Building and boosting vocabulary to improve results in reading and grammar tests

Thanks to Ruth Duckworth  for the following article.

One of the areas that has been identified as a weakness for Year 6 pupils taking end of Key Stage 2 reading tests relates to content domain 2a: ‘give or explain the meaning of words in context’.  This is an ongoing concern for teachers, as 20% of the questions on the 2017 reading SATs paper focused on this domain.

Further reaching than Year 6, teachers from Year 2 and across Key Stage 2 know that the increased pitch of vocabulary in both English reading and grammar, punctuation and spelling test papers is a challenge for many pupils - especially when undertaking more formal SATs type format tests (whether half-termly or at the end of each term).  It is therefore imperative to read widely with all children, plan English lessons around high quality texts, and also explicitly teach new vocabulary in context across wider curriculum subjects.

In recent years, there has been a heightened focus on expanding pupils’ reading repertoire to subsequently increase their acquisition of vocabulary, including through heritage texts and a wide range of poetry.  Language schemes and reading sessions (‘guided’, ‘shared’ or otherwise) now encompass much richer, more challenging texts, including those from British and world heritage, as well as popular, current authors with whom pupils are familiar - from TV, film and media etc.  Boosting teachers’ subject knowledge of the vocabulary within a text or novel before class use is paramount, so that new words and word meanings can be shared with pupils before reading long sections of text. Pupils will benefit from the opportunity to discuss words and figure out meanings, so that frequent ‘new’ words no longer distract from their overall understanding or flow of a text as it is read together.

Inference training for teachers, popular in schools nationally over the last year, has also refocused much teaching of reading. Analysis of the percentage of inference type questions in the Key Stage 2 reading test shows the number of questions has risen again, with 44% (22 questions in 2017) focusing on children inferring information from what they read. Questions focused on characters’ feelings and setting may require an understanding of more challenging vocabulary in context; pupils need to provide alternative but suitable words to answer questions successfully.

When planning cross-curricular topics in schools, it is vital for pupils to have opportunities to research and develop wider scientific and technical language, within history or geography based topics - such as World War II; Ancient Egypt; or Rivers and Oceans.  Vocabulary can be boosted when using quality texts with WAGOLL (What a good one looks like) models and detailed written source material, which can augment focused work in English lessons.

Easy to implement classroom ideas for boosting vocabulary across any subject include:

  • displaying key words, especially topic related – big enough to be seen across the room
  • encouraging jotting down ‘new’ or ‘unknown’ words in vocabulary books or grids
  • giving pupils time to use dictionaries and thesauruses to expand their ideas, including in talk partners
  • word-a-day collections – to add to a word jar or fish bowl; check understanding of new words at the end of the week; have a quiz to check new knowledge
  • finding antonyms and synonyms – discuss finer shades of meaning between words
  • challenging pupils to use their spelling list (or weekly spelling test) words in an original mini story; share with the class
  • extending feelings language (move away from ‘good/bad/happy/sad’ generalisations)
  • focusing on the root word – then build on prefixes, verb endings and suffixes
  • encouraging pupils to read more non-fiction texts, newspapers and magazines for home reading to broaden vocabulary and also widen pupils’ knowledge of text types.

It is crucial to take every opportunity to expand pupils’ ‘grammar vocabulary’ of word classes and terms relative to the year group’s programmes of study.  Even the coolest upper Key Stage 2 pupils enjoy singing along with grammar and word class songs – these are widely available on YouTube (check the American ones for spellings differences); the prefix rap is a favourite!  After all, in the language type questions in the GPS/ Year 6 grammar test, pupils no longer just need to identify which word/s are nouns, adverbs etc., but also need to be able to explain how to use a comparatively simple given word (e.g. 'cover') as a noun in one sentence and use this same word as a verb in another sentence.  For success in these questions, pupils need to have had specific teaching about word classes and how words can have different functions within a sentence in order to have developed confidence manipulating the word order within sentences.

And finally, what about the ‘language poor’ focus pupils who, after seemingly every effort to improve vocabulary, still need further boosting before May?  A suggestion here is small group, ‘book club’ type interventions which give pupils further opportunities to read, question, discuss and extend language together.  Use of the Rising Stars Record Breaking Comprehension series of books based on Guinness World Records can supply quick, engaging, shorter reads for such booster sessions.  Discussion-type oral sessions can be led by less experienced support staff, as the teachers’ guides have detailed question prompts as well as grammar extension tasks too.  These additional enjoyable and thought-provoking texts can transfix my most reluctant Year 6 readers - even during an ‘intervention’ strategically planned during an afternoon of PE or art!


Ruth Duckworth is a Year 6 teacher and Assistant Head who leads writing at Christ Church CE Primary in Oldbury. Drawing from her extensive teaching experience in schools across the West Midlands, Ruth leads creative and engaging courses which inspire and equip teachers with proven ideas to accelerate rates of progress in writing and grammar - including the use of class texts and visual literacy.  Ruth has worked with national research and testing agencies, and was part of the Sandwell LA writing moderation team for key stage 2 for 5 years.


grammar, key stage 2, reading, spelling

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