Unboxing vocabulary

“Writing is an extension of memory.” (Willingham, 2017)

The written language is a relatively new concept in the history books, compared with the existence of speech; it is used to permanently capture and store one’s memory.

Writing is a coding system that allows meaning to be shared and understood, spanning from logographics (Hieroglyphics as an example) to a lettering system (and logograms) that we are familiar with today. Although, the variety of letter sequences forming a word of meaning is dependent on the community, language and context that it relates to (for example, ‘toga’ in English (although originating from Latin) means a loose garment worn by the citizens of Rome, but rearrange the letters to spell ‘gato’ and now constitutes a different meaning in a different language: meaning cat in Spanish).

I have added some suggestions for books and academics I would highly recommend that would greatly support one’s understanding of the integral role vocabulary plays in our every day teaching. The list is not exhaustive by any means but a sample of some that I have found particularly useful.

I strongly believe promoting the love (see my blog “Vocabulary is delicious“) and supporting the development of vocabulary in the classroom will directly aid reading and writing.

Tiered vocabulary

You may well be very familiar with Tiered vocabulary by Beck, Kucan and McKeown; if not, it is the idea that Tier 1 categorises your basic words that are used most commonly through speech, primarily learned through conversation. Tier 2 categorise your more academic words found in a number of contexts that often help to convey greater clarity for specific meaning. Tier 3 categorises your domain-specific vocabulary.

For example:

  • Tier 1: was, got, came
  • Tier 2: challenge, contradict, eliminate
  • Tier 3: hydraulics, transpiration

This is extremely useful when considering how vocabulary could/should be interwoven across your whole curricula. Of course, it is an extensive task, so it is important teachers are well informed so they can spend time and effort highlighting specific words and phrases, especially through every day dialogue.

For instance, rather than always saying “Ok, now get your pencils and write the date,” replace this with “Ok, please retrieve your pencils and record the date.” Or, rather than “Sit up straight please,” replace with “Ameliorate your posture please.”

Planning your vocabulary lessons

First and foremost, vocabulary generation must be planned collaboratively. It is an excellent opportunity to sit down within your team and generate a body of vocabulary that can be specific to your class whilst adding challenge (focusing on the Tier 2 words predominantly). Figure 1, 2, 3 and 6 are examples of teachers’ workbooks.

Note: the vocabulary generated with the children always exceeded the amount prepared.

It is fundamental this is prepared prior to the lesson as this will reduce your working memory (trying desperately to think of new vocabulary on the spot) and allow you to focus on managing the room: we all can recall moments when we’re trying to draw blood from a stone, so let’s prepare in order to overcome this!

I will describe my process that has proven to be successful within my school.

When considering your vocabulary lesson progression, consider the following 6 steps:

  • Step 1: Choose your focus
  • Step 2: The obvious
  • Step 3: Unboxing vocabulary
  • Step 4: Enhance
  • Step 5: Take it further
  • Step 6: Build your sentences

I have detailed two examples below that myself and my colleagues have used with the children. The necessity of vocabulary generation is embedded across all year groups for every unit of work so six steps can be applied across the age range; it is the level of vocabulary and the complexity of the sentence construction that differs.

The two examples below have derived from specific narrative foci; however, I have included a vocabulary generated example for a non-fiction unit too later on.

Example 1

Think carefully about the types of vocabulary you want to generate. Ensure you allow time for the children to have plenty of practice experimenting with and learning new vocabulary; for us, we carried out this lesson in the first week so the children could practise across the two subsequent weeks of the unit. This helped with the element interactivity effect (links to Cognitive Load Theory) by reducing the amount of elements the children needed to process when it came to their independent writing: they could focus their energy on carefully selecting which is best to convey the meaning, as opposed to rummaging through their vocabulary repertoire which can be daunting for those less confident.


I do strongly believe that before children can have the opportunity to experiment and even break some conventional writing rules (i.e. manipulating language and sentence structure to emphasise meaning), it is important that we provide bitesize ingredients that help children understand how to create cohesion and achieve a number of skills. For example, we teach that sentences require a noun and a verb, but writing a single abstract noun followed by a full stop (Frightened.) can have a bigger impact on the reader. Below is an example of how we can break down the skill of personification: nouns + verbs

Figure 1: Positive abstract nouns
Step 1: Choose your focus

The writing focus was to describe character and atmosphere. For this lesson, we were focusing on personifying abstract nouns, and to extend, we decided to include collective nouns to exaggerate.

Step 2: The obvious

The first part of the vocabulary was to generate positive emotions (easier for the children to start with), followed by negative emotions. Here, we generated synonyms and other nouns that portray positivity. Depending on your skill focus, you could decide to focus on generating a list of adjectives, alternative nouns etc. Note: As you can see in Figure 1, we started with the abstract nouns in the middle of the page. Although the sentence would be created with a collective noun first (hence needing to be on the left-hand side of the page), abstract nouns was the easier heading to start with.

Step 3: Unbox the vocabulary

Once we had generated enough, we then moved on to verbs, for example, dance. Quite often, when you are generating vocabulary with the children, they will give you similar words following the class’s train of thought. Although these are a good start to the get the ball rolling, the generation soon finds itself at a dead end. So, this is when the vocabulary needs to be unboxed. Offer another verb that shifts their thinking and begins a new train of thought. For example, “Let’s think of verbs that now show the emotion taking over, for example, engulfed.” This resets the room with children now suggesting the following: swallowed, enveloped, devoured, encapsulated and so on. Some were even better than what was originally prepared. Great!

Step 4: Enhance

This is the opportunity to replace common vocabulary with better alternatives (zooming in and zooming out); for example, zooming in on different parts and features, zooming out to see how this links on the whole, then zooming back in but even further, focusing on a specific word to improve. An example of this is detailed in Example 2, later on.

Step 5: Take it further

This is the opportunity to add an additional layer to the sentence construction by generating additional words or phrases that will enhance the meaning. In this example (Figure 1 and 2), you can see we added a third category, collective nouns. The children can then use the collective nouns to quantify the personified sentences.

Step 6: Build your sentence

Always allow time for the children to ‘join the dots’ with the vocabulary and generate sentences. This can be done at the end or in smaller chunks throughout the lesson; orally or written. It is a great way to discuss how specific choices of language will alter meanings.

You’ll note that between Figure 1 and 2, the verb drowned appears in both. Through discussion, the children soon realised that drowning is commonly associated with a negative feeling so most children avoided this for Figure 1 (although more aspiring writers were challenged to explore how negative emotions could drown by the overpowering nature of more positive emotions).

Figure 1 details a model sentence whereby the teacher would demonstrate how choosing one from each category can achieve the intended effect. This is a great opportunity to discuss why some choices are better than others whilst allowing for evident scaffolding and enrichment. For example, children who find it difficult can choose from the board to build phrases; those who are ready for their learning to be extended can combine further skills (adverbials or prepositional phrases) to the beginning or the end of their sentences.

Figure 2: Negative abstract nouns

Example 2

Figure 3: An example of vocabulary generation for conveying character innocence (The Big Bad Wolf)

For this writing unit, the focus was on character description to convey innocence. The children would tell the story from the Big Bad Wolf’s perspective (in the modern day) on the events that happened: one week we focused on Little Red Riding Hood; the other week we then focused on The Three Little Pigs. Again, we invested time generating the above vocabulary (Figure 3) so the children could experiment and practise.

Step 1: Choose your focus

Knowing we wanted to focus on the Wolf, we decided to focus on his appearance. We broke it down into four main features: Teeth, Eyes, Nose and Fur.

Step 2: The obvious

We focused on generating as many concrete adjectives, and some alternative nouns, as we could for each feature, so for example, for Teeth, we came up with sharp, white, yellow and stained.

Step 3: Unbox the vocabulary

Once we had generated enough, we then moved on to abstract adjectives, for example, unsettling and daring. I then needed to shift the train of thought again and unbox the next set of vocabulary. For example, “Let’s think of abstract adjectives, for example, the menacing teeth.” This reset the room followed by suggestions like dangerous, intimidating, horrifying, misleading and so on.

Step 4: Enhance

Once you have generated concrete and abstract nouns, choose one or two you could up-level: zoom-in to the word. In this example, the word white is a word the children are comfortable using. For this lesson, I wanted them to experiment portraying and enhancing this image. I circled white and generated alternative words and phrases; for example, pale vs glistening, an ivory tusk, a dove’s feather, tip of a wave’s crest and freshly plucked cotton.

Step 5: Take it further

Once you have generated your descriptive language, how might we use it? This links well with generating personification and other figurative phrases. Generate verbs that enhance these features. For example, “What are the eyes doing?” They could be scanning, glancing, gazing, spying, fixating. Then I would unbox the next part, by saying, “What are the eyes physically doing? Could they be suspended?” (especially when showing his poisoned eyes suspended in the shadows). This followed with examples like hanging, clutching, hovering and so on.

Step 6: Build your sentence

When scaffolding, I prepared a short phrase by combining a selection of adjectives: The spherical, golden balls of poison. I prepared to take it further by including a verb using more of the ingredients on the page: The soul-piercing baubles scanning for flesh. This was up levelled further by combining other skills, previously learnt, with the current vocabulary: Emerging from the bushes, the points of the jagged ivory tusks greeted the locals (conveying the wolf’s innocence through a simple smile which could be seen by others as horrifying).

Working wall

After generating all this work with the children under the visualiser or interactive white board, be sure to leave it present on your working walls so the children can continue to access and add to it. This helps to minimise the transient effect (links to Cognitive Load Theory). Figure 4 is an example of how one class captured vocabulary and example sentences on their working wall. This was added to as the unit progressed.

Figure 4: Example of a working wall

Below (Figure 5) is an example of a finished working wall at the end of a unit. The children were empowered throughout the unit by working with the teacher to build this extensive bank of vocabulary to describe the sun, sea, sand and trees. They were able to navigate and choose precisely and purposefully.

Figure 5: An earlier example of a finished working wall

Other examples

Setting description – building tension
Figure 6: An example of vocabulary generated for a setting description (a portal). Note: scratches = scratched.
Reporting – A newspaper article about a building blast (WW2 link)
Figure 7: Generating vocabulary that conveys how the building was loved before VS the destruction and what it symbolises now

Further reading

  • Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, Kucan and McKeown
  • The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads by Daniel Willingham
  • Closing the Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley
  • Write like a Ninja: An essential toolkit for every young writer by Andrew Jennings with contributions from Alan Peat
  • The Learning Spy blog page by David Didau
  • Making Meaning in English: An exploration of the role of knowledge in language and literature by David Didau
  • Vocabulary Ninja: Activities to Unlock a World of Words by Andrew Jennings
  • Jumpstart Spelling and Vocabulary: Engaging Activities for Ages 5-12 – Jumpstart! by Pie Corbett and Carol Satterthwaite
  • Talk for Writing
  • Alan Peat’s sentence structures

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