2 words are identified and explicitly taught. Children are then exposed to the new vocabulary multiple times before providing practical learning opportunities where the new vocabulary is taught in context. Through these techniques children develop mastery of new words and are able to read, write, and understand the new vocabulary that has been taught.


All children are taught different strategies to find the definitions of new vocabulary met when reading. These are modelled to the children throughout the curriculum. The strategies include identifying the word parts (prefix, suffix, root word), reading around the word and ahead of the word for clues, checking the word for a capital letter, changing the word for a synonym and checking if the word has multiple meanings in different contexts.   


Teaching Vocabulary: Word Aware


How a session is structured:

Each session is based on the Word Aware STAR approach where age appropriate tier 2 words are:

Selected from a high quality text

Taught explicitly

Activated through questioning, discussion and application

Reviewed continuously in spoken and written form


Selecting vocabulary


Children’s vocabulary acquisition will increase if children are explicitly taught Tier 2 words on a daily basis. These words usually have multiple meanings are likely to be verbs or adjectives and children will be able to apply them in multiple ways through oral and written language. Tier 2 words are chosen carefully from the class texts with 3 new words being taught each week. These words are placed on the appropriate learning walls and once taught are placed into a pot for constant revision to ensure retention of the words and their definition in long term memory.


Tier 1

Tier 2

Tier 3

Students have a thorough understanding of these words.

Everyday spoken language for a child of this age.

Used at home and in daily interactions.

Children may have become familiar with this language through school.


Really useful words

Likely to be encountered again in reading or oral language.

Average adult has a good level of knowledge of the word.

Words that are very topic specific but core to the topic.

Age 7+: Desirable for students to use in their writing.


Less likely to be encountered in reading or oral language.

Average adult does not have much knowledge of the word.

Words that are particularly topic specific and not core to the topic.

Age 7+: Not a word that students usually need to use in their own writing.



Teaching vocabulary


Speech Sounds: New word

  • Clap syllables
  • Which words rhyme? Include nonsense words
  • Initial sound
  • Say word to a partner


Meaning: Share dictionary definition and synonyms

Context: Example from the text, with images, photos or videos. You may wish to use the word in other sentence examples or using synonyms.

Action: Physically act out the word or give an action to it. Add the word to the Working Wall or Word Pot.


Activating vocabulary


  • Describe the word to your friend
  • Think of a time when you could use this word
  • I like/don't like this word because
  • Pretend to do this word
  • The word is a bit like.....
  • What other word could be used instead
  • Which would you describe as _____?  ___ or ____?
  • When might someone do this?
  • What can it do/what does it look like?
  • What would you need to do this?
  • Who might do this?
  • What could be described with this word?
  • Three words about the new word e.g. hazard: danger, warning, ouch!
  • If this word was a (car/animal/food) what would it be? Why? e.g. if lucrative was a car it would be a Porsche as they would make you lots of money if you sold them
  • Draw a picture that represents the word
  • Think of something that can be described as (target word)? Why that?
  • Think of a time when this word would be particularly useful.
  • When might you/someone do this?
  • This word is a bit like...? How is it different from that word?
  • If I was talking about … (topic) or if I went… (context) how would I use this word?
  • Where might I come across this word again? Why?
  • I like/don’t like this word because ...
  • Idea completions: For example, ‘Mum described the kitchen as ‘gleaming’ because ...’ 
  • What can it do?
  • What does it look like?
  • What objects might be needed to do this action?
  • What animal or profession might do this action? Eg. What animal might be tentative? Why?
  • What would a (insert noun) be like if it is described as (target word)? E.g. If a house was magnificent what would it look like? If I went to a restaurant and there was a feast. What would I see? 
  • If an object or person is described as this word, what else could you say about that person or thing? For example, if you describe someone as a tormentor, what else could you say about them?




Words that have been selected, taught and activated need to be constantly reviewed. At the end of the session children need to review the word through the following list.


  1. What was the word?
  2. What did you learn about the word?
  3. Let's all clap the word
  4. Let's all act the word
  5. When could you use the word again
  6. Tell your partner how you'll remember the word


The word is then placed in a ‘word pot’ with other previously taught words and all words are reviewed at some point in the school day. During writing lessons teacher’s model writing sentences with the new vocabulary with an expectation that children apply the words in their writing.

Webinar: Developing spoken vocabulary within Early Years settings

Webinar by Anna Branagan, author of Word Aware 2: Teaching Vocabulary in the Early Years where she looked into how all staff who work in Early Years can work...