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How can you choose words to teach?

The focus of this week and next is direct instruction of vocabulary. If we are going to teach vocabulary then we need to decide how to identify the words that we want to teach and whether we want breadth of knowledge or depth of knowledge.

Many activities in the classroom focus on breadth of knowledge, e.g. word walls where vocabulary is collected around a topic or the use of the themed pages in a thesaurus.

We can not teach every word that a child does not know, so we need some method of identifying the most valuable words to teach.

We would suggest there are four main ways in which words can be identified. Using the attachments available below, see if you can use these ways too.

Based on the level of knowing words¹

You have already explored this method of identifying vocabulary. Using the useful/important/difficult document available to download below, choose words that you can draw from a text you are reading together or from a topic being studied and decide which ones from the first three columns would be worth teaching…and why?


This method categorises words differently but may need some further decisions about which words are to be taught. Words that you think are useful, important or difficult are collected but probably need to be whittled down to those that you will teach. Again, these will frequently be drawn from a text but could also be theme/topic related as you will have discovered from the above task.

Tier 2 words³

Beck et al classify words into three tiers, with tier 2 being the most appropriate for direct instruction. Download the Tiers of Words document below to classify your words this way. Click here for a screen reader accessible version of the Tier Words Triangle picture.

Tier Words Triangle

Academic Word List⁴

Averil Coxhead, from the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Wellington University in New Zealand, compiled a list of the words that appeared most frequently in English language research. The Academic Word List (AWL) consists of headwords followed by sublists which have families of words linked to it.

For example, the headword is approach and the word family contains the words approachable, approached, approaches, approaching and unapproachable.


1.Beck, I., Mckeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013), Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Guilford Press 2nd edition

2.Babcock LDP team

3.Beck, I., Mckeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013), Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Guilford Press 2nd edition

4.Coxhead, A The Academic Word List [Online]: Available at: https://tinyurl.com/y4xoalwm (Accessed on 26th March 2019)

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Teaching Vocabulary

Babcock Education