Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: Ideas for Primary Schools

Over the past few years we have been embedding explicit vocabulary instruction as a key whole-school literacy strategy here at Durrington. You can read about our vocabulary work here.

As part of developing this area of our curriculum, we are keen to explore how primary schools are using explicit vocabulary instruction and potential ways in which we can integrate practices to ensure a smooth and effective literacy transition from KS2 to KS3.

With this in mind, this week’s blog has been written by Laura Braun, Year 5 and 6 teacher and English Lead at Bury CE Primary School in West Sussex. In her blog, Laura explains how her school is using strategies to teach tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary and the impact these have had so far.

Changes to our Practice

After attending training and reading lots (see references below) we started to make some plans for how to explicitly teach vocabulary.

We judge tier 2 and 3 vocabulary to be of equal importance. Tier 3 words enable you to learn more about a subject and tier 2 words help to use that tier 3 knowledge. The activities that we use are appropriate for both tiers.

Initially, we decided as a staff which of Coxhead’s tier 2 words we thought would be most important for our children to know by the end of Year 6. These are specific to our school, but may well be similar in other schools. We then divided these up into year groups and will now teach these in the year groups we have decided. Some of these have straight forward links to ‘topics’ that we are already teaching. For example, the tier 2 words ‘chronology’ and ‘source’ link perfectly to the historical units on the Maya. Some are much harder to link with a unit and will just be taught in a stand-alone way, like ‘perceive’. Some like ‘interpret’ we will be using regularly but we will still make sure that they are explicitly taught in the predefined year group.

There are many activities that we could use to help retrieval and build children’s confidence with vocabulary, but we have chosen to start with a few.

Initially we start by telling the children the meaning of the word. We don’t ask for what they think it means – this muddies the water if they don’t all have a secure understanding. We also make sure that our definitions do not use other tier 2 words – we keep it simple. We talk about linguistic links as well, for example root words, origin of the word, where the word may be seen and use it in sentences verbally.

We give the children a ‘child friendly but exact’ definition and an example. These are on show on the wall as well as in their books and on the knowledge organisers for that unit (you can read more about knowledge organisers here).

Vocab Match

We cut up the vocabulary and definitions and mix them up. Then, either individually, in pairs or as a class we match the words and definitions. Then we go through together to ensure they know the right answers.

Frayer Models

With the word in the centre of the page the children have to draw a picture to illustrate the word, write any roots words or linguistic links, use it in a sentence and write a definition.

Vocab Bingo

The children either have the vocab or the definitions on a bingo grid. I then call out either the definition or the word and the first child to have 5 correct wins.

Finding synonyms and explaining what it means verbally or in writing also form part of our work.

There are also dojo points available for using the word in their work and finding it in their reading.

Supporting Research Evidence

Evidence suggests that regular recall of vocabulary (and facts in general) will aid retention and that a child with a poor vocabulary will not have as great a life chance as those with wide vocabularies. We see in class that those children who can read fluently, both texts and questions, are able to access more knowledge, they are more articulate and can then discuss and analyse better. We also want them to be prepared for their secondary schooling and secondary teachers tell us that knowing this vocabulary will give them a ‘flying start’ to their KS3 education. Didau tells us that “A poor vocabulary is a huge barrier to academic success.”  The work of Gee explores how Children use 2 different ‘languages’ – a primary discourse and a secondary discourse​. Primary discourse is home language – it may not be the ’Queen’s English’ and is usually linked to cultural backgrounds and affluence of family​. Secondary discourse – school language –expectations at school are different to home . Children may be expected to express themselves differently at home and at school. Generally, for white ‘middle class’ children the primary and secondary discourse is same. Conversely, children from different backgrounds might need to make a huge jump in vocabulary to attain secondary discourse. ​ As teachers we are responsible for enabling children to learn the vocabulary​ and its inherent concepts that are part of the secondary discourse.

Lastly, according to The Communication Trust “There is strong evidence to show that the development of speech, language and communication in the early years has a profound and far reaching impact on a child’s life chances.”

The Impact So Far…

Anecdotally, our children across school are more confident in both using and understanding the vocabulary that we have taught. We have decided to ‘assess’ them at the end of each unit, not by using a test but by our knowledge of the children (this may be harder in a large school.) We track this using the ‘Insight’ tracking program.

We have only been using this method for the past 2 terms and it is still in its infancy but we have high hopes!

Next Steps

  1. We need to work out where and how best to make sure the tier 2 vocabulary that doesn’t link directly with topics is taught.
  2. We also need to make sure that explicit vocabulary instruction is given the same priority across school, including with TAs and returning teachers or new staff.
  3. We need to regularly assess whether the tier 2 words that we have chosen are still appropriate and if they need putting into different year groups.

Advice for Teachers Who Are Looking to Do Something Similar

  • You can access our Tier 2 word lists by group (KS2 words have definitions, KS1 words don’t yet!)  and these will be a good start. Please see the link below.
  • Don’t try to make the activities too long – 5 minutes is enough.
  • Try to make the activities happen regularly –  3 times a week if possible.
  • Decide on the words that you would like to focus on as a whole staff – each teacher will know what is important for their children better than anyone else.
  • If you are a subject leader implementing the process, then make sure that everyone in the team knows why it is important and give them prepared things to use. Perhaps have a staff meeting jointly creating resources.

Further Reading


https://learningspy.co.uk/literacy/closing-language-gap-building-vocabulary/   David Didau

https://blog.bedrocklearning.org/blog/teaching-tier-two-words ​

https://primarytimery.com/2017/10/28/the-3d-curriculum-that-promotes-remembering/  Clare Sealy​

https://classteaching.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/teaching-tier-2-vocabulary/ ​


Beck, McKeown and Kucan – Bringing words to life – 2nd edition​

Alex Quigley – Closing the Vocabulary Gap​



https://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/most-frequent  Averil Coxhead Tier 2

Bury CE Primary Tier 2 words list



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