Understanding the common difficulties pupils have developing vocabulary, with Andrew Jennings.

1. Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about Vocabulary Ninja?

Vocabulary Ninja is something that started a while ago, perhaps 6 or 7 years ago when I was working at a school at Sutton in Teesside. I was a Year 6 teacher and I’d just got into meeting people on Twitter. At the time, the vocabulary stuff wasn’t anything I was particularly interested in but at the end of that academic year, Year 6 didn’t have a very strong set of reading results and it made me start to think. Apart from the obvious threads around reading comprehension, one of the things that struck me for those children (it’s quite an impoverished area) was vocabulary. It was something I hadn’t considered but, having done a bit of reading and looking at the marks on the papers, vocabulary kept coming up, and it made me think ‘Right, there’s something here that we need to try and prioritise.’

So, I wrote a few articles and blog posts. Then the next year ran past, and the results at the end, after focusing on reading, were completely improved! Within that, I coined the phrase ‘vocabulary ninjas’ because the idea behind it is about the mentality in the classroom – having that awareness of vocabulary and language and being switched on to it all the time. That’s where it stemmed from. Also, because I was creating lots of resources and sharing them, it just gained a lot of traction and people were really engaged by it.

So, it was a bit of luck; there wasn’t any grand scheme behind it. I was just reflecting on what had worked well for the pupils and what our priorities were to try and improve things for the next year.

2. What is the meaning behind the name ‘Vocabulary Ninja?’

When I wrote that initial blog, I said about ‘having that ninja-like presence when it came to vocabulary,’ having that mentality, to just be aware. I also wrote in the article how you need to ‘be ready to pounce and jump on any opportunity that presents itself in the classroom’ and then it occurred to me it was a little bit ‘ninja-like.’ It just flowed out of that which is quite nice and, as a result, we have a little character to illustrate it. Again, there was no big plan or intent to even think about running a business to start with. It just followed from being reflective when it came to teaching and sharing resources with other teachers, and it just grew from there. The name is quite child-friendly and it engaged the pupils first and foremost, which is what you want, but there’s a lot of sound teaching and learning theory that sits behind it now, which I’ve built over time.

3. What is Vocabulary Ninja’s vision?

There’s a more strategic vision now. I worked with Bloomsbury to publish the books – and we’ve published over 30 books in the past three years. ‘Times Tables Ninja’ is going down a storm in schools and ‘Write Like A Ninja’ was a bit of a whirlwind because it was massive, and it continues to be.

I think the little mantra I sit under is ‘Teaching simplified, learning amplified’ – everything I try to do has that at the heart of it. I’ve always found that if we can keep things simple and consistent, that’s where we get the impact on learning.

The vision is very much about whatever I do as a teacher (I still work one day a week in the school where I previously worked as an assistant headteacher) must have some form of significant learning impact for pupils. It’s very much about trying to create systems and resources and anything that can support teachers as much as possible so they can be consistent. Primary schools can be crazy places to work in, in terms of the unexpected things that pop up, so consistency is central.

4. What are common difficulties that pupils have developing vocabulary and how can teachers address these?

With a lot of vocabulary (or children’s lack of vocabulary) there are two sides:

There’s the social side of the language and communication children are exposed to from a young age. Right from when they are born, they are picking up language and communication skills, and the vocabulary that sits within that is from every single adult and interaction they’re involved with. Then you start to think about social poverty and so on, which has a huge impact on the type of vocabulary children will come into school with.

On the other side of the coin, there is reading – because the types of vocabulary you will find in a book, you won’t always use when you speak. It’s about trying to blend and find a manageable balance to address that. I think teaching words in isolation isn’t going to work because they’re not going to be retained – and just focusing on reading isn’t going to work either as you need that time to explore the vocabulary. So, Vocabulary Ninja is trying to blend that. A daily routine of 10-15 minutes where you teach new tier 2 vocabulary, that is what I focus on in a primary school. There’s no time to spend an hour or half an hour on vocabulary, it’s unmanageable. Ten minutes a day at the beginning of an English lesson focusing on a piece of new vocabulary is what I preach and that’s what the Vocabulary Ninja system is all about.

Let’s say you are reading ‘Room 13’ by Robert Swindle as your class text. Ideally, as the teacher, you would be picking out some of the key vocabulary and pre-teaching that maybe a week or two before you hit that chapter. This gives opportunities to use that vocabulary – you can display it or use it in modelled writing. When you hit that chapter and that word, maybe ‘translucent’ or ‘ascended,’ the children have had two weeks of opportunities hearing that, having it modelled in writing etc., had it explicitly taught to them, so they move through it with complete understanding.

The word gap is huge, you’re never going to bridge it, it’s impossible. What you need to do is ensure you have a system in place to teach new vocabulary that has links to the books they’re reading and as a result, children will use it as authors in their writing.

There are 190 school days in a year. If you’re teaching one new word a day (which is all you can do in an explicit fashion), those 190 words must be the most valuable and versatile words for your pupils, where they can make links and extend their knowledge.

Listen to Andrew’s interview to hear about :

  • His ‘wow’ moments
  • Key strategies for developing comprehension skills
  • Recommended texts for teaching comprehension skills
  • His training an resources for schools
  • General guidance for teachers in the English subject


  • Andrew Jennings

    Andrew is the founder of Vocabulary Ninja, which he created while working as a Year 6 teacher and finding his pupils were struggling with vocabulary. He is the author of ‘Vocabulary Ninja,’ ‘Comprehension Ninja,’ and ‘Write Like a Ninja,’ with more books in the works! He works one day a week in the school where he was an assistant headteacher.
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