3 Types of Word Lists You Need to Know

Word lists come in several types.
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This weekend I sat in an educational writing webinar. Among the topics discussed were word lists. Discussions involving word lists can be confusing unless you know which type of list is being discussed.

Reading Level

Saturday we were discussing words listed by reading level. The book that I’ve always used as a reference for this is EDL Core Vocabularies. When I was writing test passages I had to look up the various words in my passage and make certain they weren’t too hard. For a fourth grade passage, this might mean that I could have 3 fourth grade words and the rest had to be third grade or lower.

The reading level of each word is determined by several things. How long is the word? This means both how many letters and how many syllables. How likely is the word to be familiar?

But this book hasn’t been updated in a while. There are words that we consider familiar that weren’t 10 years ago. That is why many writers use both EDL and The Children’s Writers Word Book. It was updated in 2006 so it doesn’t consider words like disk or computer to be as unusual as the editors of the EDL did. It was last updated in 1989.


Another type of word list is the vocabulary list. Some of these lists are similar to reading level lists. A “sight word” list are lists of words that students should be able to read on sight, meaning that they don’t need to sound the word out. These lists are frequently compiled for grades K-3.

If you are writing leveled readers for an educational company, you may also be given a vocabulary list. “Here are 10 words that you must include in your manuscript.”

Vocabulary lists and also be subject specific. If you are writing a book about camping, the publisher might want you to include the terms day pack, campground, canoe, gorp, and lantern.


Last but not least are themed word lists. I used themed lists to enrich and add depth to fiction. If my character is a swimmer, I might create a list of water and swimming words. If my character is interested in wolves or trains, I would create a list based on the appropriate topic.

Once I have that list, I can look for ways to use these words in my story. If I am describing the wind, it could howl (wolf) or scream (train). Someone who is struggling to make an uphill climb is panting (wolf) or chugging (train). A character is following a trail (wolf) or a track (train).

I’ve never had to use all three word-list types in one manuscript but it pays to know what they are and how to work with them. You never know when an editor will say “I need you to work with a word list” and you want to know what questions to ask.