Working with the Cambridge command words

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Special thanks to Pete Clements at EALPlanning for prompting me to write this all up in a post.

Know the rules symbol. Wooden blocks with words Know the rules. Beautiful white background. Businessman hand. Business and Know the rules concept. Copy space.

Cambridge command words are essential for all KS3 and KS4 learners. EAL learners need to be explicitly taught to understand and use them appropriately; however, all learners will benefit from working with them regularly to raise awareness to them and their highly context specific meanings.

The command words tell candidates what they are expected to do in different exam tasks and Cambridge regularly updates their list of these on their website along with their definitions.

This list of terms and definitions can be exploited for educational purposes and should be introduced at least as early as Year 7 so that learners get used to seeing and using them. Having a whole school approach that makes use of these in a systematic way maximises exposure and will prepare KS3 learners to enter KS4 because they will have spent 3 years working with these terms in context across the entire curriculum.

Here are some activities that require little to no preparation and are easily adaptable to fit into different lessons.


  1. Laminate a set of command words and definitions before the lesson.
  2. Select the command terms that you want to focus on that day. It is best if it matches the instructions for the activities that you want your learners to do later that day.
  3. Ask your learners to form pairs or groups and give them some time to match the terms with the definitions.
  4. Before checking answers, ask the groups to move around the classroom and check the answers of other groups. Is there anything they would want to change in their own work?
  5. Check answers together and ask learners to record these terms and their meaning in some way.

Quiz quiz trade

  1. Give each learner a definition and ask them to select the appropriate term. They should not show their cards to anybody else.
  2. Check that they have the correct pair of terms and definitions.
  3. Quiz 1: Ask learners to mingle and work in pairs. Student A holds up the definition for Student B, who now has to guess the term.
  4. Quiz 2: Now Student B holds up their definition for Student A to guess.
  5. Trade: Student A and B trade their cards before moving on to repeat the activity with another partner.
  6. Let the activity run for as long as all terms have been revised by everybody.
  7. The same activity can be repeated with only definitions or only terms at a later stage when learners are more familiar with the command words.

Find your partner

  1. Select the terms you want to focus on and separate the terms and the definitions. Make sure you have as many cards as many students.
  2. Give each learner a term or a definition and ask them to move around the room to find their partner.
  3. Once they have all found their partner, ask them to work together and write 3 sentences with their command word.
  4. You can check the sentences together as a whole class or collect them for review and use them as a follow up activity in the next lesson.

Gapped sentences

  1. Decide which command words you want to focus on that day.
  2. Prepare some gapped sentences that provide the context but leave out the command words.
  3. Display the sentences for students to complete in pairs before open class feedback.

Sentence starters

  1. Decide which command words you want to focus on that day.
  2. Prepare some sentence starters with the command terms for learners to complete.
  3. Display the sentence starters for students to complete in pairs before open class feedback.

What’s that in your own language?

  1. Allowing space for your learners’ other languages is a great way to activate schemata about any topic.
  2. Let learners translate the command words of the day into their first languages and record them in bilingual glossaries.
  3. Allow them to tell each other how they say these words in their own languages and whether there are any notable differences between the expressions. E.g., ‘radiation’ is a noun in English, but in Hungarian it is a noun phrase ‘Radioaktivitas’ which clearly stems from the observation that these materials are active in a particular way. This could be further explored together to see how other languages express the same idea and in what way these materials are ‘active’.

How else can you say it?

  1. Display some sentences with the chosen command words or an example exam task.
  2. Now ask your learners to work in pairs and find alternative words that express the same meaning. The idea is that they are looking at academic vocabulary and thinking about how everyday language would express the same ideas.
  3. Ask learners to find the command terms and elicit their definitions. This can be done with the cut ups mentioned before.

Crossword puzzle

  1. Generate a simple crossword puzzle with the selected command words (see the example below).
  2. Ask learners to form pairs and give each pair a copy of the puzzle.
  3. Learners take turns reading out the definitions for each other and completing the crosswords together.
  4. Display the answer key for a quick open class feedback.
A crossword made with some of the Cambridge command terms

Online tools

There are various online tools that can help you build a bank of the command words that can generate short activities for your learners, or even to let them practise at home.

Here are some of my favourite ones:

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