Explicit Vocabulary Instruction as a Whole-School Literacy Strategy

Whole-School Literacy: Where to Begin

Last week at Durrington High School we spent a part of our INSET refocusing our whole-school literacy strategy. This began through comparing literacy to a toolbox that students can, and should, have available in every curriculum area. In order for students to be successful they need a wide repertoire of literacy skills, or many tools in their toolbox, and to be able to select and manipulate these appropriately for the task in hand. Literacy tools include skills such as spelling, punctuation, exploratory talk, reading comprehension etc. – in fact, the range of literacy skills that are imperative to success are myriad. However, in order for any literacy intervention to have impact the field has to be narrowed, or, in other words, we need to teach students how to confidently wield one tool at a time. When deciding the literacy tool that will be most effective at for Durrington at this time, and therefore the main focus of our whole-school strategy, the evidence seemed to point to one area in particular: Explicit vocabulary instruction.

What Vocabulary Should We Teach?

Over the past year, the staff at Durrington have spent considerable time getting to grips with the Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 hierarchy of vocabulary. Tier 1 vocabulary comprises words that are learned through everyday common language use, for example book, cat, and smile. Tier 3 words are those that are tightly associated with a specific domain and usually only acquired as the need arises. In schools, we often call Tier 3 words our subject-specific vocabulary. Finally, Tier 2 words are those that are more prevalent in written language, contain multiple meanings and are important for reading comprehension, for example measure, fortunate and tend.

When it comes to deciding which tier of vocabulary to use for explicit vocabulary instruction the research evidence does not offer any clear-cut answers, although there appears to be wide consensus that vocabulary instruction is of particular benefit to disadvantaged students. Marzano, for example, strongly advocates the explicit teaching of Tier 3 vocabulary as a means of increasing students’ background knowledge through secondary experience. Marzano argues that this is especially important for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds where exposure to knowledge and educational experience may be more limited. Conversely, Beck, McKeown and Kucan promote the explicit teaching of Tier 2 vocabulary, claiming that these are words that students are likely to meet in different contexts, and so can help them to layer different dimensions of meaning and understanding to a text or situation. Consequently, at Durrington, we decided to incorporate both Tiers 2 and 3.

Academic Word List

The next step in shaping our strategy was to help curriculum areas start to make judicious decisions about which Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary to teach. From previous dialogues and reviews we knew that Tier 3 vocabulary was already an integral part of lesson planning and delivery across the curriculum. Tier 2, however, was a murkier area for teachers, many of whom felt overwhelmed by the vast quantity of Tier 2 words at their disposal. At this stage, it was important to emphasise that the most effective vocabulary to teach is not prescribed, and so teachers have to make decisions based on their knowledge of what Tier 2 words students are most likely to encounter in multiple contexts in their subject and beyond. A further factor to consider is which words will support students in accessing more challenging conceptual ideas. A useful basis for these decisions is Averil Coxhead’s academic word list. In 2000, Coxhead published the findings from her research into the most frequent and widely-used words used in core academic vocabulary. Coxhead’s research is based on a corpus of 400 written academic texts, equalling about 3.5. million words in total. The texts range across 28 different subject areas and four disciplines: Arts, commerce, law and science. Included on the list are only the words that appeared at least 100 times in the corpus as a whole and at least ten times in each of the four disciplines. There are 570 words overall, for example analysis, estimate indicate and variable. Whilst there are a multitude of worthwhile Tier 2 words outside of the academic word list, this can be a useful starting point.

Explicitly Teaching Vocabulary is More than Just Using Vocabulary

Finally, for going forward and ensuring successful outcomes from this whole-school literacy strategy it was crucial to clarify what is meant by explicit vocabulary instruction. Often, vocabulary is introduced to students through modelling, most frequently through the teacher’s own language use. This modelling is vital and a necessary part of the students’ exposure not only to new vocabulary, but also privileged discourses. However, for explicit vocabulary instruction, students must also make use of the vocabulary themselves, practising using the words in different contexts and on numerous occasions both verbally and in writing. The three strategies that we are adopting to ensure explicit vocabulary instruction across the school are:

  1. Sentence stems: Students complete a sentence stem that contains the new word. For example, I used the evidence to… .
  2. Test sentences: Provide some sentences that make sense with the vocabulary and some that do not. For example, I followed the method to cook the pie or The pie was a method.
  3. Images: When introducing new words ask students to draw a visual image that will help to explain what the word means.

Drilling down into how well these three strategies have been embedded across departments will form the next phase on this whole-school intervention, with the ultimate aim being that when it comes to vocabulary, every student has the right tool for the job.


Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2013.

Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Marzano, 2004.

Fran Haynes


This entry was posted in CPD Events, General Teaching, Teaching Forums and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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