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Ambitious vocabulary – The pros and cons of ‘wow’ words

Encourage children to add sophisticated shimmer to their writing, with truly thoughtful and creative vocabulary choices
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By Sue Drury

Last updated 02 June 2020

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In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, one of the first things Professor Dumbledore says is, “Before we start our banquet, I would like to say a few words. And here they are: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

With JK Rowling’s characteristic wit, this emphasises an important truth: there are many wonderful words in the English language. Most of us have particular favourites, like Dumbledore here, but they are rarely overused ones like ‘good’ and ‘nice’.

To make what we say and write more interesting, we need to develop an extensive vocabulary. This is rather like a muscle – in order to make it grow, it needs to be fed the right nutrition and exercised regularly.

There are many ways to do this, so here are some ideas to help your pupils to develop the expanding lexicon of ‘wow’ words that is so important in greater depth writing.

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Give a good reason to use Wow words

Help your students to understand that words are tools. In theory, you could try to do many jobs around the house – scraping wallpaper, tightening screws, digging in the garden, and so on – with an ordinary table knife. It might work – sort of – for many of those tasks but not all and even then the results won’t be as satisfactory. It’s the same with words. Finding the right word will make the meaning clearer and convey precisely what you want your reader to understand. Whether it’s a noun, adjective or verb, descriptive words or a wonderful turn of phrase – it’s like using the right tool for the job.

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Ambitious vocabulary – Scaling the language tiers

When searching for the best words, you’re not necessarily looking for the longest or most obscure examples. Start aiming for Tier 2 vocabulary/words – high-frequency words that are used by accomplished writers – and, where appropriate, Tier 3 language, which means those subject-specific, perhaps technical terms required for certain topics.

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Get children reading

In order to broaden their vocabulary, children need to be immersed in high-quality texts. There is an argument that any reading is good reading, but that idea can be taken a bit too far in a simplistic direction. Reading will typically expose young minds to a greater range of words. What’s more, they’ll be actively consuming them rather than passively receiving them, which means they are more likely retain a new word or an unfamiliar word for future use.

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Don’t assume they know an unfamiliar word

It is crucial that you don’t let unfamiliar words slip beneath the radar. Even if you think your pupils know a word, perhaps during guided reading, check that they really do understand its meaning. If not, talk about it. Make sure they can pronounce it. Count its syllables. Ask whether they can think of other words that mean the same thing. Then check again at the end of the session to see whether they have remembered.

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Use a thesaurus for great synonyms

Don’t be misled by the word synonym. A synonym rarely means exactly the same as the original word. There is often a subtle difference in nuance or perhaps in the context for which these related words are best suited.

Brains, being the marvellous organs they are, can usually come up with a ‘near miss’ for the word you are seeking, even if you know there’s a better one. That’s why every writer from school children to published authors need a good thesaurus.

So, make sure they are not left to become fossilised on your bookshelf. If you can get children to develop their own internal thesauruses, so much the better. Challenge them to come up with a range of synonyms (or near synonyms) for given words.

Why not make a display of connected words? We offer a number of bright, interactive posters showing more interesting alternatives for bland examples such as said and walked to use in classroom displays. We also offer a selection of related activities through our exclusive Grammar Burst resources.

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Definition – Understanding new words

Encourage children to use etymology to gain a full understanding of new words. See if they share common roots with other, more familiar words. Look at any prefixes and suffixes to see how they affect the meaning. Challenge them to make links with other synonyms and perhaps antonyms too. Most importantly, make sure they can use them correctly in a context of their own.

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Other techniques for ambitious vocabulary

As well as learning new words, it can help to organise them into a continuous scale. For example, you could challenge your pupils to think of four or five synonyms for a comparatively dull word such as hard and arrange them in order of difficulty. To save you the planning work, try our Ordering Adjectives worksheets resource. Alternatively, check out our Exploring Vocabulary resources for which pupils have to think of words to place on a scale between two extremes, such as tidy and messy.

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Don’t overdo it with ambitious vocabulary

A quick word of caution: emphasise the importance of applying ambitious vocabulary thoughtfully. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘said’ as a speaking verb in dialogue; alternatives should be used where it adds something for the reader but overuse of them can be distracting or even annoying. Furthermore, a desperation to use ambitious vocabulary can verge on the obsessive. Many of us will have taught a child who, having been praised for using an impressive word in one context, becomes determined to use it everywhere. If you’re unlucky, you could end up being presented with something like this: The food in the cupboard was so old it was beginning to go malicious.


We hope you have found this inspiring and that you can use it to turn your pupils into ambitious word wizards. That really would be magical.

Do you want to extend your pupils’ vocabulary?

If you are looking for ways to close the vocabulary gap and ensure progress from the start, take a look at our Word Power resources. We have over 48 resource packs for years 1-6 that will help your pupils to learn 144 ambitious tier 2 words – a new word taught each week. Find out more here.

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