For reading, school and life success, which words should we teach our kids? How should we do it?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

To do well at school and in life, kids and adults need to know and to use lots of words.

The words we know and use – our vocabulary – has a big impact on our success at school and work. Vocabulary is one of the Big 5 skills we need to read well; and school failure is often caused by under-developed literacy and language skills (Duncan & Murnane, 2011, Murnane et al., 2012). Arguably, a good vocabulary is more important that ever in the digital/knowledge age.

But there are so many words to learn, and so little time:

  • One research group estimates there are at least 520 million words in use in English (Corpus Contemporary American English, 2017).
  • Another group cites more than 2 billion words out there to learn (Cambridge English Corpus, 2017)!

1. Choosing the right words to teach matters (a lot)

Teaching a child a new word does not automatically improve the child’s knowledge of, or ability to learn, other words (e.g. Elleman et al., 2009). To make things worse, some kids find it really hard to learn new words, for example:

Kids with developmental language disorders may need to hear and use a word scores of times before they can be said to know the word well enough to use it in conversation. Learning new words for these kids takes lots of time and effort.

So which words should we teach kids to help them get the most out of school and their lives?

2. Some words are more useful than others

If you look at many educational products marketed to parents, teachers and speech pathologists, you’d think the most important words in the world are the names of farm animals, fruits and vegetables, forms of transport, colours and shapes; and concepts like “big”, “small”, “between”, “up”, and “after”. But how useful are these words in the real world? How often do adults talk or read about big, green frogs and little, purple grapes in general conversation? And don’t most kids – even kids with learning difficulties – pick up these easy to picture, high-frequency words from context at some point?

As kids move from Kindergarten to Year 12, the language used in books – including the words – becomes less easy to picture in their heads. Kids start with story-books about things they can see, hear, smell, touch and imagine moving: pigs and sheep and ducks and lions and trains and buses and trucks. But, by the end of school, kids are expected to read and understand histories, comedies, tragedies, poetry, philosophies, geographies, and treatises on maths and science. Books filled with:

  • abstract ideas and concepts that can’t be understood with our senses alone; and
  • words used in serious texts, but rarely if ever spoken in general conversation.

3. Kids (and adults) need school/academic/professional words

What kids really need for school and work success is an “academic vocabulary”: useful words that are used a lot in school books across different subjects, but not in general conversation (e.g. Baumann & Graves, 2010; Nagy & Townsend, 2012).

4. Where can I find an evidence-based list of academic words to teach?

Right here!

As a student speech pathologist, I struggled to find good words lists, and often ended up making my own – a time consuming process unsupported by evidence. But there are some great, free resources out there: if only I’d known where to look!

Way back in 2000, Dr Averil Coxhead published her “Academic Word List” (AWL). It’s used all over the world by teachers, speech pathologists, researchers, dictionary makers, people learning English as a second language, and website and app makers (Coxhead, 2016). The AWL contains 570 word families that make up about 10% of the total words used in academic texts outside the 2,000 most frequently used words in English. The full list can be accessed here.

In 2013, Professor Charles Browne published a “New Academic Word List”, which can be accessed here.

For those of you looking for a useful list of words to teach, here is a list of the most frequent words in the original AWL list:


The words in bold are some of my personal favourites to teach school-aged kids. Why?

  • Verbs/action words (e.g. “analyse” (from “analysis”), “research”, “assume” and “indicate”), are so important to language development generally, and are used a lot in exams.
  • Words with Latin or Greek roots (e.g. “benefit”, “contract”, “specific”), can be used to help kids develop morphological awareness and general word-attack strategies for related words.
  • Words like “procedure” and “evidence” are used in the school curriculum in lots of different contexts, and can help build links to lots of other words (so-called “semantic networks”) (e.g. Baumann et al., 2010).
  • Words like “financial”, “legal”, “economic”, “theory”, “role”, “per cent” and “source” are highly useful words to know for people to participate meaningfully in society (and to avoid being exploited by others).

5. How should we teach academic words?

A mistake many educators and speech pathologists make is to teach words in lists, and/or to focus only on words’ definitions/meanings. This approach doesn’t tend to work well, especially for children with developmental language disorders.

At the single word level, we’ve talked about the “nuts and bolts” of how to teach new vocabulary before. Education and speech pathology research published over the last 20 years has improved our knowledge of how best to improve kids’ academic vocabularies. There’s even an acronym for it: “ALIAS”, which stands for “Academic Language Instruction for All Students”.

ALIAS principles to teach new words

When teaching students new words, we should:

  • do it while reading real books and other works (e.g. in novels and non-fiction articles), rather than through lists (e.g. Stahl & Nagy, 2006);
  • consciously choose “general purpose” academic words, like those listed above, rather than on basic words (like “car”) or specialised words used only in one context (like “photosynthesis”) (e.g. Lasaux et al., 2014);
  • teach word knowledge deeply by looking at words from lots of different angles, including:
    • different meanings of a word in different places, including general and specific meanings;
    • how the word is pronounced (its “phonology“);
    • how the word is spelled (its “orthography“);
    • how the word is structured, including its prefixes, root, and suffixes (its “morphology“); and
    • other words related to a word (e.g. Stahl & Nagy, 2006);
  • focus on teaching kids strategies to help them learn the process of how to get new words – not just the words themselves (e.g. Baumann et al., 2003);
  • give kids practice reading, writing, listening and saying the words (e.g. Beck et al., 2002);
  • give kids multiple exposures to new words, spaced out over time (e.g. Lasaux et al., 2014); and
  • emphasise interaction among students, with lots of opportunities for kids to work and talk together (Lesaux et al., 2014).

6. What does ALIAS/academic word teaching look like in practice?

In 2014, Professor Nonie Lesaux and colleagues published the results of their attempt to put the ALIAS principles into practice with more than 2,000 US-based Year 6 students from urban primary (‘middle’) schools (almost 1,500 were from an ESL background). The program:

  • went for 20 weeks, featuring nine, 2-week units;
  • units each consisted of a 9-day lesson cycle, and two 1-week review units;
  • had 45-minute daily lessons;
  • used short non-fiction articles featured in a kids’ magazine to teach the words;
  • used articles that were appropriate for Year 6 readers and contained academic words like those listed above; and
  • targeted 70 words, favouring academic words, but also some general words.

The researchers found that the program improved students’ vocabulary, morphological awareness, written expression and reading comprehension of texts that included the target words (but not reading comprehension generally), as well as overall oral language skills. Crucially, they found that the program had its most significant positive effects on students learning ESL and students who started the program with underdeveloped vocabulary – in other words, the students most at risk for academic failure.

The study had some limitations, including ceiling effects on some tests, and no measures of teacher buy-in or sustained use of strategies. But, overall, the study showed that ALIAS principles work in the “real world” to help school-aged kids learn, understand and use new academic words.

Clinical bottom line

Having a poorly-developed vocabulary increases a child’s risk of reading, school, and work failure. Teaching kids the right words – useful academic vocabulary – is crucial, especially for children at risk of academic failure. So, too, is teaching children new words in the right way.

Teachers, speech pathologists, and parents can access free, evidence-based available academic word lists to help choose the rights words. Kids learn new words best when teaching is based on the ALIAS principles (summarised above).

Free teacher/speech pathologist/parent resources

Free word lists

New General Service Word List – high frequency words for people learning ESL.
Business Service Word List – high frequency business words.
Ogden’s Basic English Core Vocabulary of 850 words (1932) – basic functional words.

Word corpora

Cambridge English Corpus

Free to use resources built on or for Academic Word Lists

Range Program (Heatley, Nation and Cox)

Sandra Haywood’s AWL Highlighter Tool

Principal sources:

(1) Lesaux, N.K., Kieffer, M. J., Kelley, J.G., & Harris, J.R. (2014). Effects of Academic Vocabulary Instruction for Linguistically Diverse Adolescents: Evidence from a Randomized Field Trial. American Educational Research Journal, 51(6), 1159-1194.

(2) Coxhead, H. (2016). Reflecting on Coxhead (2000), “A New Academic Word List”, TESOL Quarterly, 50(1), 181-185.

(3) Justice, L. (2017). Keynote address at the Speech Pathology Australia 2017 National Conference, Sydney, on 31 May 2017. (You can read more about Dr Justice’s fantastic work in literacy here.)


Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard