What is Pre-Teaching (and is it just about Vocabulary?)

Pre-teaching is the teaching of knowledge, vocabulary, and skills required for an upcoming lesson. It is most commonly used for English Language Teaching (ELT) but can be used by any teacher for any lesson.

what is pre teaching of vocabulary

Before diving into some examples, it’s important to set the parameters for what pre-teaching is and isn’t.

Generally, pre-teaching refers to the teaching of knowledge shortly before a main lesson or unit of work so that students will be able to complete the main unit of work successfully.

It’s not the use of ‘prior knowledge‘ or a staged curriculum. These are longer-term concepts that are structured to help students in their overall educational trajectory. Pre-teaching, on the other hand, is a one-off event designed to lay the foundations for a single lesson or unit of work.

Here, we’re just referring to the idea of identifying students’ gaps in knowledge in the lead up to a lesson, and attempting to bridge that gap so that the upcoming lesson will be successful.

Let’s jump into some examples.

7 Examples of Pre-Teaching

1. Vocabulary Lists

Vocabulary lists are the most common form of pre-teaching the help English language learners prepare for an upcoming lesson. The teacher gives the students a list of words that need to be used in the upcoming unit of work. The students study the words so that they will be able to use them in the lesson.

But it’s not just English language teachers who use this strategy.

It’s so commonly used in classrooms that teachers don’t even give it a term: we just do it naturally! When I’m about to start a unit on shapes with my Grade 1 class, you bet “triangle”, “hexagon” and “pentagon” are going to be in our words list for the week!

One of the downsides of this method is that you teach the word “out of context”. This means students might know the words but not know how to use and apply them. So, when we go into the main lesson, there might still be a learning curve as students may still struggle to comprehend the words in context.

2. Flipped Learning Homework

Flipped learning is an approach to education where lesson content is presented at home for homework before the main lesson occurs. What we used to teach in the classroom is now presented for homework. This model came about because we realized that we spent far too much of our time talking at students in the classroom. We can just give them a video! Then, in the classroom, we can actually discuss the ideas.

You could consider flipped classrooms to have a strong element of pre-teaching in them. The idea is to present all the ‘knowledge’ before hand, so in the classroom the main event can be student-centered activities!

It’s reasonable that some people might say this isn’t really pre-teaching because the content taught in the homework section is the “main event” knowledge for the unit of work.

But, I’d argue it’s still a form of pre-teaching. Let me know what you think – tweet me your thoughts! @helpfulprof

Related: 27 Pros and Cons of Homework

3. Preparatory Research

I’ll often ask my students to interview their family about an upcoming classroom topic. If we’re studying “immigration”, I might ask them to go home and gather some information about when their family migrated to the country and which country they came from originally.

This preparatory research gets students into the mindset needed for the main lesson. They come to class with a little bit of the necessary knowledge: that 99% of us are immigrants, that we’re a diverse bunch of people, and we all have different experiences and cultures to draw upon in our past.

Here’s another example: once, I asked my students to go home and take note of how many hours they spent playing outside and how many hours they spent watching TV – every night for a week! They didn’t know it, but I was making sure they had the skill of survey research so when it came to teaching about it in class, I knew they all had experience doing it. It warmed them up for the main event so it was easier to teach.

4. Literature Analysis

I love teaching Grade 6. My favorite part about it is reading novels together. We’ll spend afternoons for weeks on end reading our novels together in class. And sure, part of this is so they can improve their reading skills.

But it’s more than that.

We have to read the book before we can start doing our literature analysis of it! Here, the act of reading the book together is the “pre” part of the teaching, and the main event is the subsequent analysis of the characters, plot, moral of the story, etc. But without that preparatory work of reading the book, the teaching can’t happen at all!

5. Preview Lessons

I love a good preview lesson. This is the sort of lesson that we have on Friday in preparation for the week ahead. During these lessons, I give students the baseline knowledge required.

That might be some vocabulary, but it could be other things too – like knowledge of history, or some math skills that might be required in order to complete the lesson next week.

By presenting those baseline skills before hand, the students come to class on Monday with the knowledge and skills required to really dig into the lesson content.

6. Guest Presenters

Inviting in a Guest Presenter into the class can be a great way to inspire students in preparation for a unit of work. At our school, we like to ask in a first nations presenter prior to teaching about first nations issues.

This does two things: it provides some base knowledge required for the lesson, and creates a buzz around the lesson.

We can often then refer back to the knowledge the guest presenter provided during the unit of work. We can talk about when the guest showed us something, used certain words, or talked about an idea, to help students to create connections in their minds.

Here again, the preparatory session sets students up for success in the lesson.

7. Assigned Readings

As a university professor, I assign readings to my students all the time. That’s because I need them to go home and learn about the ideas we’re going to be talking about. I want my students to come to class ready to talk, debate, argue, and present their ideas!

An assigned reading might be considered part of the ‘core curriculum’, but it’s not – or at least, not for me. I want my students to know about the ideas in the readings, but in reality what’s most important in my classes is my students’ ability to critically examine ideas and talk to each other about them.

That’s the main event!

Criticisms (and Defenders)

Pre-teaching is the subject of significant criticism. Some examples include:

  • Students need Ambiguity. Chia Susan Chong believes that it’s okay for students to not know every word in the text. The point of reading is for comprehension, and by focusing too hard on every single word you’re drawing attention away from the main goal of reading.
  • It Crowds the Curriculum. You might be adding too many lessons and more content into your course and unnecessarily burdening students with more homework. Don’t add information that’s not necessary!

But some defenders highlight its benefits:

  • It’s our job to Prepare Students. A lesson that has too much new information is too steep of a learning curve. By pre-teaching, we’re preparing students for what’s to come, giving them the best chance to succeed.
  • It’s better to Teach it Right the First Time. If you don’t spend time preparing students and putting them in the best situation to succeed, you’ll end up having to return to the content to re-teach it and implement remedial education strategies.


Some people might argue I’ve significantly expanded the definition of pre-teaching in this article. But I’ve tried to be consistent with the core premise of the concept. I tried to identify examples of when we get students prepared and give them baseline knowledge and skills before the main event. For me and my teaching, anything I get my students do in the lead-up to the lesson itself to prepare my students is still teaching – it’s just a different type of teaching we might refer to as ‘pre-teaching’.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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