Vivacious Vocabulary: books to support playful vocabulary learning

In this article I share some of the children’s books I take to schools when training teachers and TAs about vocabulary.

To know a word well requires:

“Rich, decontextualised knowledge of a word’s meaning, its relationship to other words, and its extension to metaphorical uses.”

Beck, McKeown, & Omanson (1987)

The quotation above finds its way into all the vocabulary training that I do. To me it sums up what word learning is all about – thorough understanding of the definition, an understanding of how the word is a synonym, antonym, homonym or morphological relative of other words and then the ability to take that word, play with it and take it out of the literal sphere and use it for different effects. In training, and here on the Primary English blog, I’ve written about the importance of a planned, systematic approach to language learning. But I’ve asserted long and hard that a playful approach to language learning is also essential. A love of jokes, puns and wordplay lays the foundations for extending language into metaphorical uses.

So where am I going here? Well to the pleasurable pursuit of reading books that play with language. These are not books that I’d necessarily build into units of work, although there’s no reason why this could not be done. These are books that I think should populate every classroom library. Books where language learning is inherently joyful and entertaining.

Let me tell you a little about each of these books and why I like them.

Dear deer: A book of Homophones by Gene Barretta A fun colourful book that plays with homophones so that there’s the MOOSE who loved MOUSSE and ATE EIGHT bowls.

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett A delightful book that performs the essential role of exploring fears, but with words such arachnophobia and ablutophobia offers a chance to explore root words, derivations and etymology. Such a gorgeous book.

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Graphic Organisers – the Freyer Model

I’m currently big on Graphic Organisers. It’s the way that graphic organisers make it easier for children to articulate their understanding that I particularly like. But also, it’s the way that a really good graphic organiser lends itself to a multitude of educational requirements. The Freyer model (sometimes called the Freyer diagram) is one such graphic organiser.

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Playing with words (part II)

Explicit, planned, and strategic strategies for teaching vocabulary are at the core of the Primary English approach to teaching vocabulary. If you attend one of our vocabulary training sessions, we’ll walk you through the available research on vocabulary acquisition and provide you with a taste of some practical approaches for actively teaching vocabulary as part of your core English provision. This is the Primary English way; we’re practical, strategic and ultimately very sensible.

This said, we do like to have a bit of fun, and incidental learning is one of the ways we like to do this. On our vocabulary training courses, Taboo is one way we catch our attendees learning. If you’ve never played Taboo, it’s a fun game for activating known vocabulary by restricting players’ word choices by making designated words ‘Taboo’. So with the card below, players try to guess the word ‘sailor’ from their colleagues’ given clues (these may not include, ship, sea, captain or ocean). What we’ve found from playing this game, is that good knowledge of synonyms is useful; you can’t say ship but you can say ‘someone who works on a boat’. We’ve also found that activating understanding of the context of the word by saying ‘this is someone who navigates on a boat’ should prove to be a useful clue. And knowing that some of these people are called a ‘mate’ is a useful bit of general knowledge about the target word. So, as you can see, Taboo is a great incidental activity for practising and provoking existing vocabulary. Download our Taboo cards free of charge from our resources page.


Another popular incidental learning activity used on our training courses is Four Pictures One Word. You may well have played this on your phone or tablet, and if like me, you’ll have found it incredibly addictive. Here’s an example we use in training. All four pictures show the same word used in different contexts. The black dashes indicate the number of letters in the word, and the necessary letters are provided (along with a few extras to keep you guessing).

Four pictures one word

This game is perfect for morning work and for filling one of those micro-gaps that sometimes appear in the school day. I’m hoping by now that you’ve worked out the missing word. If you look closely, you’ll see one boy indicating that it was his little brother that ‘did it’, in the next you’ll identify the indicator of a car, you’ll then see an image of a car indicating to pull onto the road, and in the final image some pH/ litmus paper is being used to indicate the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. The missing word is of course, indicate. What I really love about this activity is how it demonstrates that the same word can be used in different contexts and that rigid definitions can limit our understanding of words.

As I said at the beginning of this article, Primary English is an organisation that focuses on planned, strategic approaches to vocabulary learning. However, this doesn’t stop us from spotting an opportunity to have a bit of fun by finding incidental opportunities to play with words.  

If you you’re looking for a playful approach to word learning, you may be interested in these posts:

Riddle with vocabulary

Very punny vocabulary

Rachel Clarke

Director and owner – Primary English Education Consultancy Limited

All content on the Primary English website is protected by copyright. Please bear this in mind when sharing our content.

Playing with words

The first in a series of blog posts considering playful approaches to vocabulary and spelling.

I had a tidy-up in my office recently. As is customary with tidying, I made a great big mess then threw a huge pile of paper into our recycling bin. I also found a long-forgotten notebook. It was whilst flicking through said notebook that I found a list of activities I’d made for teaching phonics, spelling and vocabulary. This rather fortuitous case of lost and found has led to a resource upload and, I hope, to a series of blogs about playing with words.

Roll a plural

Knowing whether to add s, es, or to ‘drop the y and add i’ is a huge ask for some of our little learners. To both learn and practise this key spelling skill, I’ve added my Plurals Cube activity to the Resources Page here on the Primary English website. It’s free of charge to download and you’re welcome to share it with friends and colleagues (please just say where it came from).

It’s an easy resource to use. Simply roll the dice and find a word card from the selection that uses the rule shown on the dice.

Word in a word

Do you ever look at a word and spot the other smaller words within it? I don’t mean anagrams, but instead the words that form as you scan the word from left to right. I know I’ve really annoyed my teenage daughter by doing this on the way to school in the morning – not that I’ve allowed her annoyance to stop me doing it. Here’s the example that annoyed her most recently:

Me (pointing to the Land Rover Discovery in front of us): Dear child, have you ever noticed the number of words hidden inside Discovery?

Dear Child (grunting): No? But you’re gong to tell me about them aren’t you?

Me: Or we could do it together. Okay, we won’t do it together, but let me tell you about them. Disc, disco, discover, is, cove, cover, over, very…

Dear child: Mum, stop it. Please…

I’m happy to admit that I’m quite sad, but I do think this a great activity for learning to spell longer words by spotting the little ones inside it. And of course, it’s a good way to explore new vocabulary by working out where and what the hidden words might be.

That’s it for my first blog of 2019. I plan to be back soon with more ideas for playing with words. If you liked this blog post here’s an old post about playful approaches to vocabulary building: Very Punny vocabulary

Best wishes,


Rachel Clarke is the director and owner of Primary English Education. All content on this site belongs to Rachel and is protected by copyright. Use of Rachel’s content without permission will be challenged. Please do not reproduce, plagiarise or monetise any of Rachel’s content.

Riddle with vocabulary

In my last post I discussed the usefulness of puns for developing vocabulary. In this post I look at riddles as tools for language learning.

Riddles work in a similar way to puns but also encourage problem solving and lateral thinking as demonstrated by this popular riddle: What has a face and two hands but no arms or legs?  As adults it’s fairly easy to solve by applying our understanding of the words ‘face’ and ‘hands’ into our knowledge of the components of an analogue clock, rather than as human body parts. We make a semantic link. But for many children this is a challenging leap into using familiar language in a new setting. Dare I suggest, the notion of an analogue clock is one that is less familiar to many of our children than once it was; making this riddle particularly tricky.

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Very punny vocabulary

In this post I consider the use of wordplay for building vocabulary.

I like words. There are some words that I use frequently like ‘fabulous’, ‘certainly’ and ‘education’. And then there are words that I love like ‘rambunctious’, ‘filibuster’ and ‘pearlescent’: rich words, which sound pleasing to my ear, but I use infrequently as they can only be used in specific situations. A good vocabulary is like this – it needs to be full of really useful words to use in everyday situations, but to be really effective must also contain less common rich words which enable clear communication in very specific situations. The 2014 National Curriculum recognises the importance of a good vocabulary and mentions it in the programme of study for reading, and writing, and of course explicitly, in Appendix 2: Vocabulary, grammar and punctuation (yes, I’ve emboldened vocabulary because appendix 2 is about more than grammar alone).

Learning academic words and rich vocabulary is important for children. However, ensuring that vocabulary teaching is more than the list-learning of words, requires creative thinking. Let me demonstrate:

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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