What words to teach and when

There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language. How do you decide what words to teach explicitly and when?

Beck and colleagues (2013) recommend that words selected for vocabulary instruction should be chosen on the basis of utility. They propose that vocabulary can be considered as belonging to three tiers (which should not be confused with the three tiers in Response to Intervention).

The three tiers of vocabulary are:

As a good rule of thumb, Tier Two words should be selected for intensive, explicit vocabulary instruction. These are the words that will allow students to comprehend a broad range of more complex texts because they are applicable to a wide range of written contexts.

There is no definitive list or Tier Two words. Beck et al. 2013 includes a list and others have been proposed (see below). Teacher judgement will be required to decide which words are likely to be unfamiliar for students in a given age group (and socio-cultural background) and worth incorporating into instruction. For example, while ‘groan’ might not be an unfamiliar word in a Year 3 context, it could still represent a good target word for children in the first two years of school.

Tier Two words can be taken from storybooks in the early years of school and from novels or non-fiction texts in middle to upper primary. Using words from topics of study can create rich semantic associations and build vocabulary depth.

Vocabulary instruction should begin in the earliest stages of reading, both explicitly and incidentally. Vocabulary activities do not have to take up a huge part of the day. They can be delivered in short bursts, spread over two to four days of the week. Indeed, this format will improve uptake of the words, as we know that using vocabulary at different times across a variety of contexts is an important factor in increasing the effectiveness of oral language interventions (Wasik et al., 2006).


Vocabulary lists

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