Grade-Level Vocabulary Lists? October 06 2009

Are you salivating with the hope that we have vocabulary lists by grade level? It must be because you know how difficult it is to find free resources when it comes to vocabulary lists.

The bad news is that after hours of research, I found few free resources accessible to teachers concerning vocabulary by grade level. There are often introductory or sample activities, but further access to resources usually requires a purchase or a membership or a book of some kind. 

The good news is that you don’t need pre-made vocabulary lists. There’s always a spectrum of ability levels in your classroom, and some kids will burn through any list you give them, while others will struggle with grade-level vocabulary. Plus, your students also need to build vocabulary in context of what they’re studying. So after further reflection, I came up with helpful strategies to save time and energy building vocabulary lists that will help your students, along with guidance concerning the free resources I found.

First, here are four techniques to provide kids with a variety of vocabulary building opportunities.

Start with a Word Wall

When I first started teaching, I thought word walls were just for primary grades – they’re not! Word walls provide visual reminders of various vocabulary words collected and studied throughout the year. They also provide differentiated instruction to address students at different places on the learning spectrum – some students will need more reinforcement of basic words, while others will need practice with more difficult words - Both can be front and center on your Word Wall!

Curriculum-Rich Words

When you approach a unit of study – usually in content-rich subjects like Social Studies or Science – take a minute to look through it and write down ten words that are higher-level and directly relate to that unit.

Here’s an example. When I teach Matter to my fourth graders, the first thing I do when preparing that unit is to review the content-rich vocabulary. There’s a range of words, from solid, gas and liquid, to exothermic, endothermic, and chemical reaction. As I start flipping through the unit, my pen moves faster and faster, recording interesting, simple and often difficult words.

I’ll bet that you can’t come up with just ten vocabulary words…you’ll come up with twenty. Or even more.

This is great news! I have found over the years that more relevant and sophisticated the vocabulary to a unit of study, the more interested students become.

Literature Based Words

What kind of reading programs do you participate in with your students? Guided Reading? Literature Circles? District-mandated basal curriculum?

No matter if you use one or a combination of reading programs, there are vocabulary words that can be identified not by you (or the curriculum), but by your students. There are a few ways to do this:


Pass post-it flags or the small rectangles out to your students. When they find a difficult or important word in the story, they write the word down on the post-it and stick it on the edge of the page where they found the word. Set the parameters for how many words they need to identify per page – for example, three to five words.

Highlighter Tape

Students can’t write in their novels or basal readers, but you want them to highlight words that are difficult or important. Highlighter tape is a great tool for this exercise. Have some in the center of each small group so students can use as needed (you’ll probably have to have a discussion on how to appropriately use highlighter tape so it doesn’t become a toy).

ABC Chart

When students identify difficult or important words as they read, they can plug them into the My ABC Chart under the appropriate letter. At the end of reading time, have a classroom ABC chart available (print it out, make it an overhead, and have a volunteer or assistant make one on poster paper) to keep track of everyone’s suggestions, or place them on your word wall at the front of the room. (Later, include your vocabulary in a math lesson - make a graph of the most common letters where students plugged words into their ABC charts, then find the mean, median and mode).

Find Patterns

The spelling programs Making Words and Making Big Words are great for the student-centered exploration of word patterns. Take some of these words and include content-rich and literature-based words for a more comprehensive spelling list. Are there any patterns that your students can observe?

Free Resources on the Web

After all this searching and reflection, I wasn’t ready to give up. I wanted FREE vocabulary lists, and I’m stubborn! So after some research, here are resources that I found:

Fry's List of High Frequency Words - I found this list of 600 high frequency words arranged by group - a good jumping-off point!

Study Stack – there are a variety of lists already made, or you can upload your lists and have students practice them on the computer.

Quizlet – This is similar to Study Stack. – lists of vocabulary words by subject that may or may not apply to your students and the context of their studies.

There’s no easy way to get free vocabulary lists by grade level. There are professional development books for each grade, which can get expensive. There are also many services on the web that require a paid membership in order to access vocabulary lists.

But so what? You have plenty of great ideas now that will benefit your students. And these ideas were free!