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Teaching Tiered Vocabulary

    teaching tiered vocabulary

    What It Is And Why It’s Important

    Have you heard educators talking about teaching tiered vocabulary and wondered what the heck that is or how to incorporate it into your instruction? You’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn what tiered vocabulary is, why it’s important, and how to approach it in your classroom.

    Teaching tiered vocabulary might just be the answer to your student’s reading and writing woes.

    Despite words being all around us, teaching vocabulary can be a challenge, right? (Right.) Yet, we know that having a strong foundation for vocabulary influences student fluency, comprehension, and overall reading and writing achievement. Thus, vocabulary instruction is a critical component of student success in the ELA classroom and beyond. (A gatekeeper of advanced texts and their comprehension of sorts.)

    Yet, with so much to teach and so little time, I’ve found vocabulary instruction easily falls to the wayside. Sometimes we ignore teaching vocabulary altogether. (Students can just “look it up” right?!) And with everything else on a teacher’s plate, it was easy to forget the importance of explicit vocabulary instruction. And then there’s always the struggle of choosing which words to teach…

    Understanding tiered vocabulary completely changed my approach to vocabulary instruction. Keep reading to learn why you might want to use it too.

    Why Teaching Vocabulary Is Important.

    Yes, having a robust vocabulary supports students as they navigate new and difficult texts. I’d also argue that a student’s strong vocabulary is something that can transcend the four walls of your classroom. Not only can students’ vocabulary help them across various disciplines, but it’s something they’ll carry into the real world too.

    At its core, vocabulary instruction helps students learn to decode and comprehend the English language. And it’s not just reading that I’m talking about here. Vocabulary plays a role in written and spoken communication as well. Therefore, explicitly teaching vocabulary allows students to deepen their ability to understand others’ ideas as well as better express their own. As they move from grade to grade, keeping a strong vocabulary base will help them as they encounter texts and concepts of increasing complexity.

    Of course, the idea of vocabulary study is nothing new. However, now we’re hearing the phrase “tiered vocabulary” thrown into the mix. So, what’s the deal? It is just another buzzword or is it here to say? And, perhaps most importantly, what the heck is it?

    What Is Tiered Vocabulary? 

    You can read all about teaching tiered vocabulary in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (affiliate link) by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. (And it’s a fantastic resource.) But, if you’re looking to get right to it, here’s the gist: tiered vocabulary is an organizational framework where vocabulary words are placed into one of three “tiers,” or categories. It helps classify vocabulary words based on certain factors, including commonality, utility, and importance. The tiers take into consideration the words’ complexity and meaning too.

    By separating words into three tiers, teachers and students alike can begin to distinguish between words they already know, words they need to know, and words that would be helpful to know in a specific context. Therefore, teaching tiered vocabulary helps students build the foundation they need to comprehend and analyze the subject matter at hand. A strong tiered vocabulary approach helps set students up for success as they move across grade levels, content areas, and texts of varying complexity in both.

    Long story short? Teaching tiered vocabulary is a proven method to help students with language acquisition and comprehension, and communication. This is especially true when considering a diverse student body. So, if you have students working at different levels of fluency, comprehension, and analysis, you might consider using this tiered vocabulary approach for different groups of students– especially struggling or ESL learners.

    Teaching Tiered Vocabulary: Tier One Words

    Tier one words are high-frequency words and are often very concrete. Similarly, they are often consistent in meaning across various situations. Therefore, tier one words are familiar and basic, including those everyday words that we learn quickly through day-to-day experiences and communication.

    Words in this category don’t usually require direct instruction, especially at the secondary level. In fact, most primary students come to school with an understanding of these terms. However, it’s important to note that learning these tier one vocabulary words is an essential step for any ESL students.

    Examples of tier-one words include read, write, family, nervous, confused, excited, big, and small. (You know, the common words.)

    Teaching Tiered Vocabulary: Tier Two Words

    Tier two words tend to be a bit more abstract than those in tier one, but are still considered fairly high-frequency when it comes to the content area. While highly frequent, these words tend to be more robust and abstract than tier one and, therefore, require more of a direct instruction. Tier two words may be less likely to be used in everyday communications, but are certainly useful to know to comprehend the topic at hand. With that said, many tier two words (think vocab words for a specific text) are more likely to appear in a text than a conversation.

    One of the challenges with tier two vocabulary words is that they don’t always follow phonetic spelling and traditional rules of the english language. Additionally, these words are more likely to have multiple meanings than those in tier one (and tier three). That means the terms can be more difficult for students to grasp, since the meaning may change depending on the context. (A perfect time for a reminder about context clues? I think so.) However, tier two words are often considered “academic” vocabulary and are likely to come in handy across various subject matters.

    Examples of secondary tier-one words include coincidence, summarize, obvious, complex, infer, analyze, and reason.

    Teaching Tiered Vocabulary: Tier Three Words

    Finally, we have tier three words. Tier three words are considered low-frequency and are highly specific to the content area. For example, there are many scientific terms specific to chemistry, biology, and physics. There are also several math terms that you won’t ever use in English or Social Studies class. Since these are considered highly specified words, students are likely unfamiliar with them and will need explicit instruction to understand them.

    Tier three words have very distinct meanings and uses. Therefore, these words only need to be taught when necessary. For example, if the word is a cornerstone to a specific text, you will need to teach it for the sake of overall comprehension. However, this isn’t necessarily where our attention should be one hundred percent of the time. After all, these terms aren’t likely to be used beyond said content and purposes, though may help build content knowledge over time. Therefore, these do not need to be the focus of vocabulary study unless necessary for comprehension.

    Some examples of tier three vocabulary words specific to ELA include terms like allegory, ethos, pathos, logos, diction, connotation, and stanza.

    What Does Teaching Tiered Vocabulary Look Like?

    The goal behind teaching tiered vocabulary is to add an element of use and productivity behind vocabulary instruction. (Ever handed students a random list of words because you’re “supposed to” be teaching vocab? We’ve all been there.)

    As you begin shifting your thoughts and approach to teaching new words, consider the usability and purpose of each word. This will help you create more effective and appropriate vocabulary lists for your students. In ELA, tiered vocabulary is especially useful when diving into nonfiction and informational texts, which become an increasingly large part of the curriculum in secondary education.

    At this point, tier one words are not something to focus on. Additionally, tier three words should only be taught when necessary. For example, if you are doing a unit of argumentative writing, of course your students should know the meaning behind ethos, logos, and pathos. However, most vocabulary instruction should focus on tier two words.

    That leaves tier two. Teaching tier two words is the best use of our time in the secondary classroom. They’re also the most useful in the long-term for students. Sure, tier three words might be essential to a particular unit or text, but remember, tier two words are more likely to repeatedly show up across topics, situations, and content areas.

    Building Your Vocab List: Choosing The “Right” Words.

    When it comes to teaching tiered vocabulary (or any vocab for that matter), lists a mile long simply won’t do anyone any good. You don’t want students cramming for their Friday vocabulary test only to forget the word ever existed come Monday. Therefore, many teachers wonder which vocabulary words to choose. And for some teachers, the stress of choosing the “right” words is enough to make them want to avoid teaching vocabulary at all.

    But here are a few questions you can ask yourself when choosing the “right” words:

    • How essential is the word in communicating the meaning of the context in which it is used? Could they understand the text without it?
    • Is this word generally useful to my students? Will this word be one that will reappear in various texts or that they will encounter in other disciplines?
    • How does the word relate to other words and concepts that students know or have been learning? Does it directly relate or build upon an idea they’ve already explored?
    • Will it be useful in students’ writing and overall communication? For example, will it help students express their thoughts and ideas with more clarity, conciseness, or precision?

    Use your answers to the above questions to determine how to approach a specific word. For example, it might be worth just defining the term for your students versus doing an in-depth study of the word. Alternatively, perhaps you decide the word is not worth the time at all. And while some people spend time worrying if a word is “grade-level,” remember this: A word is appropriate to teach your students if it is significant to your content and if you can explain it using words and concepts they do know.

    Remember, vocabulary words can serve various purposes. The two most important are understanding a text and deepening one’s insight of a particular topic or situation. If the words you choose can do either of those, you’ve likely got yourself a solid list.

    Should You Be Teaching Tiered Vocabulary?

    Remember, we’re not talking about memorizing words here. We’re talking about truly learning and understanding words. That means taking vocabulary instruction beyond a weekly list measured by a traditional test. Instead, we’re talking about understanding words to better comprehend written text as well as being able to communicate (both in speaking and writing) with clarity and precision.

    And if that is the goal, teaching tiered vocabulary can help both you and your students achieve it.

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