Tiered Vocabulary Instruction

Initially explained by Dr. Isabel Beck, Dr. Margaret McKeown, and Dr. Linda Kucan in the 2002 publication of their book titled Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, tiered vocabulary is an organizational framework for categorizing words.  It consists of three different word levels, or tiers, and each level has its own implications for instruction.     

A student’s vocabulary knowledge in the first grade can predict their reading achievement all the way through to their junior year in high school. -Dr. Isabel Beck

Word levels are based on frequency, complexity, and meaning. As teachers, we know that a robust vocabulary supports reading comprehension and reinforces understanding of new and difficult texts.  Using a tiered approach to vocabulary instruction assists in the development of language acquisition and promotes a strong foundation for literacy across grade levels and content areas. 

TIER 1  

Tier one words are high frequency words, used over and over again in the course of general conversation. Because tier one words are basic everyday words, most of them are learned through oral communication with family members, peers, or teachers.  There is no need for specific instruction with tier one words. Examples of tier one words include table, happy, baby, and clock.  


Tier two words are also referred to as academic vocabulary.  They are cross-curricular words, appearing frequently across topics and content areas.  Tier two words are not common words used in conversation, making them ideal candidates for direct instruction. Examples of tier two words include complex, analyze, restrict, ultimate, and foundation.  In addition to being cross-curricular, tier two words often have multiple meanings, making them an integral component of reading comprehension. The more students learn high utility (tier two) words, the better they will be able to comprehend text that contains those words. 

Tiered Vocabulary Infographic

TIER 3   

Tier three words consists of low frequency words that occur in specific domains.  Tier three words are central to understanding concepts within various academic subjects and should be integrated into content instruction.  Examples of tier three words include molecule, tundra, and legislature.     


There is no specific formula for placing words into tiers or choosing words for direct instruction. According to Beck, Mckeown, and Kucan, teachers should consider the following when choosing vocabulary words

  • How useful is the word?  Is it a word that students are likely to meet often in other texts? 
  • How does the word relate to other words or ideas in the curriculum? Does it directly relate to a specific topic of study 
  • What does the word bring to a text or situation? What role does the word play in understanding the overall meaning?

Words can also fall into more than one tier.  For example, a word like pinnacle has multiple definitions, making it applicable as a tier two and tier three word.  


Hopefully, you are inspired to include more tier two and tier three words into your lesson plans! Since, choosing words to focus on can be time consuming and difficult, I like to use the texts we read together in class to find new terms.  Teaching vocabulary in context gives students a chance to make authentic connections and cement learning of new words.  

I call it Focus on Five.  First, students are required to find and record five new terms in the text.  Next, students try to define the word using context clues. A dictionary can be used as a last resort.  Since application of the new word is important, students are required to work with the word on their own using a variety of vocabulary activities (visual representation, narrative writing, world connections, etc.) Finally, students are assessed on their knowledge of the new terms.  

You can create your own Focus on Five, or click here to download everything you need.  The vocabulary activities work with any text and can be used again and again. The goal is for students to internalize the vocabulary acquisition process and repeat it automatically when reading independently.     

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Tiered Vocabulary: What Is It, and Why Does It Matter?