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Words, words, words by Lucy Pollard


Today we're thinking about words. How do we learn them? How do we remember them?


Humans are hard-wired for word learning. As adults, we know thousands of words. As children, we pick up new words at an astonishing rate - an average of 10 new words a day!

So how do we learn words? Well, there are lots of different steps. Stackhouse and Wells (1997) came up with a model explaining word learning, word storage and word retrieval (see pic below). Complicated, isn't it? I'll try to break it down.


The first time we hear the word 'dog', we have to:

  • Be listening in the first place.

  • Recognise that someone is talking.

  • Hear the combination of sounds they are saying.

  • Understand that the combination of sounds 'd-o-g' corresponds to the waggy thing in front of us 🐕.

  • Put together a program for your oro-motor system so that our lungs, voice box, tongue and lips know how to put the sounds 'd-o-g' together and produce the sound 'dog' the next time we see another waggy thing 🐩.

  • Keep a permanent representation of the sounds and meaning of this word stored in our brain so that we can continue to know that 'dog' = 🐕🦮🐕‍🦺.

What about words that we already know? When talking to someone, in order to recognise that they have said the word “vegetable”, we need to:

🧐 As before, be listening in the first place.

🧐 Recognize that someone is talking.

🧐 Hear the word they are saying.

🧐Check the word we have heard against our own mental store of word sounds to see if we know that particular combination of phonemes.

🧐 If we DO know those sounds, we then match the sounds up with our mental store of what the word means.

Only THEN do we know that “vegetable” = 🍆🥑🥦🥬🥒🌶🌽🥕.

To produce the word, we once again have to:

🤓 Delve into our mental store of words and recall that 🍆🥑🥦🥬🥒🌶🌽🥕 = “vegetable”.

🤓 Assemble a plan that tells our lungs, voice box, tongue and lips how to formulate the right sounds.

🤓 Execute the correct combination of sounds so that we produce something that our conversation partner recognises as the word “vegetable”.


Difficulties in ANY of these areas is going to lead to difficulties with learning, understanding, remembering or using words. For example, a child with auditory processing difficulties is going to find it difficult to tune in to speech. This means they're going to miss out on exposure to some new words, which may mean they learn words at a slower rate than their peers. A child with difficulties with their phonological system will struggle to learn, retain and remember information about word sounds. For example, they might find it hard to remember what sounds are in the middle of the word, or how many syllables it has, or what the word rhymes with. A child with difficulties with their semantic system will struggle to learn, retain and remember information about word meaning. They might use words inappropriately, or only remember a bit about what that word means.


Certain words are likely to be trickier:

👉🏻 New words (because we don't have any representations in our mental store yet)

👉🏻 Long words (because it's harder to create a phonological representation and motor program)

👉🏻 Abstract words (because it's harder to create a semantic representation)

👉🏻 Verbs (because they are harder to visualise).


How can we support children's word learning? These strategies will help:

  • Explicitly teach new words. Programmes like Word Aware are great. You can also use word maps such as the one in this picture. Word maps help children to think about the sounds and the meaning of the word, and to practice it by putting it into a sentence.

  • Repeat and re-cap the words you have learnt to give children loads of opportunities to hear and use the words. For example, you can pre-teach topic vocabulary in the classroom before that topic starts, re-visit those words while learning about the topic, and re-cap those words at the end of the topic.

  • Think especially about teaching Tier 2 words. These are words which are abstract, but occur across the curriculum and are common in academic writing. 'Compare'; 'contrast'; 'analyse'; 'experiment'; 'summary' are all examples of Tier 2 words. Here is a nice blog post from the TES with more information on Tier 2 words.

  • Use multi-sensory learning techniques. As well as hearing the word and seeing it written down, see if you can act it out, watch a video, link it to a smell or create a model. Some more suggestions on multi-sensory word learning techniques can be found here and here.

I hope you enjoy learning some new words today!


Lucy Pollard


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