The role of Tier 1 vocabulary in improving vocabulary

By Dylan Davies

20 Nov 2022

A teacher giving vocabulary instruction in the classroom

What are the three tiers of vocabulary?

Tier 1 vocabulary refers to the everyday language learners pick up incidentally, such as through conversations with peers and adults. These are the common words that crop up daily and form the majority of informal communication.

Tier 2 vocabulary is more ambitious vocabulary found through reading and in academic texts. For some learners, Tier 2 vocabulary is picked up incidentally through avid reading and high-quality discussion, but for many this is not something gained by chance - it’s something that must be taught explicitly through vocabulary instruction.

Tier 3 vocabulary refers to the subject-specific keywords used only in particular disciplines. For example, “quadratic” in maths and “photosynthesis” in biology are two words that will rarely, if ever, be used outside of those disciplines. Understanding these subject-specific keywords is essential for learners’ success.

Why use Tier 1 vocabulary?

As mentioned above, Tier 1 language forms a large proportion of the words we use in informal speech throughout day to day life, but when it comes to academia, it doesn’t equip learners to achieve their potential.

However, Tier 1 language plays an important role for embedding context for Tier 2 terms, especially when explicitly teaching them. To ensure every learner has equal opportunity to learn ambitious vocabulary, definitions and context should be presented using accessible language - this is where Tier 1 vocabulary is strongest.

Strategies for using Tier 1 language to boost literacy

One of the main places we see Tier 1 vocabulary strategies in play is through high-quality teacher-learner discussion. In these discussions, we see the learner speaking to the teacher or peers using Tier 1 language.

Learner: Curley’s wife is really nasty to Crooks in that scene.

From this, the teacher upgrades the language in their response, showing the learner how the ambitious term is a synonym to the Tier 1 term they used.

Teacher: Yes, Curley’s wife demeans Crooks. How does that affect him?

In doing this, the Tier 2 term is contextualised through the conversation, giving the learner effective exposure to this new word.

It often takes more than this one exposure to embed new vocabulary. For a new term to be remembered, it can take anywhere from three to ten high-quality exposuresd, so strategies should be used to increase the number of high-quality encounters a learner has with an ambitious term.

For example, you could use regular recapping activities, such as quick-fire questions, to increase exposure to a new word. As learners enter the classroom and get settled, send out a few quick, low-stakes questions to prod their memories. Even if they get it wrong, it counts as a high-quality encounter with that word.

Edtech can also be useful for ensuring new vocabulary is recapped. For example, on Bedrock's core curriculum, after explaining a new term to a learner using Tier 1 vocabulary and a contextual image and example, this word goes into a learner’s knowledge organiser to be recapped at optimal intervals. A confidence rating then works out when a word has been mastered and is in the long term memory without an intervention from the teacher, saving time and creating a consistent vocabulary instruction routine.

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Teach vocabulary effortlessly

Bedrock's core curriculum uses accessible language and engaging texts to improve literacy.

Another useful strategy, both for Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary, is using Frayer models. This model for learning new terms is useful as it requires learners to translate a definition into Tier 1 vocabulary themselves. This ensures every learner identifies the word using language they are comfortable using every day.

Not only this, but learners identify synonyms and antonyms to the new term. This provides an opportunity for them to activate prior knowledge and compare high-quality vocabulary to each other, deepening that knowledge.

Learners need to be able to access the language of texts to enjoy reading them. When encountering a text which is too challenging, a learner is likely to turn off, and much less likely to consider picking up a book in the future. By using Tier 1 vocabulary effectively to prepare learners for the texts they encounter, you’re fostering a love of reading, and the literacy benefits of this extend beyond the school gates.

If you’re looking for strategies to boost reading in your struggling readers, find our book recommendations for readers of different ages.

As well as this, BookTrust uses an intelligent age rating to inform the books you give to learners. Look in particular for books with a reading age lower than the interest age - this will ensure learners with a low reading age don’t read texts which aren’t engaging for their age range, a common feature when selecting texts for struggling readers.

And to ensure your vocabulary instruction is consistent for every learner, rich with cultural capital and contextualised through Tier 1 vocabulary, find out more about Bedrock's core curriculum.

Explicit vocabulary instruction, effortlessly

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