Words are so often the symbols with which we understand and communicate with the world around us – especially in the realm of education. Teaching key terms for different topics explicitly is by no means new and yet I have seen plenty of students sitting in English GCSE and A-level classrooms who don’t know their ‘character’ from ‘characterisation’, let alone their ‘narrator’ from their ‘narrative’. These words may initially seem difficult, but UK school children are meant to know and be able to apply them by the time they reach 11-years-old.

British linguist David Crystal states that most adults would know around 50,000 words easily, if not 75,000.  To find out the size of your vocabulary, he suggests, “taking a sample of about 20 or 30 pages from a medium-sized dictionary, one which contains about 100,000 entries or 1,000 to 1,500 pages. Tick off the ones you know and count them. Then multiply that by the number of pages and you will discover how many words you know. Most people vastly underestimate their total.” But how do we learn them in the first place? Our family talking to us from a young age, experiencing new and varied situations in which to learn plus apply new words and formal teaching are some of the main ways. But how can we help the process along in relation to new subject-specific vocabulary?

The Oxford NHS advice on word-finding explains the abstract nature of words without context, especially in a new sphere of knowledge. They outline how new and abstract vocabulary need to be reinforced via everyday contextual situations amidst formal teaching, e.g. when and where a particular emotion has occurred in the playground.  Alongside key word tests, dictionary use and ‘key word’ zones or walls, other strategies include creating mind maps, word trees using written words as well as pictures, and word maps – all linking old and new vocabulary together (see links below for further information). Using dramatic gestures linked to meaning has also been a key technique at primary level.

There is no doubt that overlearning new vocabulary by linking it to prior knowledge and vocabulary can be key to children’s success in literacy and gaining access to higher education. Just as importantly, it also opens up a potentially richer experience of adulthood – emotional literacy, accessing of the arts and more freedom of choice being just a few examples.

Useful links:



rachel headshotRachel Wallace is a former English teacher and KS3/4 Leader. Easyread is an online intervention for children with reading difficulties, dyslexia, auditory processing problems and more. www.easyreadsystem.com