Building Grit, Character and Resilience through Vocabulary

Building Grit, Character and Resilience through Vocabulary

Increasingly, I am becoming more convinced that the insufficiency of vocabulary is one of the barriers that stop many of my students from demonstrating sophistication in their reading and understanding of different types of texts. In English Language, limited vocabulary impedes their ability to answer questions more fully in section A, Reading. Likewise, the two writing tasks in Section B further demonstrate such sobering reality. In Literature, where human endeavours, aspirations, sufferings, fears, and subtle nuances of feelings and emotions demand discriminative selection of vocabulary to describe accurately and discuss critically, I find many of my students exhaust their choices within a couple of paragraphs. Words begin to get repeated, and ideas begin to get stuck. Maybe a different approach is needed.

In an attempt to rectify the situation, many of my lessons have been planned to focus on building critical vocabulary closely relevant to the topic since last year. Take preparing my students for a reading assessment for example. A typical teaching sequence would look like this.

1. Reading of the text (with various learning activities to learn about the particular genre and its conventions)

2. Setting a reading task

3. Using discussions to generate a possible essay plan and alternatives

4. Building a word bank relevant to the focus of the question, e.g. a character study

4-1. Use dictionary apps or thesaurus tools on the Internet to expand vocabulary

4-2. Organise word bank into three levels: basic, advanced and expert (still avoiding “mastery”)

5. Learning how to construct topic sentences using the vocabulary from the word bank

6. Quoting relevant passages from the text to support the topic sentence

7. Explaining the relationship between the claim in the topic sentence and particular details in the quotation

8. Analysing the language and literary techniques of the relevant details by identification and interpreting their impact

9. Returning to the plan and beginning to organise notes around the plan (colour coding at this stage has been found useful)

10. Producing first draft

11. Checking and proofreading to produce second draft relatively free from basic literacy errors, for example checking capital letters for book titles, character names and other proper nouns, etc.

12. Building stylistic features, e.g. connectives, discourse markers and hinging/bridging sentences to create the 3C: clarity, coherence and cohesion

13. Final check before final draft

14. Handing in essays for marking and feedback

So far, I have had success with my last year’s Year 7 and Year 8 groups. Not only did they feel that they were making progress in each process, more importantly, they felt proud of the quality of their writing. I was able to concentrate on moving them forward in my feedback.

This year, I have extended this approach to my KS4 groups in their study of An Inspector Calls (see attached table that shows three levels of their vocabulary to describe “the Inspector”). The quality of their discussion has shown marked improvement (some truly impressive) after the first term. For me, my task to keep them working in this style consistently – relentless desire to write more eloquently by building critical language.


To me, the limitation to write clearly, coherently and cohesively can be caused by two fundamental factors: inability to link between exiting vocabulary to the task at hand; and, simply, the lack of sufficient vocabulary. This inarticulacy in writing presents itself as a huge hurdle between my students and their progress. By helping them develop their critical language, I hope I have introduce a way of learning that is underpinned by a unstoppable desire for excellence in craftsmanship. As my mantra goes, Learn it; use it; and own it. 

We all have a giggle about such a cheesy expression, but hey, if it revolutionise their writing, I will keep repeating it!

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About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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6 Responses to Building Grit, Character and Resilience through Vocabulary

  1. suecowley says:

    This is great, thanks for sharing these ideas. The only additional suggestion I would have is to remind them to sprinkle the ‘expert’ words thinly. Sometimes less is more. You could get them to write a ‘basic’ (plain) draft, an ‘expert’ (complex) draft, and then one somewhere in between.

    • W. S. Lien says:

      What a brilliant idea! They usually end up doing that – quite edifying for them to see their own writing transform before their very eyes! Thank you for all your feedback, too. Sue. I really appreciate that.

  2. Some great ideas here, Vincent. I particularly like the word bank. The obvious complement to this is to get students reading more widely and more deeply. Some may need specific intervention to ensure that they are reading at or above their age level. I have often toyed with the idea of setting up a small group oral language intervention to improve expressive vocabulary.

  3. Pingback: Strutting Your Stuff – Modelling Fail | EduFlections

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