Using vocabulary tiers to improve reading comprehension

I talk about vocabulary tiers a lot on this blog. Most of the time, it’s because I’m proselytising the benefits of explicitly teaching Tier 2 words to students. In the past, I’ve offered brief summaries of what Tier 2 words are and why they’re useful, but recently I’ve had quite a few teachers ask that I go into more detail about the overall concept of tiered vocabulary words as a whole. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to do! Specifically, I’ll be discussing what all the different vocabulary tiers mean, and how they can help you improve your students’ reading comprehension.

First of all, what are vocabulary tiers?

Created by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown, the idea of categorising words into three separate 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? In order to answer this question, Beck and McKeown thought it was crucial to identify the ways in which “words in the language have different levels of utility.” Thus, they created the three tiers, with each tier characterising a different ‘type’ of word with different practical applications.

Tier 1 Words

The simplest of the three vocabulary tiers, these are words that most students will pick up through natural, everyday conversation. They include common, concrete nouns, like ‘clock’, ‘chair’ or ‘house’, but can also refer to very basic verbs like ‘walk’ and ‘run’, or adjectives like ‘sad’ and ‘happy.’ As you can probably tell, these aren’t the sorts of words that would normally require explicit teaching.

Tier 2 Words

Here’s where things get a little more juicy. If your goal is to improve your students’ reading comprehension, these are the words you’re going to want to focus on teaching. This is because Beck and McKeown define Tier 2 words as “high-frequency words for mature language users”. Put differently, these are tricky, ambitious words that your students are likely to come across again and again in a variety of different texts, contexts and subjects. Whether they’re reading works of fiction, worksheets, online articles, or exam questions – these tricky words are probably going to pop up. Think of terms like: ‘emerge’, ‘analyse’, ‘peculiar’ and ‘context’. As Beck and McKeown say, these are words that “are not the most basic or common ways of expressing ideas, but they are familiar to mature language users as ordinary as opposed to specialized language.” With this in mind, a good way of identifying whether or not a word classifies as Tier 2 is by thinking about if your students are likely to already have the language to rephrase the word in a more simple, basic way. For instance, the word ‘soar’ is a good Tier 2 word to teach because it adds more sophistication and specificity to a student’s understanding of the word ‘fly’; they will be able to comprehend that soaring isn’t just flying, but flying very quickly and high in the air.

Tier 3 Words

So now we’re onto the final class of words in our tiered vocabulary system. If you’re teaching your students Tier 3 words, then that means you’re likely teaching them the language of scientists or mathematicians or historians and literary critics. This is because Tier 3 words are defined as subject-specific language, which you will only find being used within the context of that particular field. For maths, this includes words like ‘denominator’, whilst science lessons might require students to understand the meaning of ‘homeostasis’. Often, these words are integral to teaching content for certain topics in certain subjects.

How does this help my teaching?

Now you have a way of organising all those thousands of words out there, you can start focusing and sharpening your vocabulary teaching. If you are reading a tricky text or extract with your class, you can begin sorting the words into their relevant tiers. You can then direct your teaching explicitly towards teaching the Tier 2 and 3 words that are essential to your class’ comprehension of the text. This is the crucial step; it is not enough to simply place a text in front of your students and expect them to pick up the language through reading alone. Without understanding the meanings of these Tier 2 words, how are students 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.

And if you need some tips on exactly how to teach Tier 2 words, remember to read Helen Sharpe’s five essential strategies for doing just that! Or for broader vocabulary teaching tips, why not read our list of five things you need to know about vocabulary teaching?

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