Building Word Confidence: Everyone read, say, understand, use, practise.

A very common phenomenon in many lessons is that students encounter new words.  The way we approach this ought to be something teachers think about explicitly so that effective strategies are used.  I’ve seen explicit vocabulary development done extremely well but, quite often, I find that it’s approached in a rather shallow manner: new words are encountered, read out, discussed  explained and maybe added to a list – but that’s the end of it.  A shallow approach often does not involve every student, does not involve everyone even saying the words aloud, let alone using them in a sentence or engaging in recall practice. There’s a sense that new words are meant to sink in somehow after the briefest encounter.

I recently gave a talk at a CPD day for English teachers in Liverpool where I used this example.  The words come from a session I attended by retired civil servant Michael Stark who is developing a phonics app for English learners in Africa and China. He used them to illustrate the power of phonics – choosing words that most of us would be unfamiliar with, therefore requiring us to use our phonetic knowledge instead of word recognition.

Here, I’m using them just as examples of new words.  Imagine encountering these six words:

  • Stercoraceous
  • Sesquipedalian
  • Defervesence
  • Eucatastrophe
  • Commensalism
  • Prosopagnosia

If we want to say that students have learned these words, then they should be able to read them, say them, understand what they mean and use them appropriately in speech and in writing.  They should also be able to recall them and use them appropriately at some point in the future, not just a few minutes after encountering them. This needs to apply to everyone in the class – obviously enough – but that’s often where vocabulary development goes awry; teachers don’t get into the corners of the room (metaphorically speaking) to make sure everyone knows them.

For each new word, some good choral repetition is very effective to start – to build confidence under cover of the chorus.  Then, you need to cold call some individuals to say the words and explore the tricky parts of the pronunciation.

After reading the words, we need to explore their meaning, one word at a time. So, here you go – apologies if you knew them already:

  • Stercoraceous – consisting of or resembling dung or faeces.
  • Sesquipedalian – characterised by long words; long-winded.
  • Defervesence – the abatement of a fever (cease boiling)
  • Eucatastrophe – a sudden and favourable resolution; a happy ending.
  • Commensalism – two organisms; one benefits; the other derives neither benefit or harm
  • Prosopagnosia- inability to recognise faces of familiar people.

Crucially, after explaining each word at the appropriate level of detail it is important to check for understanding from the class, going back to the words without their explanations showing, to see if students can explain them – to you, to each other, with everyone involved.  Too often, the odd student is involved here and the majority do not have their understanding checked.  If you are teaching multiple words at once, then some scrambled word-to-meaning matching can be effective here. Multiple choice questions that include appropriate and inappropriate uses of new words can be very effective to tease out deeper understanding.

Now, let’s see if students can use their new words in context. Here’s an example where I have attempted to use all of our new words:

In a panic about his prosopagnosia, Tom scanned the room. He drew a blank as usual. Thank goodness; he could feel the defervesence after having eaten that stercoraceous porridge for breakfast.

He hoped for a degree of commensalism between himself and the audience – despite his habitual sesquipedalian delivery – and the usual eucatastrophe as he delivered the punchline.

Laughter. Relief. It was over.

Ok. So now we have given the words an airing. They are out there in the ether and probably written in books. But nobody has learned them.  As the cognitive scientists say, learning requires forgetting – so we need to test for recall later with some retrieval practice.  This is made more powerful if we are explicit with students that these are words they must know and that they will be tested on: spellings and meanings.

It might help to create a knowledge organiser for future retrieval practice by self-quizzing. Students can do this themselves – especially for words that emerge spontaneously – but it can pay to anticipate words and prepare good resources in advance.  The question is: do the least confident students have the capacity to record the words and meanings accurately? If not, give them to them.

table of wordsThe final stage is to check in on these words some time later. A spelling test, words-to-meanings quiz, some multiple choice questions etc, probably mixed in with other words from previous new-word teaching episodes.  Re-teach the common errors and then re-test again until everyone seems confident, each time using multiple cold calling to get a good sense of oral confidence with students saying the words correctly and appropriately.

If you compare this systematic disciplined approach with the more casual hit-and-hope approach mentioned at the beginning, it would require quite a change in some teachers’ routine practice. There’s a time investment required. However, I would suggest that this is how far we need to go, especially with high frequency words or critical technical words.  I’ve found Y11 students who are not confident with words like photosynthesis, respiration, multiple, denominator, hydrochloric, chronological, parliament, gravitational.  They usually recognise the words – they are familiar with them –  and have a general sense of what they mean but their knowledge, understanding, fluency and recall haven’t been tested systematically enough for the words to be really embedded; to be truly learned.

Ok. Quick quiz: Fill in the gaps: No cheating.

table of words with gaps


  1. Great post. Explicit teaching of vocabulary would be a strong facet of any school’s literacy policy. I can’t remember who to credit (Doug Lemov – Reading reconsidered?) but the use of three examples and one non-example was very useful for students to grasp the meaning and use of particular words. Tom’s prosopagnosia meant he wouldn’t recognise the strangers that walked into his office. Before I left my last school there were tentative plans to teach Tier 2 vocabulary during form time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like that Tom. That is a really effective way to push whole school literacy. Also a really helpful step is to talk about synonyms and antonyms. This allows pupils to group their words into their existing knowledge.


  3. […] Word Practice:   If we don’t practise engaging with words in different ways, we don’t really learn them. The more we read, say, spell and write words in a sentence, the more fluent we become using them.  You can’t expect a child to use a word spontaneously or ‘authentically’ until they’ve had a good deal of practice.  I explore this in more depth in this post:  Building Word Confidence: Everyone read, say, understand, use, practise. […]


  4. I think that this is so valuable. Rather than simply testing subject specific vocabulary for GCSE and A level, I will be asking students to use our key words in a sentence to see if they feel confident with the meaning. It’s a great way to differentiate a test and stretch students, too.


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