My daughter and I have been reading a book called ‘The Snow Spider’ at bedtime over the last few weeks. The book was given to her as a gift, and if I’m honest, I was a bit dubious about it. I hadn’t heard of the author, Jenny Nimmo, and it’s not a book I would have picked up in a bookshop. I quite literally judged the book by its rather dull cover. It turns out I was wrong to be sceptical. It’s a magical little tale that we both thoroughly enjoyed.

The book is a step up from others we’ve read together, and it took a little while for my daughter to get used to the lack of pictures and the more complex language. The book is probably better suited to slightly older readers, and some of the vocabulary in it was beyond what I would have expected her to know at 6 years old. She stopped me now and again to check what words meant. One of the words we stopped to discuss was ‘diffidently’. She seemed genuinely surprised when I said that I wasn’t sure what this word meant either and appeared to have made the assumption that, as an adult, my word learning days are over: “Surely you know ALL THE WORDS by now??” I laughed at this and suggested that we look the word up and learn it together. We googled a definition and had a go putting the word in a sentence. We then moved on, eager to finish the chapter.

After saying goodnight, I went down to my husband, and we chuckled together about the assumption that adults knew all the words in the English language. He asked what the word was that had prompted the conversation…

I couldn’t remember it! The word ‘diffidently’ and its definition hadn’t made the transfer from my short-term memory into my long-term store. I hadn’t even retained it for 10 minutes. My attempt to learn a new word had failed! I was so annoyed with myself for forgetting it that I ended up sneaking back into my daughter’s bedroom when she was asleep to get the book and find the word again.

Vocabulary knowledge is key to academic attainment, but word learning continues throughout our lifetime. For example, starting a new job or taking up a new hobby will likely result in you being exposed to a whole new set of words that you hadn’t previously encountered. We all need to develop good strategies to support word learning and the earlier we introduce these strategies to children the better. Here are some ideas around how you can support your students to learn new words well:

Finally, if like me you didn’t know the word diffidently, let’s make that your new word of the day. Here’s some information to help you learn this word.

The word is Diffidently

Type of word: adverb.

Number of syllables: 4

Definition: A way that shows lack of confidence in one’s own ability, worth or fitness; timidly or shyly.

Synonyms: bashful, coy, modest, shy

In a sentence: The context in which I came across this word in ‘The Snow Spider’: ‘I can always run her home if’, his father hesitated and then added diffidently, ‘if she wants to come.’

Alternative example sentence: He saw her approach rather diffidently, trying to summon up her courage, smiling an uncertain smile.

What will you do to remember this word in 10 minutes… tomorrow… next week?

👍 Be explicit about what new words you are expecting children to learn during the topic and state the key words for the lesson as part of the learning objective. Target these key words specifically and in a structured way.

👍 Record information visually. Word webs are a great way to map out key semantic (meaning) and phonic (sound) information about a word. They can also be kept as a record of the discussion enabling you to review and add new information each time the word is reviewed. E.g., you might add another example sentence where the word is used in a different context.

👍 Repeat and review. As demonstrated with my attempt to learn ‘diffidently’, we need to hear new words in lots of different contexts and to link them to words we already know in order to shift them into our long-term memory. To support this, build in lots of opportunities to review and discuss key vocabulary. For example, you could have a word box into which you put keywords you’ve learned so far this term, with a view to pulling one out to discuss if you ever have a spare 5 minutes (e.g., whilst waiting for the start of assembly or lunch break).

👍 Be honest. I’m sure that, like my daughter, many children will assume that the significant adults in their lives (particularly their teachers) don’t need to learn any new words as they know them all already! Be honest when you’re not sure what a word means and learn the word together. Did you learn a new word at the weekend? Share this with your students. Did any of them know it already?

Share this article

Please login to view this content