Using vocabulary tiers to improve literacy

What the tiers are and how they can help your students’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening

Beck and McKeown’s ‘Tier 2’ and ‘Tier 3’ are commonly used terms when describing ambitious or subject-specific vocabulary. Here, we explore where they fit in the wider vocabulary tier system and how they can help you improve your students’ literacy.

How to teach Tier 2 words

What are vocabulary tiers?

Created by education researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown, the idea of categorising words into three tiers came as a response to a particular conundrum: out of the countless words in the English language, which are the most useful to teach our students? To answer this question, Beck and McKeown identified how words have “different levels of utility.” They created the three tiers, with each tier characterising a different ‘type’ of word with different practical applications.

Tier 1 words

The simplest tier – these are words that most students will pick up through natural, everyday conversation. They include common nouns like ‘clock’, ‘chair’ or ‘house’, verbs like ‘walk’ and ‘run’, or adjectives like ‘sad’ and ‘happy.’ These words don’t normally require explicit teaching.

Tier 2 words

If your goal is to improve your students’ literacy, these are the words you want to focus on. They are ambitious words, such as ‘emerge’, ‘analyse’, ‘peculiar’ and ‘context’, that your students are likely to come across in a variety of contexts and across all subjects, but aren’t used much in everyday conversation. As Beck and McKeown say, these words “are not the most basic or common ways of expressing ideas, but they are familiar to mature language users as ordinary as opposed to specialised language.”

For example, the Tier 2 word ‘soar’ can add more sophistication and specificity to a student’s understanding of the word ‘fly’. They will be able to understand that soaring isn’t just flying, but flying very high in the air.

Strategies for teaching Tier 2 words

Tier 3 words

Tier 3 words are subject-specific, used within a particular field. This is the language of scientists, mathematicians, historians, and literary critics. For maths, this includes words like ‘denominator’, while science lessons might require students to understand ‘homeostasis’. Often, these words are integral to teaching content for certain subjects.

Strategies for teaching Tier 3 words

How do vocabulary tiers help teaching?

With an understanding of vocabulary tiers you can organise words and focus your vocabulary teaching.

If you are reading a tricky text with your students, it is not enough to simply place a text in front of them and expect them to pick up the language through reading alone. Without understanding the meanings of these Tier 2 words, how are they going to comprehend the overall text? To really improve reading comprehension, you must guide your students through thorough and continuous vocabulary instruction, so that these words become firmly established elements of their lexicons.

You can begin sorting the words into their relevant tiers, and then direct your teaching explicitly towards teaching the Tier 2 and 3 words that are essential to your class’ comprehension of the text. For practical suggestions see our strategies for teaching Tier 2 words, top three strategies for teaching Tier 3 vocabulary and top ten tips for teaching subject-specific terminology.

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