Catch-up: The Importance of Vocabulary and Counting

As expected when moderating this term, we have found a number of gaps in learning. This includes phonics, reading, number facts and writing stamina, but there have also been two less expected, but very important areas: vocabulary and counting.

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Unexpected gaps in learning

As expected when moderating this term, we have found a number of gaps in learning. This includes phonics, reading, number facts, and writing stamina, but two less expected but significant areas have also been.


In writing, we found a lack of varied, precise, ambitious vocabulary. This is hardly surprising considering some of our pupils will have experienced reduced interaction with parents, children or books during a school lockdown.

The pressure to enable pupils to catch up with lost learning is ever-present in teachers’ minds, and it is tempting to focus on reading, writing and maths. However, a lack of vocabulary affects pupils’ reading comprehension and writing skills and their ability to access the rest of the curriculum.

If this reflects your experience, consider how to integrate vocabulary teaching as part of your catch-up curriculum.

Here are some suggestions

  • Explicitly teach antonyms and synonyms to increase the range of vocabulary pupils know and use: As a class, try collecting synonyms, for example, tired: weary / exhausted / worn out / sapped / spent. Ask pupils to rank words from the least tired to the most.
  • Explore appropriate words for a given situation: Generate synonyms for your chosen word, for example old: shabby / ramshackle / elderly / bygone / ancient. Ask pupils to choose a synonym which would best describe a home / person / coat / archaeological find.
  • Prior to beginning a topic, teach the contextual language of a class book or a curriculum subject: When discussing topic vocabulary ask ‘What is it and what isn’t it?’, for example an acute angle: sharp but not curved, wavy or square. Encourage the children to record key vocabulary and refer to this in their work.
  • Teach children how to improve or vary their vocabulary choices when editing: Pairs or threes, depending on your seating arrangements in class at the moment, could underline the best three words in their work – the most appropriate, most ambitious or an alternative word used to avoid repetition – and choose two words to improve together.

Improving vocabulary may take a little longer. However, it not only improves writing quality but also can remove barriers to learning across the curriculum.


When moderating Maths with younger pupils, many children initially appeared to have caught up in addition and subtraction. However, pupils did not retain these skills. On further investigation, pupils were ‘counting all’ and had misconceptions around the relative size and order of numbers.

If you have found something similar when identifying your pupils’ gaps in Maths, build counting and ordering into your number catch-up curriculum.

Here are some suggestions

  • Teach counting: Regularly count forwards and backwards from any number in ones and tens. Some children will struggle to count from a number other than one so display a visual number line. Ask children to close their eyes when counting but encourage them to peek when they reach a difficult section.
  • Estimation of number: Use a number line where boundaries are marked. Place each given number in the correct place on the number line. Consider which ten it is near, which numbers are one more or less, ten more or ten less, greater than or less than.
  • Tens and ones: Some pupils will have missed the link between counting and place value. Use multilink to count, for example, fourteen cubes. Build the cubes in to ten sticks and ones then place in a tens and ones grid.
  • Using number facts: Many younger children have reverted to calculating by counting on or back rather than using their number facts. During catch-up sessions, remember to partition numbers in to different parts, for example 8 could be 3 and 5. This knowledge will be necessary when bridging tens boundaries, for example, 33 – 8 = 33 – 3 – 5.

Teachers are working extraordinarily hard to identify and close gaps in learning. Time is short, and it is tempting to focus on the skills which have been missed. However, time spent developing key concepts will ensure pupils avoid misconceptions later. If you would like more information about how Juniper Education’s teaching and learning advisers could support you in addressing gaps in learning, please contact us.

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