Building children’s vocabularies

Building Children’s Vocabularies

What do you do when the children just don’t have the words? When you are faced with the same old words day after day? In this post we look at systematic approaches for building children’s vocabularies.

Simply Synonyms

Building children’s vocabularies needs a structured approach: just because you have asked them for different words for ‘said’ doesn’t mean they know any others. Strategies such as wow words, magpie words and wordclouds to support children’s use of synonyms have their place. However children often use the suggestions incorrectly because they don’t understand the nuances of meaning between synonyms.


Creating a cline

So how can we start building children’s vocabularies? Harvesting vocabulary is fine. With a bit of additional thought from us and the provision of time and space for children to analyse vocabulary we can make a real difference. One way that I think works particularly well is a word cline ( I first became aware of this through the Australian First Steps Programme). A word cline gives children a fabulous way to explore synonyms by grading them in order of their strength. Take the word ‘said’ as an example. Provide the children with a variety of words for said on flashcards and ask them to work in groups to arrange the words from the quietest to the loudest. This should create lots of conversations e.g. murmur is quieter than whisper as it would be more difficult to hear; screamed is louder than shouted … By exploring and analysing vocabulary in this way the children not only acquire words but come to understand more about their meanings.

Here are a few word clines to try out:

freezing, hot, frosty, sizzling, cold, steaming, chilly, nippy, burning, boiling, warm

terrifying, frightening, horrifying, scary, creepy, spooky, friendly, nice

mumble, whisper, shriek, speak, scream, talk, say, shout, announce, yell

Creating word clines makes a great mental and oral starter for English and builds children’s vocabularies effectively. Moreover, it’s fun, active and encourages critical thinking. There are no right answers in a cline, which means children must be able to justify their choices.


Getting visual

Not all words can be put into a cline, so we need other ideas for building children’s vocabularies. Whenever I am teaching description, I can’t help but fall back on visual images. Thinking of an image and then coming up with descriptive vocabulary can be demanding for many children so I like to free up some cognitive space by giving them a visual image. Our Pinterest boards are full of images you can use.With this image I would be looking at building vocabulary based on the 5 senses. I’d ask the children ‘If you were in this picture what could you hear, see, touch, taste and smell?’ Naturally I would model my own example, giving the children a structure to help them feel successful as a writer. Our posts on Visual Story Starters and Modelled Writing may come in useful here.


The devil is in the detail

Being more specific is an economic way of describing something without the need for endless description – something children have a tendency to do. Children are very good at telling us about ‘powerful verbs’. The really powerful verbs are just that – so good that they don’t need adverbs to help them out. Choose well and you can cut back on the word count (this actually takes us back to the cline). In his Jumpstart book, Pie Corbett describes a useful game for changing a sentence to make it more interesting. In this instance changing the nouns e.g. The man got in the car could change to Pavarotti squeezed into a skoda. It’s about using more powerful vocabulary – this doesn’t always mean strings and strings of adjectives, but sometimes one precise piece of vocabulary is more effective.

On a more sophisticated level choosing the accompanying details with care can have impact on writing without endless description. Let’s take a forest as an example. If I wanted to describe a fairy tale forest I may choose to describe the inhabitants as songbirds and red deer. In a more sinister forest I may describe crows and wolves. I don’t need to say they are snarling, surly, sinister wolves because my cultural experiences mean I have existing associations (stereotypical or not) that come with the wolf territory. Drawing children’s attention to such details in reading is essential in developing this particular vocabulary skill.


Building children’s vocabularies doesn’t happen overnight. It requires thought, planning and time. We hope the ideas here help you improve your children’s vocabularies. If you’re looking for more ideas then take a look at our Vocabulary Pinterest board!


Charlotte Reed – Primary English Consultant