Expanding Children's Vocab

Learning 11+ Vocabulary

Many students are currently reading, reciting, and remembering a variety of complex vocabulary for entrance exams and 11+ tests. But many students find this method of learning vocabulary tedious. Here are some suggestions of how to inspire future logophiles. 

Why Vocabulary is Important

Developing Understanding

Teachers have been encouraging students to expand and broaden their vocabulary for years. Students need a broad vocabulary to have the best opportunity to understand a variety of complex texts and extracts. Without a broad range of vocabulary, students often misunderstand or misinterpret the comprehension questions they are being asked and cannot access the material in front of them. 

In addition to comprehension exercises, an expansive vocabulary is needed for many 11+ and entrance exams. Students define key vocabulary in order to assess their understanding of words. By doing this, students demonstrate their ability to learn different concepts and excel academically. 

As a result, there are books and lists and flashcards dedicated to the art of learning language. But exclusively relying on rote learning to memorise vocabulary can stifle attainment in other areas.

Words in prose ought to express the intended meaning; if they attract attention to themselves, it is a fault; in the very best styles you read page after page without noticing the medium. Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are, the more necessary it is to be plain.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

11+ Vocabulary Lists

Vocabulary lists can be a blessing and a curse for many students. 

Flashcards, ‘word of the day/week’, and lists of ‘wow words’ have become all the rage as the academic standard of the curriculum has increased in recent years. But these methods, while great for enabling students to quickly define words, don’t help their creative writing or their ability to comprehend texts. 

In fact, this trend may actually slow their progress in exams and tests such as the 11+ and  GCSE English Language exams. Every year since the GCSE exam reforms, exam boards have commented on the tendency of students to rely on ‘wow words’ that are not appropriate for the style and tone of writing. 

This is creating new problems for students. They are often spending hours learning new words and then cramming those words into their creative or transactional writing in order to prove that they have learnt difficult words. As a result, the meaning they are trying to create is often completely lost.  Attention is drawn to the erroneous words because they are not effective. Writers and literary critics have been highlighting the use of overly complex language for centuries, it’s time students listened to this advice.

It often hinders students’ comprehension, too. As students learn reams and reams of definitions, they don’t always see them in the context of a full sentence and so miss the nuances of the extract they’re reading. This leads to some students being able to define complex vocabulary, but not what the text is suggesting. In other words, students can read the words, but they don’t understand the text.


Rote Learning v.s. Critical Thinking

When teachers first enter the teacher training classroom and study learning theories, they learn of Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

The problem that many students have while they’re revising vocabulary, is that they are stuck at the bottom of this pyramid. They are spending so much time recalling information that they have learnt, or naming words to correspond to definitions, that they don’t get the opportunity to demonstrate or practise higher order thinking skills. 

When students study for 11+ or GCSE exams, they should spend more time on the higher order kinds of questions. To be able to answer a more complicated question is to work through this taxonomy every time. During our 1-2-1 tuition lessons, we guide students through Bloom’s pyramid while answering a more complex question.

Blooms taxonomy

Ways to Improve Vocabulary

How to ditch the lists and get creative.


Perhaps not the most popular method amongst students, poetry is a great tool for students to learn how to craft language effectively. 

Nonsense poetry is particularly good for younger children to read because it’s fun and silly. It allows them to play around with words and enjoy experimenting with different parts of language. Older students get to tackle more serious subjects and ideas, as well as more nuanced language. This in turn helps with the ability to draw connections and comparisons between texts.

Reading 19th Century Extracts

19th century writing is complicated and convoluted, but there are many shorter extracts that are accessible for students. As part of 11+ tuition, students are given these more complex passages to model how to use language effectively. Opening pages are often a great way into the texts themselves. 

Top tip: when you’re reading these, read them out loud. Dickens makes much more sense when you do the voices for the characters and read with expression.

Listening to Podcasts

The BBC Sounds app is a recent download onto my iPhone and I cannot believe I lived without it. 

There are podcasts on there about all sorts of interesting topics, in a variety of different subjects. What happens when you’re listening to these podcasts is that you’re being exposed to new ideas, explained by experts in that field. Often they will use the more difficult language, but then break it down to something far more accessible and understandable for the average listener. The length of these can vary between 15 and 60 minutes and they’re ideal for listening to in the car when you have nothing else to do.

Top tip: there are also audiobooks on the BBC Sounds app! This includes many of the 19th century GCSE texts, so they’re ideal for revision or developing background knowledge of these books.

Creating New Words

Being silly and making up words is something that all great writers have done. Shakespeare famously played around with language to create new words

The trick with making up words is to understand how words work in the first place. When children learn about morphemes and their meanings, they can piece together different parts of words like a jigsaw to invent new ones.

This developed understanding of morphemes helps them to decode the more complicated vocabulary they may be asked to define. Eventually, they could get rid of learning lists of words altogether.

Top tip: making up words and playing around with morphemes is great, but you then get to have discussions about the differences between words. You could talk about the nuances of the words ‘anti-like’, ‘un-like’, and ‘dis-like’, as well as what these words (might) mean.

Word Webs

Word webs work wonderfully with creating new words and there are several ways they can be used. 

One way would be to take a morpheme, such as the suffix ‘-eme’ and put that in the centre of the page. Then, around that you would write all of the different words that end in that suffix: phoneme, morpheme, grapheme, etc. Each of these other words might then become the centre of a new tangle of words: telephone, microphone, etc. 

Word webs teach children how to break down longer, more complicated vocabulary to their different parts. It decodes language, allowing them to understand a larger number of words than from a single vocabulary list. 

Optional extra: some students enjoy breaking apart the words so much they go on to research where these words have come from. It’s a great ‘taster’ of languages like Latin and Greek that they might not otherwise study.

Reading for FUN!

Exploring the different sections of the library or the local bookshop will always remain one of the best ways to develop understanding of words and vocabulary. 

Reading widely is important. This means sometimes reading things that push children out of their comfort zone and things that they will find difficult, but it also means they should enjoy books they find easy. 

There are many challenges during the summer holidays that students can get involved in, even during lockdown. ‘Reading Bingo‘ is often really popular and encourages variety in reading.  

Contact Form

If you have any questions about 11+ vocabulary or tuition, send us a message and we would be happy to help. 

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