Target Audience

  • Grades 1-4
  • ELLs & struggling readers

Program Benefits

  • Teaches the 4,000 most common and useful English words, which account for 80% of words in a typical text
  • Ensures students know the meanings of the words when they hear them or see them in print and that students can pronounce the words
  • Provides individualized, self-paced instruction that can be accessed from any computer with an internet connection
  • Diagnoses individual learners by identifying the words with which they are unfamiliar
  • Includes 355 interactive and engaging web-based lessons organized into 8 levels of proficiency
  • Game-like activities motivate students to learn new words
  • Students only need to use the program 30 minutes a day / 3 times a week
  • Requires little teacher time beyond initial student setup
  • Easy-to-use learner management system for initial student placement, monitoring, and reporting
  • Research-based and field-tested

How It Works

The First 4,000 Words core instruction uses a validated technique for building oral vocabulary in preschool and primary grade children with small oral vocabularies often called Shared Book Reading where students are read a short passage several times with a focus on words in the passage that children are unlikely to know.

Characteristics of effective shared reading are:

Picture of an elephant with the caption - 'Large - Large means big. An elephant is large'

Picture of a person pointing to the sun setting with the caption - 'West - The west is where the sun sets'
  • Involves several readings of a number of short books.
  • Focuses students' attention on the words.
  • Deliberately stretches students and scaffolds their efforts.
  • Employs carefully selected words and books.

The major problem with the traditional face-to-face, teacher-to-student method is that it is very expensive given the huge amount of teacher time required and it is virtually impossible to individualize the instruction so that each student gets taught just the words he or she needs.

The First 4,000 Words program offers a web-delivered version of this technique that adapts to the unique needs of each learner by identifying only the words with which he or she is unfamiliar. The program is designed with colorful graphics, interesting sound effects, and game-like activities to keep students engaged and motivated.

What Are The First 4,000 Words?

There are 3,805 targeted words for instruction. Most will be accompanied by a picture and a simple statement of meaning. The words were selected from the most frequent words in The Educators Word Frequency Guide (Zeno et al. 1995) and the 4,000 word families of Hieberts Word Zones corpus (2005).

4KW Source List - A list of approximately 4,000 word families sequenced by frequency.

4KW Teaching List - A list of approximately 4,000 word families sequenced by frequency within each of these categories:

  • Target words - 3,541
  • Function words - 116
  • Proper nouns - 148
  • The 100 Most Frequent Words

Since The First 4,000 Words is web-based, there are no program files to install and maintain. You and your students simply log in from any computer with an internet connection.

From The First 4,000 Words Administrative Website, teachers and administrators can:

  • Manage student accounts
  • Track students' progress
  • View individual and group reports
  • Access the Teacher Manual
Screenshot of the teacher login interface

From The First 4,000 Words Student Website, students can:

  • Access the Vocabitat™ lessons
  • View lessons completed
  • View lesson scores
Screenshot of the student login interface

Picture of the cover of the Teacher Manual

The Teacher Manual provides a program overview as well as quick-start directions to begin using the program. The manual is organized into five main sections:

  • Student Placement in the Program
  • Program Description
  • Administration of the Program
  • Troubleshooting Guide
  • Word List

Also Available:

Picture of the cover of the reading and listeneing assessments Picture of the cover of the assessment teacher manual

The optional paper-and-pencil Listening and Reading Vocabulary Tests enable teachers to quickly assess students vocabularies prior to beginning The First 4,000 Words program.

Teacher Instructions for administering the Listening and Reading Vocabulary Tests is also included.

Picture of the cover of the story bundles

The Vocabitat™ Story Bundles, written for various lexile reading levels, can be purchased for use as supplementary materials. Each 30-page bundle includes:

  • 5-6 units from the curriculum
  • 5 stories per unit
  • A set of discussion questions
  • Illustrations used in the interactive program

Learner Management System
The administrative web site allows teachers and school administrators to manage and track the progress of their students. Through this web site, teachers have the ability to fine-tune the experience of the student by changing their current location within the continuum of lessons and by manipulating a variety of activity-level controls. Teachers are also given access to detailed metrics for both individual students and for groups of students.

Only administrators have access to these areas:

  • Account - view the school/school districts account and license information
  • Teachers - add, view, and edit teacher accounts

Both teachers and administrators have access to these areas:

  • Preferences - change personal account information (such as user name and password)
  • Advanced configurations - set passing scoring; choose options that control events in the students learning experience (such as word display during tests)
  • Groups - add or edit groups of students; view reports about groups
  • Students - add students or edit student information; assign students to groups; view reports about students

Data for reports can be viewed and compiled by group or student. Before viewing data, teachers and administrators select the data range.

Student reports:

  • Provide general information about student progress (such as number of lessons complete, number of lessons retaken, current lesson, average scores, and a list of words the student has missed.)
  • Provide details about student success for each lesson (such as date complete, pretest score, posttest score, and missed words.)

Group reports:

  • Provide summary information for each student in the group (such as last lesson completed, number of lessons tested out of, number of lessons passed, and number of lessons failed.)
  • Provide averages and totals for the group as a whole (such as average number of lessons completed, total number of lessons passed, total number of lessons failed.)
  • Provide data about the words most often missed.

The First 4000 Words is an internet-based tool. Access to and use of the software requires a basic Macintosh or PC computer with a stable internet connection.

This program was designed to run on the Adobe Flash Player browser plug-in (version 10.0 and above). The core hardware requirements for the most recent version of Adobe Flash Player can be found at the following website:

Hardware requirements include:

  • A 512k DSL or faster connection
  • Screen resolution:
    Minimum C 1024 x 768 (must use browser full-screen mode C F11)
    Suggested C 1280 x 1024
  • Sound card with speakers or headphones
  • Microphone (necessary for speech recognition)

Take a Tour of the Vocabitat™

Students learn about The First 4,000 Words in an online environment called the Vocabitat™a vocabulary habitat.

The First 4,000 Words curriculum

  • Total of 355 Lessons, organized into 8 Levels
  • Each Level is subdivided into Units
  • Each Unit contains 5 stories written around a common theme (such as People at Work, Traditions, or Famous Presidents)
  • Each story represents a Lesson and focuses on teaching 10 words

Color # of
# of
Animal Guide
0001-0300 1 1 yellow 6 30 Snap the Salamander
0301-0600 2 1 orange 6 30 Gusty the Bobcat
0601-1100 3 2 pink 10 50 Jade the Otter
1101-1600 4 2 red 10 50 Lightening the Hawk
1601-2100 5 3 purple 10 50 Redwood the Fox
2101-2600 6 3 blue 10 50 Shimmer the Raven
2601-3100 7 4 turquoise 10 50 Granite the Goat
3101-3550 8 4 green 9 45 Ursa the Bear

Program Structure

Picture the program structure

Each 15-minute lesson focuses on 10 words and guides students through a series of activities.

Map of the lesson structure
Assessments in Treehouse Studio
Students will visit Treehouse Studio at the beginning and at the end of each lesson for pre- and post-assessments.
  • Pre-assessment C determines if the 10 lesson words are part of a students vocabulary.
  • Post-assessment C ensures students have learned the 10 target words.
Shared Reading in Cozy Cave
Here students are able to listen to stories with the 10 lesson words.

Shared Reading 1: Read along with a story.
  • Sentences are underlined as the story is read
  • Missed words (if any) are highlighted
Shared Reading 2: Explore the missed vocabulary words.
  • See an illustration that matches the word
  • Hear the word used in a sentence from the story
  • Hear an explanation of the word's meanings
  • Practice saying the word and get feedback
Shared Reading 3: Re-read the story.
  • Replay any sentence
  • Hear missed words defined through audio and illustration
Interactive Games in Hidden Falls
Here students are able to practice their skills with the 10 lesson words by playing two games.

Submarine or Balloon Game
  • Students see three lesson words and a picture on the left side of the screen and a submarine or balloon on the right.
  • Students click the word that matches the picture.
  • The sooner students identify the correct answer, the faster and farther the submarine or balloon travels.
  • By clicking the icon to the left of each word, students can hear it pronounced.
Puzzle Game
  • Students see the lesson words arranged on a puzzle board.
  • Students listen to a definition and then click the word that matches the definition.
  • When students click the correct word, it is replaced by a puzzle piece.
  • Students continue in this manner until an entire picture is revealed.
Next Lesson
Students who score 90% or better on the post-assessment will move to the next lesson.

Students who score less than 90% will need to complete a remediation game before moving on to the next lesson.

Remediation Game
  • Students are presented with 10 words and 10 pictures.
  • Their task is to drag the correct word to the picture.
  • If the student is unsure about what the picture represents, the student can click the picture to hear the word associated with it.

Screenshot of Pride Peak Bonus Lesson at Pride Peak
At the end of a unit (5 lessons), students play a bonus game at Pride Peak.

  • Reviews function words, proper nouns, and the words targeted in the lessons.
  • The words are read, one at a time, to the students.
  • The students must quickly and correctly select the word that matches what they hear to prevent the clouds from descending upon the mountain and stopping the climbers ascent.

Product Alignment to Common Core Standards in English Language Arts

The purpose of The First 4,000 Words program is to ensure that students in grades 1-4 know the meanings of the 4,000 most frequent words when they hear them and see them in print. This purpose is in direct alignment with the Common Core Standard on Vocabulary Acquisition and Use. The broad anchor standard (p. 25) states that students must "acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening."

The following table shows the grade-specific versions of Vocabulary Acquisition and Use Standard #6, together with a few examples of words taught in The First 4,000 Words program.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use, #6 Examples from
The First 4,000 Words
Grade Standard
1 Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts, including using frequently occurring conjunctions to signal simple relationships (e.g., because). words that express relationships: between, across, similar, different
2 Use words and phrases acquired through conversations, reading and being read to, and responding to texts, including using adjectives and adverbs to describe (e.g., When other kids are happy that makes me happy). adjectives and adverbs: young, far, whole, quickly, slowly, easily
3 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate conversational, general academic, and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal spatial and temporal relationships (e.g., After dinner that night we went looking for them). words that signal spatial and temporal relationships: below, previous, next, during, later
4 Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, including those that signal precise actions, emotions, or states of being (e.g., quizzed, whined, stammered) and that are basic to a particular topic (e.g., wildlife, conservation, and endangered when discussing animal preservation). actions, emotions, states of being: characterized, united, graceful, muscular domain-specific: blood, arteries, veins, circulation

Vocabulary is generally defined as the knowledge of words and word meanings. Word knowledge is a process that occurs over time; to truly understand the complexity of teaching and learning vocabulary, you should review the following information about vocabulary:

Types of Vocabulary
Listening vocabulary - all the words a person can recognize when listening to speech
Speaking vocabulary - all the words a person can use in speech
Reading vocabulary - all the words a person can recognize when reading
Writing vocabulary - all the words a person can employ in writing

Oral vs. Print Vocabulary
Oral vocabulary - includes those words that we recognize and use in listening and speaking
Print vocabulary - includes those words that we recognize and use in reading and writing

Word Knowledge
Unknown - the word is completely unfamiliar to the student and its meaning is unknown
Acquainted - the word is somewhat familiar; the student has some idea of its basic meaning
Established - the word is very familiar; the student can immediately recognize its meaning and use the word correctly

Productive vs. Receptive Word Knowledge
Productive/Expressive (active) vocabulary - includes words we are able to use when we speak/write
Receptive (passive) vocabulary - includes words that we recognize when we hear/see

Types of Vocabulary Instruction
Direct Vocabulary Learning - refers to intentional and explicit teaching of specific words and word-learning strategies
Indirect Vocabulary Learning- refers to word learning that occurs incidentally through experiences with oral language and wide reading

Importance of Vocabulary

  • Vocabulary is the foundation for communication and learning
  • Language and thought are synonymous
  • Vocabulary size is strongly linked to reading comprehension and overall academic success
  • A person may be judged by others based on their vocabulary

Importance of Vocabulary (for early learners and ELLs)

  • Beginning readers use their oral vocabulary to make sense of the words they see in print
  • Readers must know what most of the words mean before they can understand what they are reading

Vocabulary is identified as one of the 5 essential components of reading instruction

  • Phonemic awareness - awareness of and ability to manipulate sounds in words
  • Phonics - knowledge of relationships between letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language
  • Vocabulary - recognizing and understanding the meaning of words in reading and writing as well as in oral language
  • Fluency - ability to read rapidly with phrasing, an important bridge to comprehension
  • Text Comprehension - using a system of strategic actions, smoothly and in coordination, to get meaning while reading texts

The Vocabulary Learning Task Is Huge

  • The average 3rd grader knows about 15,000 words
  • The average 6th grader knows about 25,000 words
  • The average high school graduate knows about 50,000 words

This means that average students learn 3,000 - 4,000 words a year.
This translates to 10 words a day / 7 days a week / 52 weeks a year with no time off for weekends, summers, or good behavior.

The Vocabulary Learning Gap
Some children particularly children of poverty and English language learners come to school with very small oral vocabularies. Their small oral vocabularies are a huge hurdle to their learning to read and learning more generally. There are three major components to this problem that have made it particularly difficult to solve.

  1. The gap is huge, constituting thousands of words (Chall & Jacobs, 2003; Graves, 2006; Hart & Risley, 1995, 2003).
  2. Although words tend to be learned in the same order, different students have vocabularies of radically different sizes, making it difficult to determine what words to teach to a particular group of students (Biemiller, 2004; Biemiller & Slonim, 2001; Hiebert, 2005).
  3. Given the number of words that need to be taught and the differential word knowledge of students in any particular setting, the task is virtually impossible for an individual teacher to accomplish.

Research indicates that this gap only widens further as students get older if the problem is not addressed. Students who don't understand what they read or hear are less likely to actively participate in reading and listening activities, thereby further reducing their exposure to and learning from these activities.

Did You Know?

No Child Left Behind
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) identifies vocabulary development as one of the essential components of reading instruction. The NCLB Act, policy documents, reauthorization information, and other resources can be located on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Identifying and Implementing Educational Practices Supported By Rigorous Evidence: A User Friendly Guide
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 specifies that administrators and teachers select and implement programs that are supported by scientifically based research. This guide is designed to help educators identify and implement evidence-based interventions.

Institute of Education Sciences - What Works Clearinghouse
The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) initiative was created in 2002 to be a central and trusted source of scientific evidence for what works in education. Find information about various types of interventions including programs, products, practices, and policies.

Institute of Education Sciences - National Center for Education Statistics
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education. Many subjects and topics are covered, including The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2011.

A Validated Approach to Teaching a Basic Vocabulary
The instructional approach used in The First 4,000 Words is based on three lines of research.

Shared Book Reading
While simply reading to children has been found to be somewhat effective in promoting vocabulary growth, shared book reading a procedure in which the teacher directly focuses on and discusses words that come up in the reading has been shown to be considerably more effective (Beck & McKeown, in press; Biemiller, 2006; Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Zevenbergen & Whitehurst, 2003). Shared book reading is designed for preschool or primary-grade students, and it is particularly useful for students who come to school with relatively small vocabularies and therefore need special assistance to catch up with their peers. Some characteristics of effective shared book reading taken from Graves (2006) are shown below.

  • The children play active roles.
  • The reading selection is read several times.
  • The reader focuses the children's attention directly on words.
  • The selection is read fluently using an animated and lively reading style.
  • The selections are interesting and enjoyable and stretch children's thinking.
  • The words are somewhat challenging, but are words children are likely to encounter in the future.

Research on Robust Vocabulary Instruction
While instruction that includes presenting words in context and defining them has been shown to be a relatively powerful sort of vocabulary instruction, robust vocabulary instruction has been shown to be even more powerful (Graves, 2006; Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Robust vocabulary instruction is a procedure developed by Beck and McKeown and validated by them and their colleagues in a number of studies (e.g., Beck & McKeown, in press; Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982).

Research on What Constitutes Relatively Powerful Vocabulary Instruction
While almost any sort of vocabulary instruction produces some gains in word knowledge (Petty, Herold, & Stoll, 1967), instruction that includes at least two components using the words to be taught in context and defining them has been shown to be markedly superior to instruction that includes only one of these components (Graves, 2006; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986; Stahl & Nagy, 2006).

Other Research-Based Elements and Techniques
The First 4,000 Words program incorporates a number of other research-based elements and techniques, including, but not limited to:

  • The 4,000 words were drawn from two well-recognized vocabulary lists: Zeno et al.'s The Educator's Word Frequency Guide and Hiebert's Word Zones™ corpus.
  • To ensure comprehensibility, stories used in the interactive reading activities are written to appropriate Lexile levels.
  • The activities include game-based learning techniques.
  • At critical junctures in the program, students are asked if they understood what was taught.

Field tests have shown the program to be highly effective:

  • Students learned the words during the individual lessons and retained that knowledge on the post-tests given weeks or even months after the instruction.
  • Students were judged to be appropriately engaged (demonstrating direct attention to the program and participating in the instructional activities) 91% of the time.
  • Teachers ratings of overall perception of the program average 2.9 on the 3 point scale.
  • Teachers ratings of how the program would fit within existing curricula averaged 2.7 out of 3.

Field testing of the program took place in grades 1-4 in three different schools in greater Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. Three distinct field tests were conducted. The first test took place during Phase I. Its primary purpose was to test the feasibility of a prototype of the proposed product. The second test was conducted early in Phase II and gathered information on implementation and teacher reactions. The purpose of the final test, which involved the full program, was to determine the promise of education improvement.

The First 4,000 Words - Background Research
The vocabulary taught in the program is derived from a corpus of the 5,586 most frequent words developed by Hiebert (2005) and referred to as the Word Zones corpus. Hiebert developed the Word Zones corpus from the frequency count presented in the Educators Word Frequency Guide (Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri, 1995) by grouping words into four frequency zones and identifying each zone as appropriate for a grade level.

The First 4,000 Words List and Placement Tests - Details and Results
The First 4000 Word List and accompanying placement tests were constructed for a project designed to ensure that first through fourth grade students have mastered a basic listening vocabulary.

Empirical Evidence on The First 4,000 Words Program: A Report for Teachers Requesting Information on Research on the Program
The First 4,000 Words program was developed with U.S. Office of Education IES/SBIR grant. This type of grant funds both development of educational materials and testing them. We conducted three studies on the program: a feasibility study conducted in Spring 2008, a pilot study conducted in Summer 2008, and a field trial conducted in Spring 2009.

The effects of individualized, online vocabulary instruction on picture vocabulary scores: an efficacy study
Vocabulary knowledge is of fundamental importance to reading comprehension, and many students lack the vocabulary knowledge necessary to facilitate learning to read. A study was conducted to determine the effects of an individualized, online vocabulary program on picture vocabulary test scores.