Seven Activities to Help Children Build Vocabulary

Posted on: 09/11/2023

Written byDonny Morrison

Senior Consultant

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We value exploring various ways to support children learn and use new vocabulary in their reading and writing. Throughout all the Writing Roots and Literary Leaves, we weave a rich array of vocabulary activities and investigations. Whether this is a focus on word families, sorting synonyms, matching antonyms, ordering and grouping verbs (tense/regular/irregular) or a focus on recognising spelling patterns, the central pedagogical approach of Literacy Tree is to support children in investigating words within a relevant and meaningful context and creating ‘word taxonomies’. 
Children ‘discover’ words related to the class book and have time to investigate (for example by sorting, ordering, grouping) and rehearse these with their peers before meeting them in their reading or using them in their writing. The key point here is giving children the words ‘for free’, sharing the meanings and giving them time to investigate and rehearse them. A quote from the Reading Framework 2023 that we particularly like is, ‘Tell pupils what words mean – if they already know it, there’s no point in asking, if they don’t, the question is pointless.’  
We have many activities that can support vocabulary acquisition and we wanted to share a few of these here. We believe these activities can deepen children’s love and understanding of words and can be used with any books you plan to teach – they are highly transferable. These can all be downloaded from the Classroom Toolkit section of our website. 

Grammar Splats 

These four splats, which give simple definitions and examples of the four main word classes, can be laminated and pinned to your working wall. The idea here is that as children discover new words in lessons and books, they can record them on post-it notes and stick them to the splats. As you progress through the book and the Writing Root (our sequences of writing lessons), more words are collected on the splat. This creates a meaningful word bank for the class as children are discovering and defining these words together. They can discuss how the word is being used in a particular context and how it might change word class in another. We can ask questions, such as, ‘How do we know this word is being used as a verb here?’ When writing, children can ‘unsplat’ words, take them back to their tables and appropriate them in their own writing. Once children have reached the end of a sequence of learning, rather than putting all that wonderful lexicon in the bin, the discovered words could be placed in a plastic wallet with the book cover on the front and pinned to the working wall to be explored later on if needed. 

Zone of Relevance 

This is a strategy particularly ideal for activating descriptive vocabulary. Children are provided with a range of adventurous/ambitious words (abstract nouns or adjectives) that they order and arrange on a ‘target’ depending on their relevance to a setting, atmosphere, character or theme. The target can be blown-up and laminated ready to be reused. A plastic folder of word cards can be kept at the ready and added to. Depending on what we want to describe, the relevance of the words provided will always change, especially if exploring how a character or setting changes as a story progresses. The Zone of Relevance is a great way to give children multiple  opportunities to use the same words (particularly important for those children learning English as an additional language) and to get them discussing and defining words as they decide which are the most relevant. 

On the Dot or Not 

Younger children still need a chance to sort words and decide which are more relevant for a given context. On the Dot or Not makes this decision more binary. Children place adjectives in a circle or around the outside depending on whether they’d use them to describe a particular setting or character or not. 

Shades of Meaning 

Whilst finding synonyms in a thesaurus is a vital skill for children, many still struggle to know when the appropriate time is to use them. What are the nuanced and not-so-nuanced differences in meaning between each? In this activity, children choose a ‘base’ word and, using a colour chart with different shades of the same colour, identify alternative words with the same meaning, matching their strength to the intensity of colour.  This is best done collaboratively, giving children an opportunity to discuss their meanings and put the words into sentences.

Vocabulary Venn 

This activity is ideal for pre-teaching vocabulary in reading comprehension sessions. Again, this two-circle Venn could be enlarged and laminated and placed on tables before beginning a new book or chapter. Give children the anticipated trickier vocabulary and ask them to sort these into ‘new words’, ‘familiar words’ and, in the central space, words they may ‘partly’ know. It is not the case that we either know the meaning of a word or not so it is important we encourage children to be word detectives. They may know the context of a word or they may recognise part of a word. They may have heard the word before but still remain unsure on its exact meaning. This resource will help them explore all of these possibilities.

Traffic light words  

This activity can be another great way to get children to sort words. Children have a set of traffic lights and place ‘familiar words’ on to the green light, ‘new words’ on to the red light and, on the amber light, words they may ‘partly’ know.  This can work particularly well with sorting synonyms of a known ‘base’ word (which would go on the red light). Children could then compare traffic lights and help each other get more words onto the red or amber light. 

Falling-out phrases

What better way to teach vocabulary and phrases in a context-driven way than to have them literally fall out of the book? Children could sort the words and phrases in a range of different ways as well as look through a copy of the book with a partner to find them used in context. Children can decide which ones they’d like to use in their own writing. 
We do hope that there is an activity here you would want to have a go at with your class. Any opportunity for children to receive vocabulary from the teacher related to the context of the book, investigate it in some way and rehearse using it with a partner will be beneficial for children’s reading and writing. 

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