Skip to content
Need some help? Call us on 0113 460 1314

A Guide to Vocabulary Teaching: Part 1

A Guide to Vocabulary Teaching: Part 1

As every teacher knows, vocabulary knowledge is key. A student who has an extensive vocabulary tends to be able to follow instructions more successfully, write more interesting stories and sentences and can understand the concepts needed to succeed in Science, Maths and all other subjects.

Education Secretary, Damian Hinds has introduced the idea of ‘the word gap’ and highlighted how important it is that children come in to school with an acceptable vocabulary.

Where do we start?
How do we choose the words to teach?
What is the best way to teach them?
Should it be a whole class or targeted approach?

In this series of blogs we will aim to answer these questions to help you plan your vocabulary teaching. We will look at a 4 step STAR approach put forward by Blachowicz and Fisher in 2010 and utilised in the incredibly helpful book ‘Word Aware’ by Stephen Parsons and Anna Branagan.

  1. Select

  2. Teach

  3. Activate
  4. Review
For this, the first in the series I will concentrate on Step 1 of the STAR approach – Select.

Select – how do we choose the words to teach?

A child at school entry has, on average over 2000 words. By the end of Primary school an average child will understand approximately 50000 words. So, how do we know which words to pick out to teach those children who are having difficulties with receptive and expressive vocabulary?

One way to do it is to split the words into 3 Tiers, this will help us to pick out the level and types of words that will be most useful to teach.

Tier 1 - Anchor words

These tend to be nouns or common verbs and adjectives that come up in children’s everyday lives and that the vast majority of children would use and understand. E.g. house, cup, eat, climb, fast, funny.

We don’t tend to spend a lot of time teaching these words as they tend to be in a child’s vocabulary and get used both at home and school so children tend to have a good grasp of their meaning. For those in the Early Years these may be focused on with children and there is a book especially for teaching vocabulary to those at this stage. Please see links below.


Tier 3 – Step-on words

(Sorry for going out of turn on this but bear with me!)
These are topic specific words that are used within a specific topic but occur less frequently than other words. E.g. acronym, abbreviation, invertebrate, soluble, particles.

These, traditionally are the words that have been those to concentrate on during vocabulary teaching. This is understandable – a new topic is introduced and half of the class have no idea of the words that are needed to be understood to gain any idea of the work they are going to be doing.

Tier 2 – Goldilocks words

Tier two words consist of high frequency words that occur across a variety of subjects, they occur often in conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading. E.g. measure, exact, opportunity, system, explain

Tier 2 or Goldilocks words (not too difficult, not too easy but ‘just right’) are the most important words to be taught for a variety of reasons:

  • They are important for reading comprehension
  • They contain many multiple meanings that children with Speech, Language and Communication Needs often find difficult (e.g. whether / weather, reign / rain, plane / plain)
  • To give an increased descriptive vocabulary – a lot of Tier 2 words are adjectives, adverbs.
  • Tier 2 words also tend to be used to explain the meaning of Tier 3 words, e.g. to explain the word ‘photosynthesis’ you may say – ‘it’s the process that plants and other organismsconvert the sunlight into nutrients’. If a child hasn’t got a breadth of Tier 2 words they are going to find it challenging to understand new topic vocabulary.

How do I implement this in class?

So, at the beginning of term when looking at a new topic try this simple exercise to pick out words that you may focus on:

  1. Pick out the ‘topic’ vocabulary – words such as autobiography, adverbials, anecdotal, chronological.
  2. Think about how you may explain these words.
  3. Are there any Tier 2 words needed to explain them?
  4. Try to use these instead as your focus words – good ones may be: structure, order, purpose, experience, account, reflection.