Vocabulary has long been correlated with reading comprehension. It makes sense: if students don’t understand the words, how can they be expected to understand the key points of an article, follow the plot of a story, etc.? Unfortunately, many existing instructional materials skip straight to questions testing comprehension without providing a structure for helping students build vocabulary. The vocabulary that is usually emphasized is often discipline-specific, which is important, but will likely appear far less frequently in future texts.
In terms of teaching vocabulary, teachers need answers to two overarching questions: “Which words should I teach?” and “How should I teach them?”
While deciding which words to teach can seem daunting, there are some general guideposts an educator can use when determining where he or she should pause and take time to introduce potentially unknown vocabulary. Hiebert (2009)1 describes three general criteria for determining which words to choose for intensive teaching: 1) words needed to fully comprehend the text; 2) words likely to appear in future texts from any discipline, and 3) words that are part of a word family or semantic network where you can use one word to introduce several: example “migrate” could lead to introductions of the words “migrations,” “immigrants,” and “emigrate.”
There are three tiers of words; using the tiers can help teachers gauge whether they should spend time teaching the word:
Tier 1 words are generally learned through everyday conversation. These words are generally not considered challenging beyond the early grades.
Tier 2 words require particular instructional attention. They are often vital to comprehension, will reappear in many texts, and are frequently part of word families or semantic networks. These words may have multiple meanings depending on context, so while students may be familiar with a definition for a word’s most traditional use, they may be unfamiliar with other uses. For instance, a student may know the term ‘relative’ as a word to describe a family member, but not as a comparative term.
Tier 3 words are far more common in informational passages than in literature. They are specific to a domain or field of study (lava, fuel injection, legislature, circumference, aorta) and are key to understanding a new concept within the text.
Figuring out which words are considered tier 2 can be tricky, however. Since tier 2 words are critical to building literacy skills, it’s important to emphasize them in instruction. The Academic Word Finder identifies tier 2 words in text and provides student-friendly definitions and examples. To use this free tool, a teacher simply copies and pastes a text into a textbox and selects the grade they’re teaching. The Academic Word Finder instantly produces a list of the tier 2 vocabulary words included in that text, identifying them as “below,” “at,” and “above” the grade level selected. The definitions and sample sentences can be printed and given to students to help them define new words as they’re reading.
The results page from the Academic Word Finder
Once teachers have identified which tier 2 words to focus on, they must decide how to include them in their lesson plan. ELA/literacy expert David Liben suggests the following approach in his article Which Words Do I Teach and How:
Instruction of tier two words might begin with carefully looking at the key role these words play in the text (followed by examining the variety and shades of meaning for each of these words). This in turn would be followed by careful attention to the spelling, pronunciation, and morphology of the words so they can become a firm part of the students’ vocabulary. This focus on precise meanings in varied contexts, combined with morphology, will also provide necessary repetitions. Encounters with a word spread out over time will further increase the likelihood of retention.
Providing even a small increase in attention to these critical tier 2 words can result in big gains for students’ overall literacy skills and their ability to comprehend complex text.
For more information on the significance of vocabulary instruction in the Common Core, visit the Vocabulary and the Common Core page on Achieve the Core. To learn more about the different types of vocabulary and how to incorporate them into classroom lessons, read David Liben’s article Which Words Do I Teach and How?
1Hiebert, E. (Ed.), (2009). Reading More, Reading Better: Are American Students Reading Enough of the Right Stuff? New York: Guilford Publications, 2009.