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Literacy Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Expanding students' vocabulary

All texts are made up of words and phrases. It’s important to expand students’ awareness and appreciation of language and to help them build up their personal vocabularies. Developing an extensive vocabulary enables students to improve both their reading comprehension and their writing.

As part of the instructional programme, teachers need to plan to expand their students’ vocabularies. Students need a substantial and ever-increasing bank of sight words, and they also need to be taught about how words work. The teacher’s role is to:

  • develop a class community of people who are curious and enthusiastic about language and keen to experiment with new vocabulary and language structures;
  • encourage students to notice, savour, and share interesting words at every opportunity, for example, when reading literary and transactional texts and during class or group conversations;
  • introduce, explain, and model the use of new words, including the academic and specialised words that the students need for their ongoing learning;
  • explicitly teach aspects of English language, such as morphology, including the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes and interesting morphemes derived from other languages (see pages 163–164);
  • explicitly teach strategies that readers can use to work out unknown words and terms in texts (for example, by using information in the words themselves, by making links to known words, and by using context clues);
  • give students opportunities to use their new words and terms in authentic oral and written language contexts and encourage them by constructive feedback.

By exploring language with students and giving them opportunities to practise their new learning, teachers can develop their students’ sense of enquiry and adventure and help to build a vibrant community that thrives on discussion of language and how it works. This is invaluable support for new learners of English and also for those who are experiencing difficulties in their literacy learning. Teachers can help their rapid-progress students to extend their vocabulary development by giving them experiences with texts that make demands on the reader, for example, in terms of the complex abstract ideas they present or the issues they offer for debate. These students need to be challenged to add depth to their writing by choosing language that has fine shades of meaning.

Every year 5 to 8 classroom needs a thesaurus, a comprehensive dictionary, and multiple copies of student dictionaries. Bilingual dictionaries in students’ first languages should also be available where possible. Instructional reading and writing sessions, cross-curricular work, and discussions of current events can be used as springboards to launch students into the study of words – investigating synonyms and antonyms, collecting and discussing examples of homophones and homonyms, or sharing the discovery of a new and unusual word or figure of speech.

It’s part of a teacher’s planning to think carefully about the vocabulary in any text that they are planning to use in their literacy programme (for example, in guided reading). Teachers also need to consider the vocabulary that students will need for a writing task. Published lists with information about vocabulary frequency17 can be useful in helping teachers to monitor and extend their students’ vocabulary.

Published on: 22 Apr 2016