How I teach - Clued-up on complex language

Turn your class into detectives with some difficult definitions

Learning to read is a never-ending process - even the most competent readers encounter unfamiliar words from time to time. But do your pupils know what to do when this happens? I decided to address this issue in a recent small-group reading session.

Students were transformed into "word scene investigators", arriving in class to find official badges and clipboards on their desks. After carefully personalising their IDs, the detectives gathered to hear their mission: head office had failed to close the case on a number of words and needed their help.

Teams were formed and allocated a set of words, which were carefully selected to ensure that the students were not familiar with them. This was more successful than I had first imagined, as straight away pupils began to ask if the words were real or whether they were anagrams.

The first clue asked the teams to use their phonic knowledge to sound out the word; this pronunciation was then investigated to detect any recognisable elements. Discussions started immediately, with students declaring "That word sounds like." or "I think I've heard that word before". The detectives recorded their ideas, making a series of tentative predictions about possible meanings.

For the second clue, pupils were given information about prefixes and suffixes. More light-bulb moments occurred. With the knowledge that "bene" means "good or well", they began to make informed deductions about words such as "benevolent".

The children were then encouraged to combine the knowledge gleaned from the first two clues and start to decipher meaning. This led to many stealthy attempts to extract the right answer from me - to no avail.

The third clue proved to be the most popular as it introduced pictorial evidence. I explained to the children that pictures would not always be available when they encountered new words, but when they were, the hints they provided could be invaluable. Some of the pictures simply reinforced the ideas that the teams had already formed. Others completely threw them, however, leading the children to reconsider their evidence.

Finally, the words were shown within the context of a sentence, which allowed students to understand how they are commonly used. By this point, all the clues were coming together and the excitement in the room was beginning to build. I was genuinely surprised to see how enthusiastic the children had become about working out the meanings of these strange words, which had initially provoked only confusion.

Each team was asked to read out their definition of the word they had been given, using evidence from the clues to support their ideas. When the correct meanings were provided, the students were amazed to discover how close they had come to working out the correct answer without the use of their trusty dictionaries.

One group, who had discovered the meaning of the word "lackadaisical", were so pleased with their newly acquired vocabulary that they decided to try it out on their English teacher. Although I wasn't entirely sure that the phrase "I'm feeling quite lackadaisical about this lesson" would go down very well.

Abigail Joachim is a higher-level teaching assistant in the English department at Westbourne Academy in Suffolk

Top 10 vocabulary-building resources

1. Wise words

Students' ability to communicate effectively in crucial coursework assignments can be limited by their vocabulary. Use this worksheet to encourage them to think carefully about the words they use.

2. Pros and cons

Ensure your class has a balanced view by using these word banks of positive and negative descriptive vocabulary.

3. That's fighting talk

This video investigates how the language of conflict has changed over the centuries by comparing a soldier's letter from the Crimean War with the thoughts of a veteran who served in the Falklands War.

4. Clues control

With the help of this video tutorial, show your pupils how to use contextual clues to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words.

5. Sort the situation

Challenge students to broaden their vocabulary by learning new words and then using them in the right context.

6. Deluxe description

This worksheet on adjectives helps students to practise the use of sophisticated vocabulary in their writing.

7. Speaker of the house

If your students fancy themselves as entrepreneurs, get them to hone their sales skills in this guided writing task based on using effective language to sell a house.

8. Structured delivery

Encourage students to make their descriptive writing more interesting by varying word choice and sentence structure.

9. Olde and new

This matching activity for unfamiliar words will help your classes to feel more confident when reading texts from other eras.

10. Bite-sized bits

Explain prefixes, suffixes and base words in simple language using this handy crib sheet.

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