Developing High Level Vocabulary

Reaseheath College

The project intended to extend learners’ vocabulary enabling them to achieve in both English and their main subject area. Learners were introduced to high-value vocabulary with a range of strategies being used to aid their understanding and confidence in using the new vocabulary. English and vocational teachers worked together to reinforce and embed learning.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Our project extends our previous research from OTLA 7 (ETF, 2021), which found we underestimated how ‘word poor’ our learners were; conversely, learners overestimate their knowledge of words and meanings. This issue continues to exist as in English lessons learners are introduced to often indecipherable vocabulary frequently leading to disengagement and inappropriate behaviour. We worked with learners to improve and enrich their vocabularies, enabling them to achieve a grade 4 in GCSE English Language. Our further aim was to ensure learners recognise the value of good English skills in supporting them to achieve in their subject specialism. To enable this, we worked with vocational lecturers encouraging them to embed vocabulary-based activities into their lessons.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our college is situated in Nantwich, Cheshire East. Some learners originate from relatively disadvantaged areas and lack access to books, learning materials and technologies. Our Case Studies were specifically selected from a Foundation group; however, we also worked with other groups of learners, from Animal Management and Mathematics, in which there is a variety of academic abilities.

The Foundation group includes a wide variety of capabilities, with a significant proportion of learners hindered by barriers to learning. Since our objective was to encourage active use of new vocabulary, rather than receiving it passively, we were curious about what impact our research project would have on the group in which there is an explicit dichotomy.


We conducted our research cyclically, reflecting on the impact of activities and gaining feedback from team members and learners (see Appendix 4 and Appendix 6). This enabled us to evaluate the impact of our work and make any amendments necessary.
We created ‘initial assessments’ (Appendix 5.1) to establish which words learners knew. Maths and Vocational staff (Animal Management) were involved in distributing the ‘Words of the Week’, so learners could understand language is applicable across all spectra of learning, not just English.

  • Activity 1 (Two Tasks): Word Search and Synonyms: In Task 1, learners were given a word search, in which there were twenty words: ten high-register, low-frequency words; and ten synonyms for each of the high-register words. For Task 2, learners were asked to match the words (see Appendix 5.2).
  • Activity 2: (Three Tasks): Learners were asked to rate how confident they felt using each of the ten words in a sentence. Next, they wrote down what they thought was the correct definition of the words, integrating each of the ten words into a sentence, so we could evaluate if they were being used correctly.
one of the oracy posters developed for the project

An example of one of our posters, developed after speaking with learners.

Afterwards, we integrated each of the keywords into our lessons as starter tasks. PowerPoint slides were specifically designed to suit the course areas we shared the keywords with; we wanted to ensure each of the keywords was relatable to the course areas and address any potential resistance or hesitancy to the teaching and learning of each key word.

As a result of learner interviews (Appendix 4), our approach altered slightly as we decided to focus more on oracy. We discovered some learners preferred to read out their work to see whether they used keywords correctly rather than writing them down. Some learners preferred to hear the new keywords spoken in context rather than seeing them in sentences on a PowerPoint presentation. We, therefore, produced an audio recording for each word in which it was spoken aloud, followed by its definition with an example of its use in a sentence (Appendix 5.3). Learners could then scan the QR code and listen to it at their leisure.

Below is an extract from one of our learner interviews, evidencing how we were able to adapt our approaches in response to learner need as the project progressed:

Learner A: “I think it would be nice if we could read out our work at the end of a lesson.
Interviewer: “So, do you think it’s a better idea then to hear the keywords spoken instead of writing them?”
Learner A: “Yeah, pretty much.”
Interviewer: “And – why is that?”
Learner A: “It’s just easier to see if we have used it right in our work.”

Learners were also given bookmarks with the keywords. (Appendix 5.4, for example).

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

One significant impact is learners’ autonomous reaction to the words of the week. Originally, a significant proportion of learners indicated their attitude towards vocabulary development by expressions of boredom, lethargy and disinterest; however, as we introduced the final few words, learners displayed no negative reaction, beginning to integrate some of the words into their work more frequently than others (Appendix 3). What was a very positive thing to see was that some learners even used a small variety of keywords in answers to their mock exam papers. (See, in the example below, how a learner attempted to use curious and immense in the correct context).

photo of learners work (and teacher markings) where they are experimening with new vocabulary

After interviewing learners again towards the end of the project, it was interesting to note the impact that the oracy posters had.

Interviewer: “So, we spoke about the bookmarks last time, and one of you mentioned how it would be more effective to listen to the keywords instead of writing them down from off the board. Have you both found this to be the case?”
Learner B: “Not particularly. I sometimes feel if you tried to scan the QR code in a lesson and it took ages to load, you might get distracted by your phone.”
Interviewer: “Ok, that’s interesting. What about you, [Learner A]?
Learner A: “Yeah, because talking will obviously mean you can use the word more, so there’s more chance you will use it right.”
Interviewer: “So, do you mean more chance of using it in the correct context?”
Learner A: “Yeah, so you’ll understand it more.”

Additionally, we have seen a positive change in vocational and maths staff’s attitudes. Some members of staff were initially a little reluctant to integrate these words into their lessons, either because they thought English was not a priority, failed to recognise the relevance of English in their lessons, or lacked the confidence to introduce literacy activities. However, after becoming involved in the project and realising the value of supporting vocabulary development their attitude has changed to a more welcoming one.

One thing we were significantly pleased with was the progress demonstrated in our Case Studies learners’ “initial assessment” activities when completed the second time around. (Appendix 2). At the beginning of the project Learner A firmly believed they had no confidence in using 40% of the keywords and complete confidence in using 60% of the keywords. However, some of the definitions of the keywords were quite vague, and some were incorrect, for example, the words curious and defiant despite the learner saying they had full confidence in using the words. In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner A at the end of the project, there was a clear, significant difference in the learner’s confidence rating in comparison with the first time around: the learner felt 100% confidence in their ability to use the keywords in a sentence. As one can also see, all words had their definitions filled in by Learner A, and the meanings were far more accurate than the first time Learner A attempted the assessment.

In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner B they had 40% high confidence in using the keywords, 50% a little confidence and 10% minor confidence. Some of the definitions written were a little vague, such as the one for “majestic”; however, the majority of what is written is relatively accurate. In the “initial assessment” completed by Learner B at the end of the project, the difference between their confidence in using each keyword in a sentence is quite substantial. The learner now feels very confident using 70% of the keywords, mostly confident using 20% of the keywords and moderately confident using 10% of the keywords. Notice how some definitions the learner had written had become more accurate and precise. “Majestic” has a far more crystalline definition than the one thought of for the “Initial Assessment” at the beginning of the project.

Organisational Development

As stated earlier in the report, in addition to the maths department, with whom we were already in close contact, we linked with Animal Management, the biggest vocational area on campus. Our collaborative relationship is evident through their willing participation in the project, distributing the keywords (or Words of the Week) to their learners, and the Cross College English meetings the English team delivered for them. Organisational development has also arisen throughout the English department with learning that Animal Management have a Word of the Week activity, too; however, the learners’ interaction with it is different: it is predicated on them finding the definition of the word before putting it into a sentence and using it in their theoretical work for that session. (See evidence below from Animal Management SoW).

Extract from animal management scheme of work

Learning from this project

vocabulary bookmark entitled 'word up' with a list of words and the Reaseheath College logo at the bottom

Our vocabulary bookmark

What went well:

  • Learners thought that the bookmark has been incredibly useful.
  • The oracy posters were used later in the project’s timeline, and learners found them a very effective tool to quickly access the keywords. In addition, the novelty of the keyword posters also made a positive, even comedic, impact as it piqued learners’ curiosity: “Wait, is that [name anonymised] from English? That’s actually a really good idea having those as sound recordings!”
  • It is evident learners started to use the keywords in their work without prompting from the project bookmark. In the Case Studies examples the learners used a few of the keywords from the bookmark in the correct context: extraordinary, curious and vulnerable.
  • Other examples of how learners, outside of the Case Studies, also integrated some of the OTLA keywords into their own writings are shown in Appendix 6.
  • As demonstrated by the Animal Management department other curriculum areas started introducing Words of the Week into their Schemes of Work, too – something these practitioners spoke openly about in one of the CPD sessions hosted by the English team as part of our college’s “Cross College CPD”.

Even better if:

  • In future, ensuring there is consistency throughout the department: all lecturers using the same Words of the Week, even in maths and vocational areas.
  • Lecturers endeavouring to use each word of the week verbally, so learners can hear, on numerous occasions, the keywords in context which would aid them to transfer new words into “active” vocabulary instead of “passive”.
  • Officially document moments of Learner Voice more precisely, so the evolution of the project can be far smoother and tailored to the most recent feelings of the learners.
  • Ensuring that a far greater volume of learners are actively listening to the recordings from the QR codes and, perhaps, officially formalising a sophisticated method of recording participation data which we can use to inform us of the most effective way to deliver new “high-register, low-frequency” vocabulary to future years’ learners.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    The project has certainly reinforced the need for us to reflect and meditate on our preconceptions about learners’ levels of vocabulary despite their age, and the necessity of constantly exposing learners to new vocabulary because a wide vocabulary is so important when it comes to attaining marks indicative of Grade 4 or above in GCSE examinations. It has certainly thrown into sharp relief how learners engage with new vocabulary, too, in addition to how effective oracy can be when it comes to rendering new, high-register, low-frequency vocabulary as ‘active’ as opposed to ‘passive’.

  • 13. Motivate and inspire learners to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    In addition to developing the vocabulary of our learners, which will certainly contribute to their progression in question 5 on Paper 1, we have changed some of our learners’ perspectives on the importance of English and language itself. Learners feel a sense of empowerment and satisfaction from the utilisation of the keywords we have delivered to them throughout the course of the project. For example, one Learner said the following:

    Using these keywords feels cool as it makes me sound intelligent.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    Since working closely with colleagues from Animal Management, we have learned a significant amount about how their course is constructed, what areas of study the learners undertake at the three levels, what is evaluated when learners compose their responses and how Animal Management also integrate their own Words of the Week in lessons, too.