Just Imagine

What's in a Word? a cautionary tale on the perils of swallowing the dictionary

It’s five o’clock in the afternoon.  I’m in the kitchen preparing our evening meal and my three and a half year old son has been left to amuse himself for a few minutes. He’s NOT amused and after a short while he comes into the kitchen hands on hips, ‘Mummy I am affronted,’ he says. And from the look on his face I can see that he means it. I’m taken aback, distracted from his intent by his faultless use of the word ‘affronted.’

However, this display of precocious word knowledge isn’t quite so surprising when you consider that we have been reading the Tales of Beatrix Potter (original text) and in one of our favourite stories, The Tale of Tom Kitten, Mrs Tabitha Twitchett admonishes her children, who have spoiled their best Sunday clothes by playing in the mud and dirt. “My friends will arrive in a minute, and you are not fit to be seen; I am affronted!" she says. The dramatic emphasis on ‘affronted’ when reading the story aloud is a joke shared between us and enjoyed on the many rereadings of this story. It has cemented the word in his memory.

Beatrix Potter’s  little masterpieces, 'perfect for tiny hands', never patronised her young readers. Her vocabulary choices were not condescending.  Famously in the Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies she wrote, “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific'. Potter immediately gives the context and explanation for this word: "I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit." For a young child, learning ‘soporific’, given the obvious context, is as easy as learning ‘sleepy’. Learning the meaning of 'affronted' is as easy as learning ‘disappointed’, 'hurt' or 'offended'.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes felt that Potter's elevated diction is too demanding and needs simplification in order to make it accessible to young readers. Although the Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Flopsy Bunnies are still available in their original format, simplified versions published by Puffin, are also available. The idea is that children will be able to read the simplified text in these adaptations for themselves. That may well be true, but it is a great shame that the original stories with  the cadences of perfectly wrought prose, and delicate watercolour illustrations are often overlooked by parents in favour of a more modern look and simplified vocabulary: a lost opportunity to develop children’s vocabularies at a time when they are expanding more rapidly than at any other.  It is a choice that may well impact on children’s future reading development and education attainment as the number of words in a child’s spoken vocabulary on entry to school is one of the reliable indicators of academic success.


Vocabulary is an important component in comprehension. (Bauman 2009  and others) There isn’t space in this blog to cite the extensive research that has been conducted in this area, but readers interested in learning more may want to refer to some of the original sources referenced at the end of this article.

Good text comprehension is contingent upon a number of factors: prior knowledge, linguistic competence and metacognitive awareness. Vocabulary underpins all of these factors. According to Chall (1983) weak vocabulary leads to poor reading comprehension which in turn limits vocabulary development. Many readers struggle with words that have different meanings in different contexts (Pickens, Glynn Whitehead 2004) Proficient readers derive word meanings from text and use their general vocabulary knowledge far more effectively than poor readers.

So how does this knowledge inform the pedagogy of reading? Broadly, there are two main approaches to developing vocabulary: indirect and direct instruction.


Reading Aloud

It may seem obvious that the volume of children's reading is directly related to acquisition of vocabulary. Readers come across new words when they read, or are read to, this in turn improves their vocabulary knowledge which then increases their ability to read increasingly complex text.  Stahl, Richek and Vandevier (1991) found that listening to a ‘read aloud’ is just as effective as reading the text for yourself This is important for all children, but essential for those who may have reading problems as they also need exposure to rich vocabulary, which they won't experience through their independent reading.

Nursery Rhymes

For the youngest children, exposure to nursery rhyme is very important. In the previous blog I outlined the role of nursery rhymes in developing children’s phonological awareness but rhymes also play a part in the development of vocabulary by introducing words that are not commonplace in everyday speech. Take, for instance, the following lines from well known nursery rhymes:

  • Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
  • Mary, Mary quite contrary
  • Up Jack got and home did trot/ As fast as he could caper

‘Nimble’, ‘contrary’ and ‘caper’ are unlikely to be used in most everyday spoken vocabularies. It is only through exposure to nursery rhyme that young children are likely to encounter these words that will enrich their linguistic repertoires.

A great collection of nursery rhymes should be a staple in every home and on the bookshelf in every pre-school setting. There is a wealth of gorgeously illustrated versions. Particular favourites at Just Imagine include collections by Raymond Briggs, Brian Wildsmith, Kali Stileman and Axel Scheffler. These gorgeous, colourful editions have lashings of child appeal. For parents, nursery workers and pre-school teachers we recommend Lavender’s Blue collected by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Faith Jaques. Lines'  repository of rhymes is the definitive collection and includes examples that are less frequently collected in the modern nursery rhyme books.

Time for a Story

Story time is an essential component of literacy teaching. Occasionally I come across an objection that there simply isn’t enough time to fit reading aloud into an already packed school day.  I have complete sympathy with overstretched teachers juggling balls and trying to keep them all in the air.  But the assumption that the 'read aloud' is dispensable misses the point. Reading aloud  isn’t solely an entertainment, something that you squeeze in at the end of the day when the real work is done, if time allows. On the contrary, It is integral to literacy teaching and without hearing stories read aloud children will miss opportunites for indirect acquisition of vocabulary, developing implict knowledge of grammar and the opportunity to experience more complex text which is made accessible through the read aloud process.

Fortunately, children's entitlement to have stories read to them throughout the primary years is explicitly stated in the National Curriculum: Comprehension skills develop through pupils’ experience of high-quality discussion with the teacher, as well as from reading and discussing a range of stories, poems and non-fiction. All pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum. Reading widely and often increases pupils’ vocabulary because they encounter words they would rarely hear or use in everyday speech. Reading also feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds.'

Book selection needs to be thoughtful  to ensure that children experience  a wide range of  contemporary and classic literature. Writers have different styles, make different grammatical choices and employ different working vocabularies. So it is important to expose young readers to many writers.

Books in our Read Aloud packs are carefully selected with this in mind, to introduce some of the best new writing as well as the more established.


The research literature suggests that there is a place for explicit vocabulary instruction within a balanced reading programme. (Pressley, 2000). However, it also shows that the methods used in the past have limited efficacy. Looking up definitions prior to reading, or simply working out meanings from context are both insufficient, unless combined with other strategies.

Limitations of Definitional and Context Approaches

Recently I was reading Jeannie Baker’s ‘Mirror’ with a group of year 6 readers. In her almost wordless book, Baker presents two parallel worlds: one the story of a family living in Australia and the other the story of a family living in Morocco. There are two brief passages introducing the stories, one in English and one in Arabic. While the Australian story flips from right to left, the Moroccan story moves through from left to right.  After discussing many ideas raised by the children in response to the book, I posed a question,‘I wonder why Jeannie Baker has called this book ‘Mirror’?

The limitations of the dictionary in helping us answer the question quickly become evident:

Mirror: polished or smooth surface (e.g. of polished metal or silvered glass) that forms images by reflection. 2 something that gives a true representation Longman Dictionary of the English Language

Neither definition is adequate for helping us understand the title of this extraordinary book. There are similarities in the lives of both families, but in terms of visual appearance or outward reflection they are not the same. So 'mirror' is used here to suggest some connection other than a literal reflection.

Relying entirely on the very specific context of this book for an understanding of 'mirror' is also insufficent. It doesn't help us understand the many instances in which we are likely to encounter the word: a looking glass; the mirrored surface of a lake; the name of a national newspaper; mirroring movements in gymnastics, the supernatural mirrors in Snow White and The Picture of Dorian Gray All of these instances of ‘mirror’ provide nuanced meanings and over time serve to develop a sophisticated and composite understanding of the word. So, we can conclude, definitions and context used in isolation do not get us close enough to understanding the word 'mirror'.

Effective vocabulary instruction allows readers to integrate new words with their existing knowledge. It offers opportunities for multiple encounters and consolidation through application in writing and speech.

One of the fundamental lessons of vocabulary instruction for older primary children is the understanding that word definitions are provisional, based on present knowledge and subject to refinement.

Using Vocabulary Journals

To illustrate how an understanding of a word is developed from multiple encounters, here’s an example from my journal for the word ‘susurus’:

I first encountered this word in conversation where it was used to describe the gentle rustle of leaves heralding a cold front bringing heavy rain or a storm. I entered the word in my journal with a definition written in my own words: ‘You can feel the moment before a storm, the temperature drops, everything is still and then the leaves on the trees shiver gently,making a rustling sound – that’s a susurus.
I fell in love with the onomatopoeic qualities of the word that perfectly describe that natural phenomenon
Later, I looked up the dictionary definition which stated:
Susurus: soft murmuring or rustling sound;
And a second dictionary definition
Susurus: the indistinct sound of people whispering
A short while later I looked up the etymology and found that the word was incorporated into Late Middle English from Latin  hum, whisper 
Further literary examples have been spotted along the way and noted in my journal. They include the susurus of a flowing river.
And I have encountered examples in journalistic writing: “To a susurus of displeasure, from Members Opposite”
I was nearly lulled by the soft susurus of libertarian whispers in smoke-filled  ...


Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction

As part of our vocabulary and comprehension training, we demonstrate  a range of practical techniques that can be used in the classroom to develop word consciousness. These include:

  • associative games,
  • vocabulary journals
  • semantic mapping,
  • interactive word walls
  • morphemic analysis.
You might be interested in enrolling for the next comprehension course
Or Effective Vocabulary Teaching
All training is available as school-based INSET email schools@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk 
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