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Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

posted Feb 15, 2018, 2:39 PM by Helen Ralston   [ updated Feb 17, 2018, 1:22 AM ]

In this blog about explicit vocabulary instruction there are four sections, please read the whole lot (it will make the most sense and make me happy!) or skip to the relevant section: 

A.Journey & Rationale

B. Approach including @Positivteacha resources

C.Tweaking, Adapting and Creating Resources:

     C.1 Definitions

     C.2 Questions

     C.3 Display

     C.4 Self-Quizzing on Quizlet

     C.5 Engaging Parents 

D. Copies of the Resources 

A.Journey & Rationale 

During the summer holidays 2017, I was very intrigued by the ideas people were posting about explicit vocabulary instruction. In ten years as an English teacher, this is not something I had taught in a systematic way. Yes, of course I teach English specific terminology (aka Tier 3 vocabulary) and addressed some tier 2 vocabulary as thrown up by the texts we read with either well-prepared visual glossaries displayed or more haphazard explanations.

But nothing more comprehensive than that.

My current teaching context is that I’m teaching fourteen teenagers (Year 10/Year 11) in a small school that is for pupils with a statement/EHCP for Autism.  I am guiding them towards completing age-appropriate, national qualifications (in our case good old IGCSE English Language) whilst simultaneously trying to explicitly help them learn a whole host of other social skills that many of us take for granted – but that’s a separate post.

I had identified that one barrier to my pupils accessing the unseen extracts in the IGCSE exam was that they were “word poor.”  This realisation drove my text selection for the Autumn term: we would tackle the lengthy wonder that is Northern Lights by Philip Pullman as its level of vocabulary is challenging (eg 'skua', 'duplicitous', 'filched'). I would weave the relevant exam skills into the study of that text:  create directed writing opportunities based passages from the novel (Q1), mock up “Q2s” from the novel and find thematically linked non-fiction to practice note-making and summarising skills (Q3).

However, I wanted some explicit vocabulary instruction too.  I browsed and perused many different approaches and templates and think the below are great:

I read a number of blogs, including this one from David Didau  which summarises the tiers of vocabulary.

B. Approach

I also wasn’t quite ready to commit to a full, costed programme such as Bedrock Vocabulary.    I then came across @positivteacha’s very generous sharing of the first 4 weeks of a vocabulary programme he was introducing to his pupils.  I liked the deliberate format and could see how it could fit into our relatively short lessons:

  •   Slide 1 - Introduce word
  •   Slide 2 - Provide explanation (rather than dictionary definition)
  •   Slide 3 - Example sentence
  •   Slide 4 - Then some short structured questions/reflections to get the pupils using/familiar with the word.
  •  4 words per week followed by a 1 side HW sheet to consolidate.
  •  Every 4 weeks, pause, consolidate the 12 words learnt already.

He has recently blogged about it here which you should all read.  

His approach felt manageable for my pupils and for me dipping my toe into explicit vocabulary instruction. 

Steps 5 and 6 are also backed up by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve: the initial decline in retention is sharp therefore it is necessary to consolidate the four words in that week’s homework – we give our HW on a Monday and it is due on Friday.    Doing monthly “pauses” where you recap (a) the last 12 words in a MCQ homework sheet and (b) an interleaved mix of ALL words learnt so far in the recap activity in lesson provide further “boosts” to their retention of the new vocabulary.

A nice summary of some of theory that underpins Matt’s (and now my own) approach is collected here by @Impact Wales:

I set this as one of my performance management targets for 2017-2018, ordered Bringing Words to Life and off I went:

Nb.  The structure for writing our PM objectives was inspired by a share from @MissJLud.

C.Tweaking, Adapting and Creating Resources 

I’ve now run this for three half-terms, and have just spent the last five hours or so creating the resources for half-term four, so I’m obviously committed to this approach.  I would like to share the resources I’ve made and explain a few of the decisions I’ve made which have evolved from Matt’s excellent work to particularly suit my cohort of students.

C.1 Definitions

I quickly realised that my pupils needed the definition in their books, directly above the three-four prompt questions.   The three or four prompt questions are designed to “gets students actively involved with thing about and using the meanings right away.” (p54 Beck et al).

I print out these four particular slides each week as many of my pupils have fine motor control issues which means that lengthy writing is a big challenge.

Therefore, I added a top bar to these slides with the definition:

This meant I needed to trim down the definition from the (sometimes) lengthy explanations offered in the Learner tab of Collins web as Matt recommends – and is supported by Beck et al’s assertion that student friendly explanations are much better than definitions (p43-38).  Instead, I have opted for short sentences/more basic synonyms that they would be familiar with:

 C.2  Questions

If you are considering designing a similar approach, then reading Bringing Words to Life is invaluable, not least for the “Menu of Instructional Activities” that they provide in the Appendix which helpfully collects seven different approaches:  

  • Example/Non-Example
  • Word associations
  •  Generating situations, contexts and examples (this is the one that Matt’s initial set of materials and questions most utilised, and the category that I use the most in the initial lesson)
  • Word relationships
  • Writing
  • Returning to the story context
  • Puzzles

Below are some of the ways I have adapted and created different forms of questions to help them engage with the target word on the first day:

      (a)    Link to the novel we’re reading:

 (b)   Reinforce the identification of word classes and particularly how the word can look exactly the same but have a different function in the sentence:

     (c)    Challenge pupils to create other forms of the same word using word-formation patterns that they should now be familiar with - see number 3 below:

(d)   Challenge them to link new vocabulary to other words we’ve learnt, hoping that this acts as another example of retrieval for the initial word and also helps them re-organise and strengthen the network that the word is part of their memory.    

This was particularly inspired by this video on retrieval practice that I watched when I was completing EdX’s online MOOC called The Science of Learning--What Every Teacher Should Know.  As an aside, this was an EXCELLENT piece of self-directed, self-paced, FREE CPD and they are opening the course again from 7th March 2018 so do check it out here:

(e) Deliberately get them to address misconceptions (ie ambiguous vs. ambivalent)

C.3 Display

We have a growing word wall where each week the four new words are added alongside a small image to help them remember the meaning.  I reinforce word classes by always using red for verbs, purple for nouns, blue for adjectives.   This display helps them complete the “Which other words does this connect to” question.

C.4 Regular Quizzing

It is clear that pupils need multiple exposures to the new piece of knowledge before it is successfully stored in the long term memory:  Peps McCrea suggests that “three or four well-spaced retrievals are often sufficient to generate a fairly long-lasting memory” (p85)  whilst Stuhl (as included in the sketchnote above) recommend it’s 10-12.   Either way, it’s lots! 

We’ve tried to systematically build this in through the “pause weeks” but more retrieval practice would be even better.

Again, thanks to Twitter, I heard about Quizlet and decided to make my own set.  It was so quick and easy! You simply copy and paste your word and definition and it does the rest for you.   I simply add the four new words each week and then Quizlet is this ever-growing bank of words all ready to provide spaced, interleaved practice with very little further input from you!

My pupils love it!  There is as variety of activities from listening to the definition and typing the word, to a frantic timed match-up activity to one that is like a Meteor version of Tetris.    We get out the laptops for 15 mins every few weeks and they pick an activity and play. I haven’t yet explored upgrading to a teacher account as I wanted to see if they engaged with it first.  However, if student also makes an account (free) then Quizlet starts being strategic about which words it offers them, giving them words that they get wrong more often etc.

You can find all my words so far here: Misshelenralstons Tier 2 Vocabulary  

Do have a play, I honestly think that this is one of the most efficient “time in, results out” resources I’ve made in a long time.

C.5 Engaging Parents

I provide parents with a termly “cheat sheet” of all the words and definitions.  This was supplemented by a youtube video explaining how to use it and how easy it is to quiz their child – do excuse the sound quality!

I email out the whole half-term’s homework, list of words and a reminder of the youtube video. 

Again, this cheat sheet is a resource that “earns” the amount of time it takes to create, because we laminate copies and keep them in school too as a self-help resource for if pupils are stuck with HW, quizlet etc. It empowers our TAs to also be able to quiz pupils.

C. Copies of all resources 

 Go to this dropbox link for a folder with:

  • All the powerpoints for the initial lessons 
  • All the homework / display 
  • The parental cheat sheets

Go to this link for all the associated quizlet flashcards and games: Misshelenralstons Tier 2 Vocabulary  


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction - 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press.

McCrea, P. (2017). Memorable Teaching: Leveraging memory to build deep and durable learning in the classroom - 1st edition.  Great Britain: Amazon.