Vocabulary: too big to ‘teach’?

Written by: Erin Miller | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Is it possible to ‘teach’ vocabulary, or is the notion too vague, complex and big to contemplate? Erin Miller looks at this whole-school challenge and offers a few ideas

I’ve always found the notion of “teaching vocabulary” at secondary level a bit sticky, and I’m not alone. Ask any English teacher about teaching vocabulary and you will probably be met initially with a strained facial expression, followed by a good deal of hesitancy, and rounded off with a thoroughly inconclusive response.

Although, being English teachers, we will undoubtedly dazzle and distract you with hundreds of sparkly ideas, suitably masking our uncertainty about what vocabulary we should teach and indeed how we should teach it.

So, if I was being a little more sensational, I’d have to say that “vocabulary teaching” is an issue fraught with endless difficulty and complication. Why is that?

My gut tells me that it is because you just can’t teach it. It’s too big.

Take this analogy: tasking teachers to “teach vocabulary” is as vague and as impossible as telling teachers to “teach history”. You can’t teach all of it! And you certainly can’t know all of it.

So, how does our education system deal with this? They pick out chunks/periods with specific foci in history to teach, leading to an assessment in which you demonstrate your skills and knowledge in relation to the selected periods of history.

No such luck with vocabulary though. Nope, you’ve just got to magically get the pupils to assimilate it all – because, come the exam, they could be asked to create a description of a beach, or a city, or a time they felt nervous, or to describe a religious festival, or, well, anything at all.

It is simply not feasible to commit whole hours to teaching words to describe landscapes, when that’s just a shot in the dark at what the pupils might be asked to write about in their final examinations.

The national curriculum at key stage 4 demands that pupils must be able to “judiciously” select their vocabulary, while ensuring that their chosen vocabulary contributes to the “coherence, consistency, clarity and overall effectiveness” of the whole text.

This, coupled with the exam board requirements such as the use of “increasingly sophisticated vocabulary” accurately, demonstrably proves that the vocabulary used by pupils is probably the factor upon which their success in examinations is most contingent.

After all, if you haven’t got the vocabulary, how are you going to use linguistic devices effectively? You can’t exactly create “sophisticated and impressive” writing with the vocabulary of your average five-year-old.

This leads us into the debate about whether English is “skills-based”. Writing is undeniably a skill, the success of which is determined by the amount of vocabulary knowledge we have in our repertoire. The ability to explain, understand, create, etc, is all contingent on our knowledge of words, words, words.

Essentially, everything boils down to vocabulary, and “knowing” vocabulary isn’t a skill. It’s knowledge of words, what they mean, when to use them and how to spell thema. You can then be skilful in how you deploy the vocabulary, but you can’t do that if you don’t know the words in the first place. So yes, we’ve got to support it and develop it, but why does this seem to fall solely on the shoulders of English departments?

While we must work around a defective system with zero parameters and zero recommendations on what vocabulary we should teach, we must ask ourselves: as a teacher who only sees their students for perhaps three hours per week, how can we really maximise this time and teach vocabulary effectively?

There will never be enough that we can do in respect to vocabulary instruction, and it is key that English departments have the support of the whole school in nurturing and building vocabulary. Here are a few ideas for a whole-school approach to vocabulary instruction.

Dedicated reading and listening time

The irrepressible truth is simply that a person’s lexicon is formed through their lifetime of language experience. What have they read? How much do they read?

Who do they listen to? What exposure to thoughtful and eloquent voices do they have beyond the classroom?

These are the real ways in which vocabulary is assimilated, simply by sustained and consistent reading and listening over a prolonged period of time: not through a few hours of English class per week.

Schools should take every opportunity to expose pupils to a broad range of erudite voices: podcasts, YouTube series, political affairs, mini-documentaries, politically inclined comedians – there is something to learn from every voice.

In the same spirit, the news really ought to be read every day. It is unlikely that we would be able to measure the effect of this in any genuine way, but if consistently delivered over a prolonged period, then by osmosis, this is going to have a positive effect.

Department focus

Each department must visibly emphasise the importance of vocabulary in their subjects. An abandoned “literacy in science” poster which is peeling off the wall is not sufficient: vocabulary focus must be wholly embraced.

Departments need to collaboratively decide what vocabulary they want to teach and discuss how to embed it into lessons.

If we model the importance of vocabulary acquisition across a range of disciplines, then students will infer the necessity of continually seeking to build their vocabulary.


Redesigning homework to simultaneously focus on vocabulary and minimise workload might include vocabulary revision and quizzing – could a department-wide approach to this help? Particularly in English, modern foreign languages, and humanities?

Much like vocabulary itself, the methods to teach it are near infinite. I believe that the key ingredients to incremental vocabulary acquisition is a genuine and meaningful whole-school approach that acknowledges the shared responsibility of all departments.

A young person’s repertoire of vocabulary is a significant part of their social and intellectual development – which is the core of why we do what we do.


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