Vocabulary Flood



I am very blessed to work in a school where most of my students have a talent I do not possess. Over 75% of our students speak something other than English as their first language, and many of them speak three, four or even five languages fluently. There are 72 languages spoken in our school community. Walking through our corridors is a very humbling experience for someone like myself who scraped a grade C in GCSE French; our students are constantly slipping in and out of various languages, often creating their own unique patois as they attempt to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to share ideas with their friends.

To me, someone who can converse so freely in a range of languages is someone to be admired. Unfortunately, this trait in a student isn’t always seen as the positive, brilliant thing it truly is. I will confess that, before working at my current school, I used to feel some trepidation when planning for EAL students. It is an inescapable fact that, for some students, EAL becomes a label which is synonymous with being ‘less able’ and, though all schools definitely have the right intentions at heart, the external pressures we face often mean that we don’t have the necessary resources to support these students in the way they deserve. Couple that with a long term government failure to support communities with high levels of immigration, and the fact that these generally fall into areas which are among the most economically deprived in our society, EAL students have a raw deal however you look at it.

Political rant over. My own school has a very strong provision (both pastoral and academic) for EAL students. I teach a Y10 class where all but two students are EAL. I have students speaking Swahili, Romanian, Portugese, Panjabi, Afrikaans, Czech, Spanish, Urdu, Congolese and more. Every student in the class is also Pupil Premium, and they have a range of challenges outside the classroom. They are supremely ambitious and, though their official data would label them ‘LA’ in most schools, students with these advanced linguistic skills can make incredibly rapid progress if we provide them with high levels of challenge and frequently expose them to academic language.


This term I have been conducting a piece of action research with this group and have had quite staggering results.

I started with the premise that: students can’t express high level concepts without the necessary academic vocabulary, and the more students are exposed to vocabulary used in context, the more they will learn, the more they will use!

I have literally FLOODED my lessons with high level vocabulary using the strategies below. If I expose students to 30 new words per week, then at least some will stick and, even if that’s a tiny proportion, that’s still more than they knew before!

Practical Strategies

  1. Paint Samplerspaint sampler: Use these colour scales (easily found for free at your local DIY shop!) to get students to rank students in order of intensity. This allows students to see a range of synonyms and helps them to choose the most appropriate version for a particular task. e.g. you wouldn’t use the word ‘seething’ to describe your emotions in a formal letter of complaint because it’s far too raw, but ‘frustrated’ would be fine. With this strategy, students are able to explore the power and potential of vocabulary, and their writing becomes more precise.
  2. Taxonomies: Categorise words to create vocabulary banks which students can draw upon when completing different tasks. This gives students a greater appreciation of the wealth of vocabulary options at their disposal. Here is one I used with my Y10 class for the GCSE Anthology (Conflict theme):taxonomy
  3. High Level Models: Write model responses with sophisticated vocabulary used in context. ALWAYS be aspirational! Never apologise for pitching things high; my class has official targets between GCSE grade 2-6, but I tell them explicitly that the models are grade 8/9. If you can show a high level model, then break it down and show them how it ticks, you de-mistify their sense of what the top grades look like. Vocabulary is one element of great writing, but it’s one which is really tangible and accessible. In the paragraph below, I use the words: hubris, transitory, central, immortalize, preserve, maintain, fruitless, superficial, critique, exploit, pawns. In their next essays, I challenged students to use at least one of these new words. Most used three or more; the taste of a grade 8/9 paragraph was enough to make them push themselves.model paragraph
  4. ‘Hot’ or ‘Not’ list: (Original idea from Amy Thompson @Ladbroa01) Provide a list of words which your weaker students can use as a ‘hot’ list in their writing, and which your stronger students use as a ‘not’ list to force them to use more sophisticated synonyms. You can also do this by giving two lists of words, such as the one below.hot or not
  5. Vocabulary Explosion: I always tell my students, the examiner doesn’t know anything at all about you, apart from the words on the page. They don’t know your target grade, your EAL status or your history. If you can SOUND like a grade 8+ student, then they will TREAT you like one! When I worked in a private school at the start of my career, the difference was that those students had a wide and varied vocabulary and were able to express their ideas with ease. This year, I have been training my students to memorise vocabulary which will help them with potential exam topics (e.g. a list of words to describe Lady Macbeth). They then do a ‘vocabulary explosion’ when they see an exam question, which helps them to formulate their ideas and express challenging concepts. This has been the most high impact strategy I’ve used with students, and makes a huge difference to their confidence and the sophistication of their writing.question explosion

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