The Problem with Teaching Sophisticated Vocabulary

Should the title be ‘sophisticated vocabulary’, or could it be more simply ‘fancy words’? Small but significant language choices like these occur repeatedly in classrooms – and in pupils’ minds – daily. Teaching pupils to use sophisticated vocabulary can go wrong but it is a necessary bump in the road of pupils’ language development.

We can quickly spy when pupils go wrong. It is particularly obvious when they tend to write in an over-elaborate style in the classroom – commonly labelled ‘purple prose’ (purple because it was the colour of royalty and therefore gilded and excessive rich).

The issue of assuming bigger words are better, or misusing sophisticated vocabulary, is nothing new. In fact, Quintilian, one of the famed early teachers of writing during the Roman Empire, complained about the “corrupt style” of his pupils. Over two thousand years ago, he bemoaned “purple patches” and labelled them as “stilted bombast” and “blossoms of eloquence” that would easily fall (1).

Teachers today shouldn’t berate themselves for the predictable problems of their pupils try to overdo vocabulary. Instead, we should recognise that it is a natural stage of imitation that occurs in the safe confines of the classroom. Most novelists, poets and journalists, will describe their imitation of the styles of their favourite writers along their path of development. A bit of purple prose, it appears from thousand years of evidence, is natural and a part of the maturation of pupils’ developing vocabulary use.

As a truculent teen (who quietly wanted to impress his teachers), I once collated a sheet of seemingly impressive vocabulary cribbed from the dictionary. It attempted to weave it into my English lesson writing and beyond – with mixed success I am sure. Perhaps it didn’t do the job, but it did no harm (I still remember many of those vocabulary items today). For our pupils today, we can encourage them to develop their word hoard, but also, crucially, to make judicious word choices.

Supporting pupils to make apt vocabulary choices

What makes a word choice particularly fitting, apt, or appropriate? Well, of course, it depends on the job it is doing in talk or writing. Sometimes smaller words punchier and better…or more apt. Sometimes words that are more sophisticated, or more formal, are needed to do the job.

Alas, we cannot rely on the dictionary or thesaurus to be used well our pupils. Famous research from George Miller and Patricia Gildea, entitled ‘How Children Learn Words’, reveals some of the missteps by pupils trying to work synonyms into their writing.

A couple of comic examples they relate include switching ‘Mrs Morrow stirred the soup’ to ‘Mrs Morrow stimulated the soup’. Another, even better, was substituting eroding for ‘eats away’ in the sentence ‘Our family erodes a lot’. Even when children were given words in a sentence, or three, they could still struggle if they lacked word knowledge. The misuse of fancy words is not uncommon, sometimes comic, and it offers a teachable moment in the classroom.

Of course, the solution is not to only aim for simple words. The world, and our pupils, would be duller if that were the case. Instead, we can guide them to make more considered choices, to revise their writing, and to adapt their vocabulary appropriately to the task. We can celebrate and craft pupils word choices daily. When they use a sophisticated word that doesn’t quite work, we can sensitively recast it in our classroom talk. When it comes to writing we can do similar.

There are practical strategies that can promote the judicious selection of synonyms, but with more care taken over nuances of meaning and using those words well in sentences. Here are a few such approaches:

‘Vocabulary 7-up’ is a simple vocabulary game that encourages pupils to record as many synonyms as they can for common words (seven ideally!). So, given ‘positive’, ‘effective’, ‘large’ or ‘small’, our students exercise their capacity to draw upon a range of synonyms for those words. This activity assesses their breadth of vocabulary but also overtly signals to students the necessary variety of words required in academic expression, whilst offering a forum to choose the right word for the right job.

 ‘Word Triplets’ offers students three words to choose from, or synonyms, so that we can begin to shape their apt vocabulary selections. For example, in history, you may offer students the choice between ‘possibly’, ‘perhaps’ and ‘certainly’, to describe a specific source. Pupils then select from the triplet and have to use the word and justify its use. By offering up potential answers you let students concentrate on precise word choices.

‘Said is dead’. The use of ‘said’ is part of the fabric of academic writing. A concerted focus on crafting alternatives, such as ‘shrieked’, ‘wailed’, ‘exclaimed’, offer useful variation for fiction writing. Whereas more neutral terms for arguments and essays can include ‘stated’, ‘observed’, ‘explained’ and ‘revealed’.

‘Simple >< Sophisticated’. Teachers can quickly and repeatedly model apt word choices, along with the movement from simple to sophisticated, and the reverse when it is needed. For example, if a pupil uses the word ‘sweat’ in Biology, then the teacher may model the use of ‘perspire’. We can use such pairings repeatedly and discuss the choice e.g. old ><archaic, or ask >< interrogate etc.

Word gradients. A common approach is to have pupils discuss and select from a range of word choices – debating their meaning and value for a given task. For instance, a simple range of synonyms for old may prove useful in making conscious word choices: old, ancient, archaic, or antediluvian. Trying them on for size, with some feedback and reflection, can drive out the false notion that bigger is always better, or that an audience want to be assaulted with a plethora of polysyllabic words!

  • Clearly, Quintilian himself was prone to a bit of bombast and ‘purple prose’.

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Teaching Sophisticated Vocabulary”

  1. strangethomo

    At primary level, so much of the refinement of vocabulary choice only effectively develops through discussion and reading with an adult or more experienced student. Not one that it’s easy to set as a task for independent development.

    1. Alex Quigley

      I am not sure I agree – as I have observed this in primary classrooms recently. Refinement and judgements of vocabulary happy from a very young age – making choices in both speech and writing. I understand the point about it not being easy to set an independent task, but I’ve observed lots of writing revisions in primary classrooms that have seen pupils making independent changes.

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