Developing Vocabulary: a Pointless activity

    Published: 23 October 2019

    Michelle Nicholson offers up some practical ideas for generating meaningful families of words in the course of classroom vocabulary instruction.



    If we wish to develop children’s vocabulary quickly, activities such as ‘word of the week’ will be a laborious process. Instead, try to devise activities that generate several connected words and revisit these words often, so that children can begin to store vocabulary in categories in their long-term memories.

    In case you have not had a chance to catch the craze, Pointless is a TV show where members of the public are asked to provide answers within a category e.g. countries with the letter ‘a’ in them. The contestants then need to guess which answers were not given, or were given by the fewest respondents. The aim of the game is to receive as few points as possible; zero points would be ideal. This gameshow concept generates myriad opportunities for adaptation in class; vocabulary generation is a perfect example. Simply decide on a category, generate a list of your own, and open the floor to the children. For instance:

    i) In pairs or small groups, the children write down as many modes of transport as they can think of in two minutes. Then they choose three that they think will be on your list, but will have low points.

    ii) You then display a list of 10 modes of transport prepared earlier. The words should be assigned a points value in advance: up to 15 points for obvious answers such as taxi, van, lorry; 5 to 10 points for less obvious answers such as limousine, horse and cart, cruise liner; and  1 to 5 points for more obscure answers like rickshaw, junk, steamer. Assign 0 points to one of the words that you do not think children will come up with (such as penny-farthing). If children have an item on their list that does not match your list, they get 20 points. The winning team is the one with fewest points at the end of the game.

    iii) With younger children, you may ask them to pool their group ideas and play against you as a class. You may choose to simplify the game by giving children a point for each word they call out that is on your list and keep a more traditional method of scoring (i.e. the more points, the better).

    iv) Ensure you take time to unpick the vocabulary (you might wish to have images to show the children: ‘a rickshaw looks like this’).

    You might consider lists of ‘places you might live in’ e.g. cottage, semi-detached, bungalow, end terrace, shack, castle, tent. What about a category for ‘things you wear on your feet’, ‘flowers’ or ‘animals that begin with the letter s’. Other words that work well are synonyms for overused verbs (such as eat, walk, sleep, go, sit) or for adjectives (such as big, red, hot) or adverbs (fast, happily, suddenly). Children could be invited to use a thesaurus to help them generate possible synonyms. Alternatively, you could link this game with spelling patterns that you have been studying in class. Try: job roles that end in –er/ -cian or words that end in –ful.

    Whilst the lists take a little time to prepare, you will be able to keep them for future classes. One way to develop lists is to type them into word and right click on each word to find the synonyms. These are then added to the list. Keep categories as tight as possible to ensure children can see the links.

    By broadening this language, children are able to select the exact word to enhance a description e.g. The old crone lived in a shack in the dark forest vs The old woman lived in a house in the dark forest. This activity is most powerful when used in conjunction with independent writing in order to stimulate use of alternative language choices. If the children are to write a setting description based in a dark, scary forest, anticipate that they may well overwork these adjectives and use the game as a stimulus for a word bank so that children have the means to write foreboding forest. It is only when used in context that children will truly embed language and learn (by trial and error) that simply swapping out words does not always create the desired effect. Whilst The old woman lived in a dark, scary forest works, The antique woman lived in an opaque alarming forest does not! The more often children meet the words, the more precise their categorisation will become, and the better they will become at selecting the most appropriate word for the context.


    Michelle Nicholson and Martin Galway will be running a day of Vocabulary training on 13th November 2019: Raising Attainment through Developing Vocabulary.


    You may wish to explore some further ideas in this ever popular pre-blog newsletter (originally published in 2015) with a focus on vocabulary development:

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