TeacherTales: Improve literacy by bringing meaning to words

Posted by Guest blogger - Israr Shah - Last updated on March 13, 2023

One of the greatest challenges we face as educators is closing the literacy gap. A gap which has worryingly widened over lockdown. At my current school over 60% of students started secondary education below their chronological reading age which means they are unable to access the KS3 curriculum. 

If children leave school unable to read, write and communicate effectively they will face future challenges in learning, earning and effectively supporting their children’s education if they become parents. One analysis of UN data has claimed that over 50% of all children who turn 10 this year will be unable to read a simple sentence.

It is my hope that this blog will share ideas and experiences so that we can learn from each other and more importantly develop ideas that work for our students so that they become word rich and confident in recognising and using words in all contexts.



What does the research say about literacy?

‘Children with a restricted vocabulary at 5 years old were more likely to be poor readers as adults, experience higher unemployment rates and even more mental health issues’  The British Cohort Study: Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research (2009)

Two academics, Hart and Risley, coined the phrase the 30-million-word gap. It comes from their study of the linguistic lives of 42 families with children from 0 to 48 months. They found that parents from higher economic backgrounds spoke 3.2 million words more to their children than those parents who were from lower economic backgrounds. This is backed up by a more recent study by the Language Environment Analysis System (LENA) who looked at 112,000 hrs of recordings from more than 750 children. (Closing the Vocabulary Gap- Alex Quigley).

In 2018, over 120,000 disadvantaged students, who were graded below the expected standard for reading, made the transition from primary to secondary. 1 in 10 will go on to achieve passes in English and Maths at GCSE and fewer than 2% achieve the EBacc.

Students need to know 95% of the words in an academic text to ensure comprehension (Closing the vocabulary gap, Alex Quigley).

Two thirds of primary teachers (66%) and nearly half (44%) of secondary teachers say school closures during the pandemic had a negative effect on the spoken language development of pupils eligible for free school meals. 1 in 5 teachers said this of their most advantaged pupils. Read more about the impact of the pandemic on oracy in schools.


What does this literacy gap mean for teachers?

I strongly feel that we are all teachers of literacy regardless of our subject focus and we all need to develop our confidence in the planning and delivery of literacy strategies that would rapidly accelerate word richness amongst children. Strategies such as morphology, etymology, word clouds, I-WE-YOU modelling and dual coding to name just a few of the threads of Dr Scarborough’s reading rope:

Reading rope


I have been teaching science for over two decades and have always asked, why do students struggle to remember key vocabulary?

Let me break it down for you. 

To answer the question above, I decided one afternoon to count the number of Tier 3 words students needed to know, remember and recall for their GCSE Science exam. I must have had some time to myself which is very rare…

Example of words students needed to know in their GCSE Science Exam:










Total number of words



Examples of words found across the curriculum:



Examples of Tier 3 vocabulary


Polygon, Binomial


Isometric drawing


Law of Octaves, Accompaniment, Recapitulate, Syncopation


Alluvial, Equidistant, Hemisphere


Translucent, Asymmetrical, Opaque

English lit

Euphemism, Alliteration


How do we help students deepen their understanding of literacy?


Nomen - name

Clature - calling, summoning


60% of the English lexicon comes from Latin and Greek and this can be as high as 90% for academic texts. 

A ‘word’ is defined as ‘a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence’.

For many students words are just letters arranged in a complicated way that they struggle to pronounce, let alone find meaningful. That is our challenge as practitioners; to help students make sense of words.


How to to bring meaning to words

With my year 11 students, I’m currently using techniques like teaching etymology (the origin of the word) and morphology (the structure of the word). Students are often fascinated to know the origin of words such as Chromatography and Osmosis.

Tip: try breaking the word down and looking at the meaning of the word. See an example below. 


Examples of breaking down words and using them in class

1.  Chunking pronunciation and spelling


Ask your class to repeat the word out loud


2.  Morphology 


Chromato - colour 

Graphy - process of recording or writing

Ask your class to look at the structure


3.  Explore its wider use

Graph - maths; recording points on square paper

Biography - ‘life-writing’ writing about someone’s life

Autobiography - ‘self-life-writing’ writing about your own life

Ask your class to come up with words with one of the parts discussed


Learning Reflection slips

All our workbooks have a learning reflection slip attached to the bottom of each page. When encountering a new word, students can use this dedicated section of their workbook to deconstruct the meaning or origin of the word as shown above. When this is done effectively and consistently it helps students to know and remember more.

What initially appeared to be letters arranged in a complex way has become a word.


Why does improved literacy help our students? 

By giving meaning to words, you help students remember them more easily, enrich their vocabulary and set them up for greater success in the future. In the end, that’s the one passionate aim we all share, isn’t it?

If you have more creative literacy strategies, please share them below in the comments.

I look forward to you joining me on this journey of improving literacy in the classroom.


Guest blog written by IRIS Connect user, Israr Shah - Science teacher and Assistant Head with responsibility for Literacy at Co-op Academy Grange, inner city Bradford.

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