Developing the Descriptive Vocabulary of High Needs Learners

New City College

This project aimed to improve responses to creative writing tasks from high needs learners by developing their use of descriptive vocabulary. This included improving their range of vocabulary and their understanding of when and how descriptions should be applied. Although the focus was on high needs learners, the entire GCSE English 16-18 cohort took part in the project.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


New City College is the fourth largest college group in the UK with campuses across Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Epping Forest and Havering. Students who are on English or maths programmes are re-sitting to either improve their level, boost their grades or achieve a pass. The college has a significant amount of SEND students.

The project proposal was written during a period of lockdown and aimed at supporting high needs learners who often found it difficult to engage meaningfully with online learning and who had typically struggled with imaginative writing. However, the project was also applied when on-site teaching took place.


At NCC, we teach the Eduqas English language specification. Creative writing accounts for 50% of the marks for component one. This means that it can

often be the deciding factor between grades. The purpose of the project was to develop high needs students’ use of descriptive vocabulary; we had previously attempted an initiative through silent reading which was largely unsuccessful because the students were not convinced or engaged. Having learnt from this, we decided that the new initiative needed to be fun. So, we decided to use a combination of quizzes and writing activities. We expected that students would find quizzes engaging as it is a form of gamification. Furthermore, the use of quizzes presented an opportunity to monitor progress without placing pressure on the students.

Some of our high needs students have difficulty with long-term memory and often rely on habit formation to improve recollection. Using quizzes at regular intervals was likely to mitigate issues they faced with recollecting information. In fact, recent studies on spaced retrieval have shown that regular revisiting of work benefits long-term memory and can be used to break up a long session to prevent concentration loss making it ideal for high needs students (Kelley, Evans and Kelley, 2018)

As an outcome, we hoped that students would improve their use of descriptive vocabulary and improve their responses to section B questions for component one.


Image of the 4 phase approach

4 Phase Approach


Phase One: Setting
Quizzes were created on Kahoot Premium [see appendices 8, 9, 10 and 11]. Students completed one quiz each week and 10 words were introduced through the quiz each time. These 10 words were thematic and linked to a prompt. We asked students to imagine that their character was in the location represented by the prompt; They would then describe the setting using the first-person narrative voice by writing a paragraph, which would then be marked using a marking sheet [see appendix 7]. They received a score based on how many words they used from the quiz and a separate score for how many words they used accurately. The themes were: ‘Dark Alley’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Desert’.
Students recapped the words every second lesson of the week and completed recap quizzes before moving on to the next phase.

Phase Two: Characterisation
For this phase we asked students to imagine that the person presented in a picture prompt [see appendix 9] was a character in their story. They then needed to describe that character using the third person narrative voice. The themes included: ‘Old Man’, ‘Lazy Youth’ and ‘Traditional Lady’.

Phase Three: Object Description
For this phase students focused on describing the objects displayed on the prompts. We asked students to imagine that their characters could see the objects and they had to describe them accordingly, but this time they were free to choose a narrative voice. At this point we had sought feedback from students [see appendices 2 and 3] and subsequently amended the process so that students who were struggling now received definition sheets [see appendices 10 and 11] with example sentences to help them understand the 10 words in use. Emotive language was also more prevalent within the 10 words. Themes included: ‘Ancient Vase’, ‘Bizarre Clock’ and ‘Classic Car’.

Non-Fiction: Letter, Article, Review and Speech
We then extended our approach to non-fiction covering aspects of letter, article, speech and review writing. Here, we asked students to focus on the descriptive elements of these formats. An example of this is when students imagined they were writing a letter to a friend describing the hotel room they were staying in during a holiday.

The impact was measured initially by Kahoot scores, feedback and subsequently through mock test results.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Meeting with colleagues to discuss progress was unlike any other year because the only effective means to exchange ideas and highlight progress was through Teams. While this method of collaboration was unavoidable, it meant that the teachers did not have to travel and therefore less pressure was felt in terms of time. Also, on Teams, teachers tended to take their turn without interruption while listeners would add comments and questions in the chat facility; in many ways this was an unexpected positive in terms of discussion and logistics.

There was a reflective process involved in the project as the project team developed the content as it progressed. For example, during the early stages of the project the team decided that it would be more engaging to have a different focus every three weeks and also change the narrative voice for the fiction part of the project. This would not only keep students engaged but would also ensure that they had a better understanding of narrative voice and how descriptions can be applied in different situations.

Those colleagues who participated had become reflectors in practice and they were actively engaging in action research as part of their professional practice. Teachers completed a survey based on Kolb’s reflective cycle [appendix 4] which enabled them to reflect on their experiences.

‘All students were fully engaged throughout the project. They thoroughly enjoyed competing with their peers to get the correct answers’

Another participant teacher noticed an increased confidence with the students: ‘taking the risk of using a new word’. Another teacher observed a friendlier atmosphere in the class: where before there had been a divide between the mainstream and high needs students, the Kahoot quizzes provided a leveller and brought the students together. The final meeting with the team was evaluative and all teachers said that they intended to incorporate a similar strategy for their new cohorts.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Collaboration improved considerably within Redbridge campus and with the Epping Forest campus. The materials were used by all teachers at Redbridge and with one high needs class at Epping Forest. Regular meetings with all participant teachers led to better networking particularly between campuses.

In addition to this we had an Additional Learning Support Lecturer who used our materials with the students we were tracking during their one-to-one sessions in the Learning Resource Centre. This played an important part in reinforcing what was learnt in the classroom and helping high needs learners retain new vocabulary.

Cooperation between team members was very high and materials would be created in collaboration at the end of each week. Words would be selected in accordance with learner needs and changes would be made immediately if necessary.

Our project, which was mainly aimed at high needs learners, gained a lot of support from the ALS workers in our classrooms. They would often report back positive changes in learner engagement and progress, emphasising how important they thought expanding the vocabulary of high needs learners was in order for them to progress further in English (see appendix 12 for testimonials).

‘Student A really benefited from the visual examples used on the smart board as she could relate the new word to it. For example, Azure – not a word she had ever come across. To sign it to her, I would have to sign Blue/bright. But this would not give a true reflection of the colour. But she could get the true meaning by seeing an example of the character with bright blue azure-coloured eyes.’

Furthermore, before phase four, all team members collaborated in paving a way forward for the project. Ways of adapting materials for non-fiction were thoroughly discussed, alongside methods of improving what we were already doing so as to have better outcomes.

Lastly, the maths department, seeing the success of our project, adapted the use of quizzes as starters in their classes. This was implemented across all college campuses with our support.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Example of a completed task

Example of a completed task

During the project, we saw a significant improvement in the engagement of learners. They enjoyed the use of technology, were fascinated by words they had not come across before and appreciated being able to quickly apply new words to small bite sized tasks.

Teachers could see learners having discussions about the vocabulary in the quizzes and students were asking teachers if they could complete more quizzes during each lesson. Their positivity about the project came across in the survey that was conducted where 87 students responded [see appendices]. Students were positive about expanding their vocabulary, evidenced by the quotes below:

‘Yes I did enjoy taking part in the quizzes as it helped me to learn new words that I didn’t know before’

‘I enjoyed taking part in quizzes. They help with concentration, identify gaps in knowledge, build confidence and help retain information’.

Other students mentioned how the quizzes engaged and motivated them:

‘I definitely enjoyed taking part in the quizzes especially the words that are challenging because it helps me stay motivated and learn’.

Some students also mentioned how beneficial it was for their writing:

‘I feel as if I have learned new words and have been able to use them within my writing’

‘I feel that I have developed my writing skills by introducing new words into my writing’.

Further to this, we can see how students progressed. We kept a record of their scores using a live Excel tracking sheet on Teams where we recorded scores from their writing tasks. We also kept a record of their baseline assessment and mock scores to see how it impacted their exam results [see appendices].

We can clearly see that students’ scores improved as the weeks progressed. Initially there was a disparity between the number of words students used and their accuracy, but this gap closed as they became familiar with the activities. The definition sheets also clearly had an impact on words used and accuracy as the scores for both went up after this was introduced [see appendices].

Mock scores also went up, although this was not significantly so for all learners, we could see that there was an improvement in assessment objective 6 where vocabulary use is part of the assessment measures. One student went from having a score of 7 for the entirety of section B in her baseline assessment to 21 for her first mock. For examples of students’ work see appendices.

Learning from this project

The project was initially designed to help us navigate the difficult terrain of online teaching while not leaving behind our high needs learners. It quickly developed into being much more than that: it became an effective tool for improving the vocabulary of our learners by providing us with a framework to introduce words and see them used. By using this method, we were able to reinforce the importance of vocabulary and effectively promote the increased use of

adjectives, adverbs and descriptive verbs in creative writing.

We benefited greatly as a team during the course of the project. We saw that focusing on descriptive vocabulary was very beneficial to learners who were often vocabulary poor. It not only helped their comprehension but, through the use of themes, students were increasingly able to present more depth to their imaginative writing. Getting students to use different narrative voices helped them understand the function of narratives and how it affects the reader. As practitioners, we saw how we could introduce students to these ideas and concepts in a fun and engaging way.

Example of Character Description Slide

Example of Character Description Slide

When we moved on to teaching non-fiction, we reflected on our experiences and developed our materials to suit the non-fiction formats in the curriculum. We discovered that descriptive vocabulary could certainly be used in non-fiction if the purpose and audience was suitable and, through this, we were able to carry on with our methods. However, we would like to further develop these materials by thinking about the vocabulary more closely. Could we have chosen better words? How could we differentiate the 10 words marking some of them easier to use and some of them more complicated? And could we implement spaced retrieval in a different way rather than just having recap quizzes at regular intervals?