Research and Reflections, Tools and Resources

Including Tier 2 Vocabulary Instruction in Curricular Materials

Building tier 2 vocabulary is critical to comprehending texts across content areas, yet it often receives insufficient attention in existing curriculum options. What can teachers do to fill the gap?

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.

Academic Word Finder Snip

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.

18 thoughts on “Including Tier 2 Vocabulary Instruction in Curricular Materials

  1. This article is very interesting and helpful. The articles and the Academic Word Finder are very useful resources. I will use these tools as reference for activities I plan for my classroom.

  2. The Academic Word Finder looks like a very useful tool. I plan to use it when planning upcoming lessons for my classroom.

  3. I can’t wait to use the Academic Word Finder. What a great tool to help identify the academic words and then to also include the definition, a great time saver. I often have stopped to talk about academic words we encounter, but this will bring it to a higher level of instruction.

  4. Everything in this article makes so much sense to me. The key to building comprehension is through vocabulary, but helping to guide teachers to the right vocabulary to teach is so important. I love the Academic Word Finder and can’t wait to share it with colleagues in the fall.

  5. I had never heard of the Academic Word Finder but working with the 2 Tier words in fifth grade will come in handy. I play a game with so many of the 2 Tiered words and their definitions and the students have to match the definition with the word. They love playing the game and they don’t realize they are learning.

  6. I found this article to be informational and was very excited to use an actual tool -The Academic Word Founder-that will identify the vocabulary to teach in a text I would provide. And I did exactly that, as soon I was finished reading I went to the site and signed up to receive access, I pasted the text I’m planning to use next week and waited excitedly for the list od vocabulary to appear and perhaps hoping to validate my what I believe the words should be. However to my misfortune the Academic Word Finder does not support foreign language! I teach Italian, all my text and instruction of course is in target language and the program only works in English! I’m so disappointed!

  7. This is such a helpful resource! As a beginner ESL teacher, I live in the teir 1 and teir 2 words, and this would be great for my students! Thanks!

  8. The idea of narrowing down what vocabulary is most important to teach by asking yourself some basic questions has been extremely helpful.

  9. The groups or tiers are key in understanding how learners learn! As teachers, this basic knowledge will help us guide students better.

  10. As an early childhood educator that also teaches children who have a disability, the vocabulary development is significant. I love the ideas not only in the article but the book on how to select words and definitions to teach.

  11. The article “Which Words do I Teach and Why” was very informative. It talks about the importance of teaching vocabulary words in context in order to develop students’ ability to learn the new word and to be able to use it in everyday conversations. In addition to finding this article useful I also cannot wait to use the academic word finder tool. I would like to create a few sets of vocabulary words before the beginning of the new school year.

  12. The article provided reinforcement to the text chapters 1-3 in Bringing Words to Life, by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. Because the English language is so vast, using Tier 2 words to teach vocabulary makes sense to anyone teaching Language Arts, Reading, and English Language Learners. The tips on how to identify Tier 2 words are also helpful.

  13. This was a good reminder that separating Tier 2 and 3 words can sometimes be nuanced, and needs a little more reflection on our part as teachers. I love the Academic Word Finder as a quick tool to help sort that pesky vocabulary! Finally, another reminder that repetition… over time….. is still a key part to building one’s vocabulary.

  14. When building my vocabulary list to teach students I tend to use Tier 2 words which are interdisciplinary and can help student understand a variety of texts across different subject areas. Also, I like to use a “Spanish Frequency Dictionary” in selecting the most frequently used words in Spanish when teaching a specific thematic unit so that students learn words that they are most likely to encounter when talking about a specific topic.

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About the Author: Student Achievement Partners is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving student achievement through evidence-based action. Founded by some of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards, the organization works closely with educators and other partners in the education field ensure the promise of the Common Core is realized in classrooms across the country.