Your Key Words List / Glossary Probably Stinks. Design A Better One.

You know you need to give students a glossary of key terms for your subject. Let’s be honest – you did one of three things:

  1. You went to the back of the textbook, or the end of the chapter, and picked out the key words they’ve already listed out for you.
  2. There’s a glossary of key terms the exam board provides. You handed that out.
  3. There’s been a glossary of key words in the scheme of work that someone made way before your time, but it’s there, so you went with it.


That’s why your glossary stinks. So how do you produce a better one?

Well, it starts with first understanding some fundamental curriculum principles. Remember, the output (the key words list) is the result of (hopefully) some thinking that’s gone beforehand. But does that thinking make sense? I’m going to give you some things to think about, so you can design the best damn key terms sheet that’s ever been designed.

“Curriculum design is about choice – choosing what, when, how and to whom we teach.”

From ‘Symbiosis’ – by Kat Howard and Claire Hill

Michael Young (2000) comes up with this concept called ‘powerful knowledge’. It’s specialised knowledge, not picked up through common experiences, for which pupils need to attend schools to acquire. It requires that teachers be specialists in their subjects. In ‘The ResearchEd Guide to the Curriculum’, they talk about determining what needs to be taught and making the how subservient to this. So the first step here is to sit down and get really clear on what it is you’re going to teach your students (Note: not what’s going in your key terms list), given the different constraints that you have – e.g. the requirements of the specification, the past papers, hours on a timetable, which key stage your students are at, etc. etc.

Part of that thinking involves also being really clear on the core knowledge that is to be retained in students’ long-term memory. Now, please understand: memorisation of this core knowledge is the first step toward your students developing a relationship with the subject that’ll allow a beginner to start their journey toward understanding and mastering that subject. Of course, no subject is all about memorising pre-planned facts and concepts, but this is a critical first step in students being able to develop connections and schema in their minds to help them make new connections, and develop new ideas and applications within that subject’s domain. This core knowledge is the “cognitive architecture” on which they will build their understanding. Plus, it’ll be things that show up over and over again in the subject which, if they don’t understand it, will stop them from accessing future learning and developing even stronger schema. Basically, part of this knowledge are things that will act as a bridge between where they are now and what will come later on. Do you see where I’m going here? This is what your key terms list / glossary should be based on. Your key terms list is a mechanism to help them acquire core knowledge.

So, I’ll give you an example:

Within Sociology, these words are not only foundational to understanding the subject, but they will come up in every single topic within the GSCE and A-Level: Socialisation, norms, values, patriarchy, socialism, capitalism, and labour. There are others, but this is a good starting point. Now, these words might not lend themselves neatly to the list of words that the first chapter of the textbook says students need to learn (also, they’re probably all jumbled up by the exam board, which puts them in with all the others words and in alphabetical order), but as I sit down and think about how my students will start their journey into understanding sociological concepts, they are vital, so they will be on my first list of key terms I get my students to memorise. Get it? You have to do the prerequisite curriculum thinking first, before you design the tools; the output; the mechanisms; the stuff you’re going to give to your students.

So where do you go from here?

Do the curriculum thinking. Decide what forms the core knowledge in the subject you’re teaching. Only then can you sit down and design your glossary. Part of that, is deciding the order in which students will access and learn the different words in the glossary. There’s your plan for designing the best key words list ever. Away you go.


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