Disciplinary literacy

3 strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary

By Oliver Shrouder

10 Jan 2023

Students working with a teacher on a computer

Pre-teaching is a teaching strategy that involves introducing learners to new concepts before they are taught explicitly in the classroom.

This could include the instruction of subject-specific vocabulary learners should know before they begin a new topic, or it could involve the use of flipped learning to encourage learners to research a subject before a discussion in the classroom.

When done consistently and effectively, pre-teaching has the power to narrow attainment gaps between learners of different socioeconomic backgrounds, encouraging learners to excel in every subject. In this blog, we share three research-driven strategies for embedding your pre-teaching in the classroom, driving attainment without an unrealistic time investment.

Why do we pre-teach vocabulary?

A child’s vocabulary level at age four is a strong indicator of their attainment at 18. By the time learners enter primary school, their vocabulary level is already influenced by the vocabulary of their parents: learners who come from a language-rich background are equipped with a wider vocabulary than their peers. Without intervention, this attainment gap continues to widen, and peaks at a gap of over 18 months by the time learners sit their GCSEs.

Pre-teaching vocabulary is one of the many strategies schools can equip to target struggling learners and narrow language gaps. As learners progress through education, the vocabulary of academic texts becomes increasingly complex. While a confident reader from a language-rich background may pick up this new vocabulary, struggling readers are held back from achieving their full potential, which widens the word gap.

This also applies to non-English subjects such as Maths and Science; without consistent, dual-coded instruction of new keywords and concepts, your class may not grasp the definitions of subject-specific terminology at the same pace, leading to some learners being “left behind”.

Pre-teaching vocabulary allows teachers to place more emphasis on explicit vocabulary instruction for every learner. By prioritising vocabulary instruction, teachers can be sure that every learner in the classroom has the vocabulary knowledge to grasp new concepts and craft written responses that target mark schemes. Knowledge gaps can be identified and addressed before teaching even begins. As well as this, pre-teaching vocabulary allows the classroom lesson to function as a recap session for that taught vocabulary, improving long-term retention and boosting learners’ mastery of every topic.

What are the benefits of pre-teaching vocabulary?

Closing vocabulary gaps

Pre-teaching vocabulary ensures that every learner enters the classroom with the vocabulary they need to begin a new topic. Vocabulary knowledge is no longer left up to chance but instead is explicitly targeted and prioritised. As vocabulary knowledge is one of the most significant indicators of success later in life, closing vocabulary gaps through pre-teaching boosts attainment in every subject.

Increased visibility

If learners lack the vocabulary to communicate like experts, teachers may struggle to identify their confidence level with a particular subject - learners may understand a concept theoretically but be unable to demonstrate this knowledge in their writing. Pre-teaching vocabulary gives learners the tool to express their current confidence level, and this gives teachers visibility of each learner’s mastery, allowing them to personalise teaching and provide additional support to struggling learners.


Vygotsky, and later Rosenshine, identified that learners make the most progress when learning takes place in a zone of proximal development (ZPD). This zone indicates that learners are challenged, encouraging speedy progress, while difficult information is made accessible through scaffolding by the teacher. Pre-teaching is just one of the ways teachers can scaffold their instruction, moving learners further into that zone of proximal development. With the right scaffolding in place, learners gain confidence quickly and time is saved in the classroom.

Reading comprehension

Pre-teaching vocabulary helps to improve learners’ reading comprehension. Research suggests that learners need prior knowledge of up to 98% of the vocabulary in a text to comprehend it. Without explicit vocabulary instruction, some learners in the classroom may not have the vocabulary knowledge to access taught texts. Explicitly pre-teaching vocabulary ensures learners enter the classroom with the correct tools to unlock these texts and boost their reading comprehension.

Saves time in the classroom

One of the challenging hurdles teachers face when implementing a consistent vocabulary strategy is time, and there has never been less of it in the classroom. Prioritising explicit vocabulary instruction often sacrifices hours, from both planning and teaching.

However, pre-teaching vocabulary makes it easy to set vocabulary activities as homework, meaning teachers spend less time on explanation during the school day, and more time engaging with topics. Furthermore, time can be saved with a bespoke Tier 3 vocabulary curriculum, such as Bedrock Mapper, as teachers gain access to over 20,000 Tier 3 terms and over 100,000 engaging, contextualising vocabulary activities.

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Target disciplinary literacy with Mapper

Over 120,000 vocabulary activities across the curriculum, supporting learners in every subject.

How to select which words to pre-teach

Tier 3 vocabulary

For subjects containing a high level of specialised vocabulary, selecting vocabulary to pre-teach is simple. Subjects such as Biology and Physics are rich in vocabulary used only in their discipline. For example, a learner is unlikely to encounter the word titration outside of the Chemistry classroom. It is this subject-specific vocabulary that is most beneficial to be pre-taught.

As well as this, a lot of the unfamiliar Tier 3 vocabulary which learners need to know is listed in keyword glossaries on GCSE exam board websites and in textbooks. Pre-teaching this vocabulary can be as simple as moving it from a glossary to a richer, dual-coded method of teaching, such as through Bedrock Mapper. Subject-specific vocabulary lists can be found in teaching resources, such as our Tier 3 vocabulary lists, or on the website of your subject’s chosen exam board.

If words are not listed within a glossary, teachers can explore websites and textbooks to find the terminology which is most useful for their learners, enabling them to discuss subjects and topics like experts. For example, could a learner engage in a discussion about the art of Picasso without a strong knowledge of cubism? As well as this, teachers of all subjects can explore Mapper’s Bedrock-created content area and find recommendations for taught vocabulary in their subject, both for Tier 3 vocabulary and for Tier 2.

Tier 2 vocabulary

The word gap between learners begins to form at the age of 4 and continues to widen until the age of 18. This gap can widen further if Tier 3 vocabulary is not taught. However, much of the gap is a lack of confidence in using ambitious Tier 2 vocabulary, and this has an impact on every subject.

Alongside a specialised Tier 3 vocabulary curriculum, teachers of all subjects should be considering the impact of specific Tier 2 words on their curriculum. The word evaluate, for example, can mean different things depending on the subject it is being taught in, such as History or Maths. To discover which Tier 2 words teachers should be pre-teaching, it is important to check past exam papers and textbooks for your upcoming topic and pick out words which have a specific definition in your subject despite being used elsewhere.

In addition to Tier 3 terms, Mapper’s Bedrock-created content includes subject-specific definitions of Tier 2 terminology in vocabulary curricula, making it simple to address the language gap through pre-teaching both Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary.

3 strategies for pre-teaching vocabulary effectively

Once you have selected the vocabulary you will be pre-teaching, you can begin to implement the following strategies for pre-teaching effectively, whether you’re doing it in the classroom, as a homework task, or with the help of disciplinary literacy tools such as Bedrock Mapper.

Build visual connections

Dual coding is the practice of using different kinds of stimuli to help learners understand a concept and retain it in their long-term memories. An easy way to introduce dual coding to your pre-teaching is by using images alongside definitions to solidify learners’ understanding of new vocabulary.

By combining visual and verbal information, learners are able to practice applying taught knowledge from one context to another. This method is especially beneficial for Tier 3 vocabulary, as many subject-specific terms can be shown as diagrams or graphics – much more so than with ambitious Tier 2 vocabulary, which can be more descriptive and, therefore, subjective.

Here are some ideas you could use to build visual connections in your pre-teaching:

Word-picture match activities

Hand out worksheets with images/diagrams on one side and taught vocabulary on the other. Learners draw lines between the words and their corresponding images, encouraging links. To make this more challenging, throw in two examples of the same word, or ask learners to draw their own diagram for the keyword as they become more confident - this can be expanded on further with the use of a knowledge organiser template.

Prompt cards

When encountering a new word, give learners a list of prompt cards with questions they should be able to answer about the term. For example, ask learners via these cards whether the term in question should be able to make a sound, the Latin or Greek roots of the word (if applicable), synonyms and antonyms, etc. These prompt cards will help learners get in the habit of considering these questions when encountering new vocabulary, further deepening their understanding.

Image quizzes and activities

Image quizzes for new vocabulary work best when the images are linked to work completed in the lesson; this encourages learners to apply prior knowledge to new information. Teachers can access quiz-making software online to provide their own customised image quizzes using familiar pictures and diagrams to learners in the class.

Alternatively, for teachers seeking the benefits of dual coding their pre-teaching on a time constraint, Bedrock Mapper’s vocabulary activities each contain their own image quizzes, giving teachers the freedom to pick a pre-teaching activity from the shelf or edit it to include classroom images.

Ensure learners understand the definition

Pre-teaching is a fantastic way to identify misconceptions before they have an impact in the classroom, helping teachers to provide individualised scaffolding to learners who need it. However, identifying these misconceptions is only possible when your pre-teaching strategy includes methods for checking comprehension.

When learners encounter new vocabulary, encourage them to complete a Frayer model. This provides an opportunity for them to compare new words to synonyms and antonyms, give definitions in their own voice, and even create their own diagrams. Not only does this move learners closer towards mastery of the term, as well as providing them with their own custom revision resource to look back on, but it also creates a visual tool that teachers can use to correct misconceptions, scaffold effective use in context and embed understanding.

There are also multiple viewpoints on whether vocabulary should be taught alongside the topic in class, woven in-between taught content (interleaving) or taught separately (blocking). Each of these methods for sequencing vocabulary has its own benefits, but pre-teaching is the best method for linking vocabulary instruction completed at home or online to contexts in the classroom.

By linking home and digital learning to classroom teaching, teachers can ensure work set as homework has been understood. This is made a step easier when using a digital vocabulary tool, as completion can be tracked through self-marking data.

Making up one of Rosenshine’s key strands for effective scaffolding, low-stakes formative assessments give teachers further clarity on the confidence level of each learner. Rather than being taken as a formal test, teachers can get creative with the methods they use to assess learners, such as using classroom games, selecting learners at random, or viewing word quiz scores on Bedrock Mapper.

Use the words in context

To be certain that learners can communicate like experts using subject-specific vocabulary, encourage them to use this new vocabulary in context. Not only is this another marker for misconceptions, but it also provides learners with a safe space to experiment with new knowledge, making applications in exam halls and career spaces that bit less daunting. Ideally, learners should feel confident using new vocabulary in written and oral responses.

Teachers can encourage learners to chat amongst themselves about the topic being taught and listen to ensure the right subject-specific vocabulary is being used. By facilitating discussion, teachers have the freedom to contribute to the conversation and upgrade language, further boosting learners’ knowledge of Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary. As learners gain confidence using ambitious vocabulary in their spoken language, it becomes increasingly likely they will use the word in written responses.

Whether learners are hearing it in conversation, reading it in a textbook or using it in a written response, draw a clear link between the vocabulary of the lesson and their pre-taught vocabulary. This helps learners to see the real-world applications of their efforts at home or online, boosting their motivation to engage with future vocabulary instruction.

Finally, learners should be able to apply the vocabulary of pre-teaching to written responses – this can be assessed through writing prompts, practice exam questions or free-writing questions within Mapper’s vocabulary activities. Whether completed online or on paper, teachers can assess learners’ writing and see if knowledge of the vocabulary has been mastered. From there, all it takes is regular recapping to ensure long-term retention of the new term.

Pre-teaching on Bedrock Mapper

Teachers looking for a simple way to implement pre-teaching should look no further than Bedrock Mapper. With over 20,000 Tier 3 and subject-specific Tier 2 terms, and over 100,000 vocabulary activities, Bedrock Mapper gives teachers access to off-the-shelf pre-teaching content.

With just a few clicks, vocabulary plans can be sequenced to your classes. From there, Mapper’s bespoke reporting gives teachers across the curriculum insight into their learners’ progress, using low-stakes formative assessments to check for understanding. With data-driven insights into learners’ vocabulary knowledge, teachers can rest assured that their learners are well-equipped for contentful classroom learning.

Effortless Tier 3 vocabulary instruction

Over 120,000 vocabulary activities and 20,000 unique Tier 3 words, all taught through a deep-learning algorithm.