Teaching Vocabulary: The Word Tiers

I have largely used information from Bringing Words to Life, 2nd addition by Isabel L. Beck, PhD, Margaret G. McKeown, PhD, and Linda Kucan, PhD. I would highly recommend buying their book as it is very well researched and has been tremendously practical so far (I am only 3 chapters in.)

Words have been divided into three tiers. Tier one words tend to be common and used in everyday language such as dog, happy, cold, etc. Tier two words are common in literature but not necessarily common in spoken language such as equation, impulse, nutrition. While tier three words are rare in both written and spoken language such as isotope, isosceles, and impressionism.

Our students are already very likely to have a large vocabulary of tier one words, as they are so common. And, these words are common enough that if there are small gaps in a child’s vocabulary they will likely be able to pick them up quickly.

Tier two words are likely to appear with a high frequency in both written and oral communication. A helpful way to determine if the word is tier two is asking yourself, “Does this word offer my students a more specific way to describe something?”

Tier 1 Tier 2
happy jubilant
sad mourn
close precise

The key here is that the words are not just synonyms, but that the words offer students more precise ways of expressing themselves. For example, a child could say “The man is sad because his test score is low.” Or “The man is mourning because his friend man died.” You would not put the word mourn in the first sentence, and putting the word mourn into the second sentence gives it more meaning and paints a more vivid picture for the reader.

The entire concept of word tiers is not clear cut. What separates the words into theirs are general rules that the teacher can apply. This means that we do not need to get bogged down in which category to place the words into. We can use the following guidelines to help us intentionally choose vocabulary words to teach our students.

  • Importance and utility: Do these words appear in many different domains (Subjects)?
  • Conceptual Understanding: Does the word help students understand a key concept with specific language?
What a student might say Tier 2
The water goes up. evaporate
The rock sinks because it is heavier than water. The rock sinks because it is more dense than the water.
The wall blocks the light The wall is impermeable to light.
  • Instructional Potential: Can the words that can be used in different contexts with different meanings?
What a student might say Tier 2
1. The boy is doesn’t need help.
2. America no longer belongs to England.
1. The boy is independent.

2. America became independent when it won the war against England.

1. The throw was perfect.

2. What you said is true.

1. The throw was very accurate.

2. What you said was accurate.

Tier three words are generally domain (subject) specific like “Homeric Greek literature” and are unlikely to come up outside of specific circumstances. As a result, they are not worth teaching like tier two words because it would simply take too much time. The authors of Bringing Words To Life recommend that teachers teach these words as they come up in the text or class. As an important note, many subjects use tier three words as regular vocabulary words. Tier three words should not be reduced to “isolated words”. Tier three words need to be taught as content knowledge. This means that as students are learning these words, they should practice using them in authentic contexts. For example:

Science Tier 3 Words Potential Activities to Practice Tier 3 Words
1. Convection Currents 1. Have students compare the words

2. Have students draw diagrams

3. Give students concrete examples and have them explain why it is a god example

2. Plate Tectonics

When you choose the words to teach, focus on the tier two words as those have the most utility. Just don’t make students find the meanings in their dictionaries.