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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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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