The power of words: Teaching vocabulary

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
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It is said that learning floats on a sea of talk. So how can schools build systems, processes, and strategies to make sure students develop powerful word knowledge over time? Robbie Burns advises

In 1976, Douglas Barnes famously said that “Learning floats on a sea of talk.” Although I don’t think this is wrong, there are many steps that learning needs to take before it is even on the water.

Students must be able to speak, using full sentences including words that convey their meaning. Next they must understand what has been said by their peers, process the words they are using and then respond. And this is only in peer-to-peer conversation. What about when a teacher is explaining new content? A student must understand the words being said, process them for the meaning they are trying to convey, and then apply the learning to long-term memory.

All of this talk, whether conversations with a peer or listening to a teacher explanation, is underpinned by an assumption that students understand the meaning of the words being used. If learning floats on a sea of talk, then every water droplet is a word. We could say that the sea of “talk” is actually a sea of “vocabulary”.

The importance of vocabulary has been well-documented and the gap between the word rich and word poor begins before they attend school. A three-year-old from a disadvantaged background knows approximately 525 words. In comparison, their three-year-old peers from non-disadvantaged backgrounds know around 1,116 (Hart & Risley, 1995). This causes something referred to by sociologists as the Matthew Effect – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The more vocabulary a student has, the more they have to connect to, which means that they have more opportunity to develop new vocabulary. However, our disadvantaged students often don’t come to school with as much vocabulary, knowledge and “cultural capital”, so they have less word knowledge to attach to.

However, all is not lost, as ED Hirsch Jr (2003) writes: “Overcoming this initial disadvantage is a huge challenge. To do so, we need to engage in the best, most enabling kinds of vocabulary building. As we will see, that means explicit vocabulary instruction done in the best possible way and providing an environment that accelerates the incidental acquisition of vocabulary, which is how most vocabulary growth takes place.”

I want to outline the approach we have begun to take as a school towards vocabulary development.

Choosing the right words

By the time students are ready to attend university, according to ED Hirsch Jr (2003), students need to learn somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words. However, they will not be able to learn all of these 100,000 words directly during their time at school.

Beck et al (2013) agree that students need to develop a storehouse of words to be prepared for university and beyond. However, they argue that the depth of word understanding is far more important than breadth. Students ought to be able to link words to synonyms, antonyms and even their root origins. Knowing about words, their meanings and their individual components is not enough; we don’t read words singularly – they are embedded in sentences, in paragraphs, in chapters, in books.

A balance needs to be struck between words that are picked up over time as part of the curriculum and words that are taught explicitly. Both are important. The question then for leaders and teachers is how we choose the right words to explicitly teach. Drawing on Doug Lemov and his colleagues’ work in Reading Reconsidered (2016), as a school we have developed a framework for selecting the words we choose to explicitly teach and the words that we should make students aware of. We have named these “taught” words and “encountered” words.

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Taught words

Taught words are words we have decided we should spend precious curriculum time explicitly teaching. These words capture the knowledge of the unit of work being studied most clearly, acting as a threshold to other substantive and disciplinary knowledge, concepts or processes in the unit of work and subject more broadly.

This loosely falls into Tier 2 and 3 words from Beck et al’s (2013) tiered word system which provides a helpful framework to quality-assure the choices we have made. Broadly speaking, Tier 1 words are everyday words that come up in classroom conversation – “hat”, “mat”, “said”, “sit”. It is unlikely these need to be part of either of our word categories.

Tier 2 words act as a gateway to broader understanding across subjects. In humanities subjects these can be words like “cause”, “consequence”, “artefact”. In science, they might be “observe”, “conclusion”, “evidence”.

Tier 3 words are technical, subject-specific words that rarely appear beyond individual fields of study. These are still useful and ought to be taught but we have opted for less of an emphasis on them. Tier 3 words might be “tributary” in geography, or “photosynthesis” in science.

Encountered words

These are words we know are going to be included in our curriculum, but they do not warrant time in the curriculum being explicitly taught. We ought to stop and ponder these words for a moment, explain what they mean and maybe even write them in a glossary, particularly if they contribute to the curiosity our students have of the topic at hand and the writing they might do. However, we do not deem them as words worthy of being explicitly taught.

It is important to note that we do not make any claim about taught words being “better” than those that are encountered; the use of this distinction is no more than a tool for curriculum design. As we plan, we look for the words that emerge time and again that act as thresholds to other learning and make a point of teaching these clearly, emphasising their importance.

Taught words are also not a fixed list. As time goes by, planning ought to be adapted and changed to better maximise time spent explicitly teaching those that will have the most impact.

These vocabulary lists can be developed in a range of ways. There are lists already available online as part of curriculum knowledge organisers and the like, but the best way to develop these lists is to look at current curriculum plans and see what words emerge as having significance.

Vocabulary targets: Bede Academy’s strategy for teaching vocabulary revolves around ‘teaching’ some key words while allowing pupils to ‘encounter’ other vocabulary

The vocabulary essentials

Next, we took steps as leaders and teachers to ensure that our students would accumulate the vocabulary they needed. The three areas we wanted to look at more closely to aid our clarity of approach were curriculum, teaching, and environment. We then came up with three “essentials” for vocabulary teaching that would be adhered to across the school.

  1. Teaching: Follow the Teaching WalkThru (see later) step-by-step for “taught” words across units of work.
  2. Learning: When specifying, defining and saying the words (steps 1 and 2 from the WalkThru that we use), words must be recorded in the glossary you have developed for the unit and as a year group.
  3. Displays: Display words you think are important in clear, large writing on a relevant board in the classroom so that students can see the word, use this in their writing, and refer to it for spelling.

The curriculum

We identified key moments across units of work in foundation subjects where time could be spent teaching words explicitly.

Some words were added into our curriculum planning but many were already on knowledge organisers and part of long-term planning.

Once we had identified these, it was then important to identify space in later curriculum planning for these words to be retrieved. After we had reviewed planning in our year groups, we then worked on vocabulary progression maps across the school to make sure that there were not too many words that overlapped.

One excellent curriculum development that emerged was the “Word of the Week”. This was a simple, 10-minute window at the beginning of the week in a writing lesson where teachers took the time to teach a Tier 2 word. Sometimes this word emerged in the texts being read or from thesauruses but often it was planned beforehand using word lists. This led to students growing in confidence by using a range of interesting vocabulary and using the thesaurus independently.

Meanwhile, maths planning was also developed to support students to use vocabulary in their reasoning and problem-solving responses.

The teaching

Strategies and activities abound for teaching vocabulary. These were shared with staff and banks of resources were created. We agreed to a consistent structure for the explicit teaching of vocabulary, using the Teaching WalkThru “Deliberate Vocabulary Development” (Sherrington & Caviglioli, 2020) as our steps to take. These are:

  1. Specify and define the word: Explain its meaning, word class, synonyms, antonyms and in a sentence. Use pictures to showcase its meaning. Record the word in a glossary.
  2. Say the word: Teacher model saying and even writing the word.
  3. Read the word in context: Read the word in a sentence or in the text being read.
  4. Practise using the word verbally and in writing: Engage in quick practice tasks that consolidate vocabulary and apply it to a range of contexts.
  5. Engage in word-based retrieval practice: Come back to the word in future lessons and retrieve it over time.

What we have found is that the simpler the practice (step 4) the better. Of course, many hours could be spent doing elaborate activities with the new vocabulary that is learned but curriculum time is precious.

The most efficient “practice” of vocabulary that has meant students have gained a strong understanding have been those that include structured talk and sentence writing immediately after being taught a new word. Then, in the following lesson or the lesson after that, these words are retrieved in new contexts.


From year 2 onwards, we consistently record words in a glossary. This decreases in scaffolding as students became older but the principle remains the same: students need to record new words, know where they are in their books, and use this as a resource to develop their vocabulary over time. The impact of this has been that students know the words they are learning, what their meanings are, and can self-check how they are used when learning independently.

The environment

As part of the consistent approach to learning new words, we have also wanted to make sure that our environments include words in large, legible writing so that they can be referred to at different points in the curriculum. Some teachers have written out these words while they have been teaching and then posted them on display in the moment, modelling how letters are formed and how they should write it.

Impact to date

Students have described their growing confidence with using new words. Now that vocabulary is clearly displayed, students know exactly where to find it if they need to use it in their independent learning. Because of the consistency of teaching approach, students have become very familiar with the routines of learning new words, which has meant that less time is being spent learning new words and more time can be spent retrieving them and applying them to new contexts. 

Further information & resources

  • Barnes: From Communication to Curriculum, Penguin, 1976.
  • Beck, McKeown, & Kucan: Bringing Words to Life: Robust vocabulary instruction, Guilford Press, 2013.
  • Hart & Risley: Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co, 1995.
  • Hirsch: Reading comprehension requires knowledge – of words and the world, American Educator, Spring, Volume 10, 2003:
  • Lemov, Driggs, & Woolway: Reading Reconsidered: A practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction, Jossey-Bass, 2016.
  • Sherrington & Caviglioli: Teaching WalkThrus: Five-step guides to instructional coaching, John Catt Educational, 2020.

Headteacher Update Summer Edition 2022

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Summer Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via

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