vocabulary words

Vocabulary: words, words everywhere but which ones do you teach?

Posted on: October 29, 2019

Written by: Stephen Parsons

Many studies have shown that vocabulary impacts on literacy, learning and even life outcomes which is why vocabulary attracts such interest.

As a result, there is much more focus on vocabulary in the classroom. Some teachers have really been bitten by the ‘word bug’ and developed truly inspirational practice and I have witnessed fantastic practice from Early Years right through to secondary. But even for advanced practitioners a common question is ‘which words should I teach?’

In their ground-breaking work Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2002) introduced the concept of sorting words into three tiers based on how their degree of usefulness. With ‘Word Aware’ we adapted the Beck et al method, because whilst their approach works well in English it does not discriminate so well in other curriculum areas, and particularly between useful and less useful technical vocabulary. The ‘Word Aware’ categories are:

The Word Aware Categories

  • Anchor:  for everyday words that most of the class will know
  • Goldilocks:  these words are the most useful words that will be encountered and used again. It includes the advanced general words, but also the useful technical vocabulary
  • Step-on:  the more technical words, that are particularly topic specific

Smart technology

Student Experiences 

Vocabulary reflects students’ experiences but also their word learning abilities, so within any class there will be a large variation. There will also be a big variation between localities, as students attending a rural school have very different world knowledge to those attending an inner-city school. When selecting which words to teach the focus is on the class average. There may be students who need support with ‘anchor’ words, and others who need to be challenged with more ‘step-on’ words.

user engagement


Words may be sourced from any curriculum area. For literacy, whole class shared books are a great source of vocabulary. Once practitioners get skilled at identifying ‘Goldilocks’ words this can be done spontaneously, without specific planning. For all other subjects, including maths, science and humanities, words can be sourced from any relevant list or scheme of work and then sorted into the ‘anchor, Goldilocks and step-on’ categories.

Students’ understanding of ‘anchor’ words needs to be checked, as there can be surprising gaps and ‘step-on’ words will need to be explained, but ‘Goldilocks’ words are the words to focus on with direct teaching.

Select the right words and your students will hear and read them regularly and the natural word learning process will be utilised.  With very little extra effort on your part your students’ understanding of these words will deepen. Chose ‘step on’ words and because they are too rare their understanding will not have the opportunity to develop and instead will decrease over time.

» Read additional articles