Monday, July 30, 2012

Vocabulary Tiers

Two summers ago, I took a vocabulary development on-line course and learned so much!  If you have never taken an on-line course, I highly recommend them especially if you have young children.  This summer, I do not need to take classes, but I have been revisiting previous classes to reflect upon how I can improve my teaching.

When I first started teaching middle school ELA back in the 1980's, it was not uncommon for teachers to assign 15-20 vocabulary words for a short story. Often these words were obscure with students having little to no schema, and many were overwhelmed with the sheer number of words.  The dictionary and glossary were the primary sources for defining words. My county was just starting to use vocabulary graphic organizers and multiple ways to interact with words. However, most of the time, vocabulary instruction was dry, to say the least.

One of the major concepts of the course I took was vocabulary tiers and how to effectively teach vocabulary.  What are tiers?  The tiers represent different levels of utility, the frequency and purpose of words.  That is, words are categorized by teachers into three different tiers to help prioritize which words are to be taught.

Tier One: These are basic words like happy, clock.  They are simple words, some of which are sight words, that are familiar and well known to mature readers.  However, ELL and struggling readers may need additional support and instruction.

Tier Two-:  These are high frequency words for mature readers as they are likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of texts and across various domains. They are also words that are crucial to understanding the main idea of the given text.  Furthermore, they are words that can be worked with in a variety of ways. 

The word clock, a Tier 1 word, does not meet the last criterion.You cannot do much with the word since it is a very simple and basic word.  But, take the word trudged; it does meet the criterion! You can work with the word in various ways by exploring word parts (suffix, base word), synonym, antonym, examples, non-examples, the word occurs frequently in various texts, and young students would be capable of understanding the general concept .  

So,with Tier 2 words, students must be able to understand the general concept of the word using words already in their vocabulary.  If the word is too complex for them to understand, then it would be classified as as Tier 3 word.  Tier 2 words should be interesting, useful, and students should be able to apply the words to their everyday lives.

Tier ThreeThese are very specialized words often found in content reading.  Their frequency of use is limited and low.  The words nocturnal and isosceles are examples.  

Selecting which vocabulary words to instruct does require teachers to make a judgement call.  Researchers suggest selecting Tier Two words for instruction to capitalize on maximum, efficient learning. A few tips to consider when selecting words:

  • Limit the number of words so students will have the opportunity to learn the words well. 
  • Researchers suggest selecting 7-10 Tier 2 words.
  • When choosing words, think about which words will be the most useful in helping students to comprehend the reading.
  • Words should appear frequently in the written language.  These are words that students will encounter often in their reading.
  • The words can be worked with in a variety of ways.
  • Students are able to understand the general concept of the words. Teachers should be able to explain the words in simple language.

Here is an example of a few of the Tier Two vocabulary words I selected for the book Ready, Set, School by Jacquelyn Mitchard for kindergarten and first graders:


All the above words can be worked with in a variety of ways.  I can discuss base words, suffixes, synonyms, antonyms, examples, non-examples, and the words will appear frequently in their reading this school year.  Now, the word kits could possibly be considered a Tier 3 word because it is a specialized science word.  However, this is where a teacher's judgement comes into play.  I felt that it was important for students to understand the various meanings of this word and how it is used in the story (a baby raccoon), thus using context clues. The fact that the main character is a young raccoon is important to understanding the central idea and some of the cause-effect relationships in the story.

Next time, I will offer some additional tips I learned from my course and my own experience with vocabulary instruction.  One strategy that many of us do is to have students draw/illustrate the meaning of the word,  This is more complex than one might think.  It requires the student to apply knowledge by having a working, understandable definition of the word.  This is a graphic organizer that I made for students to interact with Mitchard's adorable picture book:

Do you have any additional tips for selecting and using Tier 2 words?  Please share!


"Choosing Words to Teach" from  Bringing Words to Life:  Robust Vocabulary Instruction. Isabel Beck, McKeown, and Kucan.  2002.

Promoting Vocabulary Development:  Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction.  Texas Reading Initiative.  2002


  1. Where can I find the vocabulary Write and Draw worksheet?

  2. Hi, the sheet is part of a packet found in my store here-

    Thank you!


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