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Literacy | Vocabulary

Using vocabulary tiers to improve literacy

By Olivia Sumpter

08 Mar 2022

A library full of books

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 learners’ literacy.

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 learners? 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.

The simplest tier – these are words that most learners 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.

If your goal is to improve learners’ literacy, these are the words you want to focus on. They are ambitious words, such as ‘emerge’, ‘analyse’, ‘peculiar’ and ‘context’, that learners 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 learner'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.

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 learners to understand ‘homeostasis’. Often, these words are integral to teaching content for certain subjects.

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

If you are reading a tricky text with learners, it is not enough simply to place a text in front of them and expect them to pick up the language through reading. 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 learners through thorough, continuous vocabulary instruction, so that these words become firmly established elements of their lexicons.

You can begin by 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 a quicker solution, why not access Bedrock Vocabulary's Tier 2 vocabulary curriculum and get your learners harnessing the Tier 2 vocabulary they need today?

However, our EdTech solution isn't the only way to promote vocabulary improvement. 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.