Teachers – Vocabulary Development – Differentiating Between and Among Tier 1, 2, and 3 Words

Isabel Beck and her colleagues have distinguished between and among three different ‘tiers’ of words. As soon as I first read their book, Bringing Words to Life, I knew their ‘tiered’ concept was one that made immense sense and would serve all of us as teachers who need to make strategic decisions about what to teach and what not to teach.

Here’s a brief overview of the three tiers, which I’ll then follow with some examples of Tier 2 words that you can use when planning your instruction.

  • Tier 1 words are the most basic words and are the ones that are reasonably easy to teach, usually because there is some kind of physical referent (blue, elbow, table, run). We need to spend time on them because they show up frequently and students need to know these words. It is not necessary to spend more time than is required, though, because they are easier to teach than the other two tiers.
  • Tier 2 words are the mother lode of words. These are the high frequency words that are found and used across domains. Spending time teaching these words deeply, richly, powerfully… that is worth the effort. Knowing these words will have an impact on students’ learning and communication throughout their lives. Words that could be considered Tier 2 words would include: difference, temperate, omnivore, exaggerate, erode. You can see that these are words that may have particular meanings in certain content areas, but they are used in a variety of ways by mature language users.
  • Tier 3 words are the words that are much lower frequency words and that are very specific to one domain, usually. For example; oligopoly, marcato, lithosphere, couplet, univariate analysis. These are important words, but need to be taught within the context and subject area where they will be used.

When you are trying to decide which words are your Tier 2 words, use the following criteria, as given by Beck, et al, in their book, Bringing Words to Life:

Importance & Utility, I.e., Are the words ones that mature language users speak and write? Are the words ones that would appear frequently across a variety of domains? For example: aggression, omnipotent, etc.

Instructional Potential, I.e.,Are the words ones that can be taught in a variety of ways so that students can build rich representations of these words? Do the words spark ideas that would allow you to help students make connections to other words and concepts? For example: slithering, meandering, lurking, etc.

Conceptual Understanding, I.e.,Are the words ones for which students understand the general concept, but may not yet have the precision and specificity in describing the concept that this word would provide? For example: frigid (vs. ‘cold’).

Questions for you to ask yourself as you are planning:

  1. Which words deserve the most attention from you and from your students? (All words are not created equal as far as instruction time and effort are concerned).
  2. How will you allocate your time so you are spending the time and effort on the words that will provide the most powerful change in student learning?
  3. Take a look at the words you are teaching this week. For each word on the list, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Is this word important and useful, I.e., is this a word that is going to show up throughout someone’s life?
  • Does this word have all kinds of possibilities for instruction, I.e., can I see numerous ways to teach this word–and to bring in other language learning, too?
  • Do my students have the background knowledge to understand this new word that I’m teaching–or do I need to provide some context for them, first?

These are KEY questions to ask as you assess the words you will (and won’t) spend time on. Your time, energy, and effort – as well as your students’ time, energy, and effort are precious. You want to invest the bulk of your instructional time teaching Tier 2 words.