Research School Network: Unwrapping the gift of command words

Unwrapping the gift of command words

by Huntington Research School
on the

I like words.

Hardly a revelatory statement from a former (that should probably read failed’) journalist and a current English teacher. However, starting to develop the vocabulary programme at my school is making me like words even more, and it’s the more familiar words that are springing the surprises.

Staff at our school are starting to consider the balance between what Beck referred to as tier 2 (high frequency across written texts) and tier 3 (subject specific) words in their subjects, ensuring careful selection and explicit instruction around those that will make the most meaningful difference. Understandably, several departments are looking at the importance of tier 2 command words in exam questions.

All subjects will be familiar with words such as explain, analyse and evaluate and how they act as a gateway to effectively (another important tier 2 word!) answering a question. Not fully understanding that crucial word may mean that even with a wonderful knowledge base in that subject a pupil fails to get many marks on a question because they have not followed the command.

I imagine all teachers at some point have taken steps to define these key tier 2 words. Indeed exam boards often provide their own glossaries for use, which in the maelstrom of every day teaching feel like quick wins to coach these crucial commands. There is a danger though that these definitions can still be too thin and not provide enough word depth’ for pupils.

Not only that, the bland exam board definition may not even make the teacher think carefully enough about what is required by the pupils. Unpicking the words in itself acts as a useful planning process.

And this is where the surprises were sprung. Three tier 2 words that perhaps had become all too familiar to me, when unpicked, offered up new possibilities and depths for teaching.


  • plain’ comes from the Latin planus’ meaning flat
  • ex’ meaning out’ so it means to flatten out/​smooth out an idea to make it clearer. I’d never thought of teaching it in such a way (a way which lends itself beautifully to some supporting images).


  • Greek etymology: analyein – to loosen or cut apart/​away from. You are cutting away smaller parts from a whole and looking at them in more detail.


  • evaluate: value, worth, importance
  • e’ prefix is shortened from ex- meaning out’ so it means to work out, or decide the value

I deliberately put these three words in that order as it establishes a hierarchy of skill (which is normally reflected in the marks available) in the commands. Evaluation requires elements of explanation and analysis, with the added extra of making a judgement. Helping pupils establish this hierarchy could assist further in their understanding of the terms.

So how might this play out in the classroom?

A question from the new AQA Geography Paper 2 exam: Evaluate the effectiveness of an urban transport scheme you have studied. [9 marks]

Let’s assume that all the pupils in a year 11 class are happy with their understanding of the words effectiveness, urban and scheme’. (This is a big assumption because it would require a significant teaching input. Exams across all subjects are littered with examples of questions that require significant vocabulary knowledge to access). For a pupil to achieve good marks in this question they will need to identify (another important tier 2 word) different features of a transport system: perhaps things like cost, speed, punctuality and volume of people that can be transported. A true evaluation will assign different values for those features and then reach an overall judgement about the effectiveness. Demonstrating this on a scale can be useful so pupils can see how evaluation inherently contains a range.

It’s an exam question full of complexity, and just exemplifies again the demands of the new curriculum.

But just taking a smidgen more time to unwrap the etymological and morphological layers of words can provide rich new meanings and images for students to hook their knowledge into. Properly understanding these command words may then allow students to unlock the higher marks in the exam answers by ensuring their response is matched to the purpose. These approaches also start to model for students the richness of words, and crucially, to introduce strategies for unwrapping their meaning. No doubt, you will also unwrap some new understanding of your own.

Marcus Jones, Huntington Research-lead: Literacy


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