Word Power! Powerful vocabulary instruction (Part 2: Choosing words)

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts sharing key ideas from my Word Power vocabulary CPD package.

To read the first in this series of posts, click here –  Part 1: Starting point

Once you have taken the leap, deciding that vocabulary development is a prime area of focus in your school/classroom and you’ve started to think carefully about how to provide opportunities for children to engage with and question systems of language, you will need to consider how to actually go about choosing words that will make the biggest impact on improving vocabulary.  So, where to start?

A good place to start is to consider how many words should be chosen for direct instruction each day/ week to have a positive impact on vocabulary acquisition.  Nagy and Anderson’s research in the 1980s gives us some information to formulate an evidence-based starting point.

Their research uncovered that children, aged 7-13, encounter an average of 1 million words of text per year through reading; however, not all of these words are retained, nor are they all understood.  This, of course has a direct impact on children’s ability to comprehend text. Of these 1 million words, 88,500 are within word families (words with a common root – script, scribe, scripture, prescription, inscribe, prescribe, subscription), of which, 1/2 are rare words.  These ‘rare words’ aren’t worth our time for vocabulary instruction as they will have little impact on improving vocabulary learning due to the fact that – 1. Children will not often encounter these words and 2. There are limited words with which they can connect to. That leaves us with just over 44,000 to word families to master as a starting point – no small feat!

According to Beck et. al. (Bringing words to life – mentioned in part 1), words can be broken down into 3 ‘tiers’.

  • Tier 1 words are the most basic words of oral language – they are heard frequently and acquired through spoken exchanges.  These are also known as content, lexical or function words (e.g. baby, chair, walk, sad) and are commonly encountered in early reading.
  • Tier 2 words are high in frequency, occurring across multiple domains – usually in more advanced, spoken exchanges and in literature. Tier 2 words often have multiple meanings, directly influencing comprehension and fluency (e.g. measure, pulse, resulting). Tier 2 words can, at times, be solved using context clues in the surrounding text. (Types of context clues include: definition, example, synonym or antonym.)  Click on the following link for a useful article explaining each type https://www.thoughtco.com/four-types-of-context-clues-3211721
  • Tier 3 words are low in frequency and occurr in specific contexts or related to specialist topics/ subject domains (e.g. economic, elytra, tibia).  These can also be known as technical or subject-specific words.

To have the greatest impact on pupils’ reading (comprehension) and writing (composition) development, Beck et. al. suggest that the majority of vocabulary instruction should focus on Tier 2 words.  It is important to mention here; however, that word knowledge is subject to personal experiences.  Therefore, the lines between Tier 2 and Tier 3 words can, at times, be blurred.  It is important to know children’s starting points and interests in order to target words that will be of most use. If we jump back to our thinking about word families, there are 15,000 comprising of Tier 1 and Tier 2 words (8,000 in tier 1 and 7,000 in tier 2).  That gives us a bank of 7,000 tier 2 words as the ‘Rolls-Royce’ or ultimate target (or whatever your dream car might be, for that matter!).

Taking it a step further, language users need a useable vocabulary of 15,000-20,000 words to effectively express and understand information (expressive and receptive vocabulary).  Now, I’m definitely not a maths specialist, but with 7 years in primary school, how many words can we reasonably expect children to add to their expressive and receptive ‘bank’ in that time?  Do we think that 100 new words a year is acceptable?  300? 500? 1000?  What is a reasonable goal and how might we go about achieving this goal, day to day, in the classroom?

Let’s look at somewhere in the middle… If we decide to target 300-400 words per year for direct instruction, after 7 years in primary school, that would give children an additional 2,100-2,800 new words by the end of Y6.  Add this on top of all the vocabulary knowledge they already have from personal experiences and new words that they encounter and learn independently through reading and writing.  With 39 weeks of teachable time in each academic year, that would mean a focus of 8-10 new words each week.  But is this enough?

What if we targeted 15 new words per week?  What about 5?  The total number of words that each teacher decides to target is personal – based on pupils’ starting points, language deficit and existing knowledge of how words work.  The important point here is that you carefully consider which words you are choosing for instruction and how these can be built upon by making links to other words within the word family.  I like to think of a silo analogy in this case (or straws, for that matter, as I couldn’t find appropriate images for silos!).  If we try to teach words as isolated units, children will see them as isolated units.  If we teach children word solving skills and encourage them to make connections within and between words, we can exponentially increase their vocabulary.  Consider the images below.  Which approach to teaching new words do you think would work the best? Option 1 – teaching each word as a separate entity or Option 2 – teaching words in groups, based on word families and other shared semantic features.  There’s only one option to choose if you want to encourage word solving in your classroom – there is power in groups!

straws 1  Groups of drinking straws sorted by colors

Time to move away from the maths… (as it makes me make the schwa sound – uhhh). Knowing what you now know about the importance of direct instruction and ensuring that you are choosing enough words for instruction, what other criteria is useful when choosing words for instruction?  The following outlines Beck et al’s criteria for choosing words (2013):

which words to chooseEven with the knowledge of the numbers and the above criteria, you may still find it difficult to narrow it down to choose those magical words that will make a difference.  My advice is to just take the plunge! Choose words that you feel are worthy of exploration using high-quality texts and see how pupils react.  How are the chosen words impacting on their vocabulary development?  What new behaviours have you noticed as a result?  If children quickly show you that the words chosen are already familiar, then up the ante.  On the flip side, if we are introducing 10 new words each week and all of the words are completely new, children may quickly become frustrated and will be less-likely to retain the new information.  If you’re still feeling unsure, here are some more top tips about how much time and attention you should give to different types of words:

time and attention

The main goal is that we want children to begin to notice words.  We want them to think critically about their meaning, position in the sentence and connections with other words with which they are familiar.  I used to display this sign in my classroom to remind children to notice words, every day.


What will you do to encourage children to start to notice words?  You might like to try some of these ideas to get started:

  • Keep a word solving kit on every table.  This might include highlighters, post-it notes, whiteboards, flip chart paper or anything to capture new words that children discover and also to support them to make links with words of focus in direct instruction.
  • Set a ‘word wizard’ challenge each week.  How many of the words that we’ve learnt this week can you share with/ teach someone at home?  Are there any other words in the word family that the adult at home can add to our list?
  • Ensure that the classroom is language-rich.  Do we only gather words during English lessons?  How can we explore words in other curricular areas?  Where and how do we display words?  Who adds the words to display and when? Children will notice words more often if they are the ones who are adding to and editing displays.  The classroom environment is another teacher in the classroom.  Environmental resources are available to support independence and should be used, as such.
  • Encourage children to keep their own word solving notebooks.  They can keep track of new words learnt and visually represent ways to remember new vocabulary.  Encourage pupils to share their notebooks with each other and to explain how they have connected new words to personal experiences and other known words.
  • Read aloud… and talk about it!  Not every new word that children learn needs to have a lengthy, instructional focus.  Whilst we may have an idea of the number of words we want to target each week/ day for direct instruction, this is not the sum total of all the new words that children will learn during that period of time.  Sometimes, during read aloud, whole class reading and/or guided reading, we may just stop and give pupils the definition of an unknown word. We do not always need to elicit ideas of definitions from pupils.  Sometimes a simple synonym, linking the new word to a known word, will do. We don’t want to interrupt fluency by stopping on every sentence/paragraph to get feedback on word meaning.
  • You may want to develop a system whereby pupils make notes of words they are unsure of, during or after reading.  These can be explored in pairs or groups.  One strategy is a simple vocabulary T chart (below) to help pupils to think about their understanding of new words and to flag up any misunderstanding.

vocab t chart

If you have any questions or comments about this post or if you would like to contact me to discuss vocabulary development or training needs in your school/ local area, please get in touch kellyashleyconsultancy@outlook.com or via Twitter @kashleyenglish

Copyright 2017, Kelly Ashley Consultancy




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