Gateway vocabulary

Words that open doors to conceptual understanding

What are the words that are most useful in cracking open texts and understanding complex ideas?

Vocabulary supports conceptual understanding and refines expression, and I think long and hard about the best words I want to foreground in my teaching. Clearly this is not done through endless wordlists, but by carefully selecting the powerful vocabulary most useful for developing understanding of the literature we’re studying. One of the first things I’m always keen to absorb from other English teachers is the words they’re choosing to teach explicitly.

For me, the teaching of words works in two ways: first, to plug the linguistic gap where conceptual understanding is there. It’s in those moments when a child is articulating something, searching for the langauge, not even sure if the word exists and then…. you hand them the word. A whole term that exists to make their articulation of an already-formed idea. It’s a wonderful gift to give.

The second, more common way, is to use vocabulary to form conceptual understanding where it didn’t exist before. It’s when you teach a new word and through understanding the word, students understand a new facet of the world. In thinking about the word and applying it to scenarios, they now recognise a new concept, or at least understand an old one in a new way. I’m going to call them ‘gateway words’ because I like imagining them as little linguistic units that open onto new fields of understanding. And what are the words that can expand students’ understanding? I think most teachers have their favourite words they love to explicitly teach. Diane Leedham has written about concept nouns as a valuable route to academic language, and Lia Martin has outlined an excellent practical method of selecting, teaching and revisiting vocabulary. Jamie Peel has outlined the vocabulary base of his teaching of Macbeth, complete with a word list. Alex Quigley has an incredibly useful appendix of words in his Closing the Vocabulary Gap. And here’s my very humble addition: my current favourite gateway words to teach to pupils. After each, I’ve linked them to the KS3 text from which they springboard.

Year 7


Literature changes the world. This word allows them to see the influence and power of literature through time. (Shakespeare: Much Ado)


A vital word that allows pupils to see connections between texts and contexts. E.g. In the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reflects the three estates of Medieval England.


By teaching the word ‘narrative’, pupils are asked to see texts as constructs, and are less likely focus on characters as real people. (Beowulf)


A useful, if sometimes pessimistic, concept that encapsulates the things we can’t control. E.g the conventions of tragedy remind audiences that death is inevitable. (Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale)


I love teaching this early on. The idea that multiple interpretations exist at any one time makes the reading of literature exciting. (Thomas More: Utopia)


A word which asks students to consider authorial intent and might lead them to consider texts in a political light. (Spenser: The Faerie Queene)

Year 8


People disagree over issues, ideas, books. This word allows students to stand at a distance and consider the response. (Romantic non-fiction)


Like ‘criticises’ above, this encourages students to see the interaction between writers and the society to which they’re responding. (Dickens: Oliver Twist)

conform to

Considering the connections between people and conventions/expectations? This is the phrase. (Shakespeare: Julius Caesar.) Along with…


E.g. Lady Macbeth subverts the expectations of patriarchy. (Thanks to the brilliant Jo Facer who gifted these two to me in my NQT year).


Comedy + criticism. Especially useful with Dickens.


I find that so many children have an amazingly strong understanding of this, without necessarily knowing the word. Surprising perhaps, but it seems nostalgia is just as strong even before the time has passed. (Romantic poetry)


Much like ambiguous above, but now honed to focus on the author and their attitude, not on ideas. (Romantic poetry)

Year 9


Building on ‘criticise’ and ‘challenge’ above, but now even stronger. (Priestley: An Inspector Calls)


Thanks to Lia Martin’s ‘Ozymandias’ blog for this one. The idea that things don’t last is deeply powerful and resonates powerfully with students.


I ask the pupils to add an abstract noun after. E.g. In Oliver Twist, Dickens explores the consequences of criminality.


This idea of textual purpose in verb form is one of those words that aids precision in expression. (Non-fiction writing)


By year 9, I would love students to start considering the uncertainties of authorial purpose, when writers don’t have a clear or sole agenda. This word comes in useful in asking students to consider the ideas writers are gently exploring in their texts. (Shelley)


A great word which encapsulates a complex emotion that children nevertheless just seem to get. (Keats)


Students can apply this word to a multitude of scenarios and it really gets them thinking about causation in society. E.g. social media can be seen to normalise superficiality. (Non-fiction writing)

It’s a relatively arbitrary list of words with little connection between them, but they’re useful, versatile and can transform students’ writing about complex ideas. I’d love to know your gateway words — as always, do get in touch.

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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