Research School Network: Hundreds and Thousands and Millions of Words Kimberley Wilson on ​‘branching out’ to learn vocabulary

Hundreds and Thousands and Millions of Words

Kimberley Wilson on ​‘branching out’ to learn vocabulary

by Bradford Research School
on the

Maritt (2016) reports that 10 year olds know at least 10,000words.

Nagy & Scott (2000) state that children learn between 2,000 and 3,000words a year. (Others put this at an estimate more like 5,000).

According to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks language usage trends, the English language currently tops a whopping 1 million distinct words.

The Oxford dictionary contains 171,476words.

A common theme about all of these statements is the sheer size of the numbers. With vocabulary experts agreeing that reading comprehension is only possible if a person knows between 90 and 95 percent of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003), it is clear how important vocabulary acquisition is and, as educators, how it remains a key priority for teaching.

One thing, however, is clear – we cannot fully and explicitly teach all of the words that students need to learn. There are some strategies for vocabulary teaching which aim to cover as many words as possible with multiple meaningful exposures to new words. (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Graves (2000) created a four-part approach to teaching new words, which includes wider reading, teaching individual words, teaching word learning strategies and fostering word consciousness. An additional view from Stahl (1999) places emphasis on including definitional information as well as contextual information, actively involving children in their word learning and providing multiple, meaningful exposures to new words.

From 8 words to 50 words in a single lesson

As part of the Bradford Research Champions programme, I developed an intervention to deliver explicit vocabulary instruction to try and cover some of the ground needed in vocabulary acquisition. From wide-ranging research, I identified the active ingredients of my project – the parts that needed to be there for it to work – and one of these was based on branching out’ from a chosen word to encompass words with affixes and synonyms/​antonyms that the students could learn alongside their new word.

For example, take the word enchanting. Due to the context of our writing (a love letter from Bess to the Highwayman), we described the word very simply as meaning delightfully charming or attractive. I wanted their initial exposure to the word to be an easy one – something they could remember. However, the teacher then opens up the room for discussion – have the students ever heard this word before? Is there a different meaning to the word enchanting? (Here we can discuss the link to magic and spells). Alongside enchanting, the students can learn words such as enchantment, enchantingly and enchanted. In addition, some of the synonyms may include captivating, bewitching (another magical link), dazzling, enthralling, charming and delightful. A discussion about a single word suddenly turns into learning 10.


As we focus on around 6 carefully chosen Tier 2 words during our vocabulary session, you can see how these words begin to multiply from their branching out. In fact, I counted the words in one session and asked the students to estimate how many they thought we had encountered at the end. None of them guessed close – we had managed to meaningfully discuss 50 words.One possible strategy of teaching as many words as possible in the limited time that we have.

Kimberley Wilson is Year 6 Teacher & Computing Lead at Barkerend Primary Leadership Academy, and a Bradford Research Champion.

More from the Bradford Research School

Show all news

This website collects a number of cookies from its users for improving your overall experience of the site.Read more