Words and Learning to Read: Vocabulary Parts 3 and 4–Kinds of Words

Words/Vocabulary: Parts 3 (Tiered Words/Academic Vocabulary) and Part 4 (Content Words)

Several distinctions have been made about types of vocabulary words to be learned.  For example, Beck formulated a system where she described words as Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 3. Here’s a link to her work with Mc Keown and Kucan (Creating Robust Vocabulary, Guildford Press, 2008): https://www.aea267.k12.ia.us/system/assets/uploads/files/76/which_words_to_teach.pdf

 Beck et. al. describe these levels (tiers) as

Tier One: Most basic words, rarely require instruction in school; Exs: clock, baby, happy

Tier Two: Words that are of high frequency in mature language use and are found across a variety of domains; Exs: coincidence, absurd, industrious.

Tier Three: Words whose frequency of use is quite low and is often limited to specific domains; best learned when needed in a content area; Exs: isotope, lathe, peninsula

(Note: Tiered vocabulary is not to be confused with Tier 1, 2, and 3 Instruction in Response to Intervention literature. Those tiers refer to the level of intervention needed for students who are or are not progressing as expected in the regular classroom. The instruction is not specific to vocabulary).

 A description of tiered words from an elementary school.


Taken from Images of Academic Words where there are many other images/links. Simply google “images for academic words.”

Tier 1 Basic words that commonly appear in spoken language.  Because they are heard frequently in numerous contexts and with nonverbal communication, Tier 1 words rarely require explicit instruction. Examples of Tier 1 words are clock, baby, happy and walk.

Tier 2 High frequency words used by mature language users across several content areas.  Because of their lack of redundancy in oral language, Tier 2 words present challenges to students who primarily meet them in print.  Examples of Tier 2 words are obvious, complex, establish and verify. [These are considered “academic words”.]

Tier 3 Words that are not frequently used except in specific content areas or domains.  Tier 3 words are central to building knowledge and conceptual understanding within the various academic domains and should be integral to instruction of content.  Medical, legal, biology and mathematics terms are all examples of these words.

And here is a commercial site that provides a 3 minute video distinguishing tiers of words: http://www.learninga-z.com/commoncore/academic-vocabulary.html

Tier 1 words: These words are basic vocabulary or the more common words most children will know. They include high-frequency words and usually are not multiple meaning words.

Tier 2 words: Less familiar, yet useful vocabulary found in written text and shared between the teacher and student in conversation. The Common Core State Standards refers to these as “general academic words.” Sometimes they are referred to as “rich vocabulary.” These words are more precise or subtle forms of familiar words and include multiple meaning words. Instead of walk for example, saunter could be used. These words are found across a variety of domains.

Tier 3 words: CCSS refers to these words as “domain specific;” they are critical to understanding the concepts of the content taught in schools. Generally, they have low frequency use and are limited to specific knowledge domains. Examples would include words such as isotope, peninsula, refinery. They are best learned when teaching specific content lessons, and tend to be more common in informational text.

So, we might consider Tier 2 words as general “academic words” while Tier 3 words are considered “content specific words” referring to words/concepts learned in content areas like science and social studies. But there are other ways to distinguish words that are important for instruction: frequency, conceptual complexity (abstractness), and word relationships: familiarity, morphological family, semantic relationships and dispersion. [from Hiebert’s work on vocabulary and text complexity]

Word Frequency: How many words do K-12 students need to learn and where do they start?

Core Vocabulary


“At present, a third of an American cohort fails to attain a basic standard and another third fails to attain the proficient standard on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; National Center for Education Statistics, 2009)—and these assessments used texts less difficult than those on CCSS/ELA staircase of complex text.

This article is a clarion call for attending to the core vocabulary within the primary grades. Emphasizing the core vocabulary does not require that either texts or content be dumbed down. Even within the first 1,000 words, there are numerous words that pertain to nature (e.g., forest, soil, river, environment), human relationships (e.g., family, friend, parents, sister, husband), social institutions (e.g., government, nation, economy, language), and science (e.g., weather, energy, temperature, machine). To design lessons and select texts that increase students’ capacity with core vocabulary and, simultaneously, acquire new content requires that educators understand the core vocabulary and its relation to the thousands of other words that make up English.”

 Unique Words


“By definition, low-frequency words are rarely encountered by students, which means students have few ex­posures to them. We refer to them as unique words because, even though there are many words of this type, they make up only 10% of the vocabulary in texts (Hiebert, 2012). In narrative texts, these low-frequency words typically represent new ways of representing a known concept. Many students may not immediately recognize the mean­ing of the word nonplussed but most know what it means to be con­fused. In informational texts, the unique words typically represent conceptually complex concepts that are unknown to students and require factual information or a related system of concepts to under­stand (Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987). For example, to understand electrochemical energy requires that students understand terms such as chemical energy, conversion, and electric energy.­”

 * * * *

 Generative Words (5*):  7 Facts and 7 Instructional Ideas

(Leading into the Next Part of Vocabulary Words: Part 5 Vocabulary Instruction)


Dr. Elfrieda (Freddy) H. Hiebert describes 7 facts about a generative vocabulary approach and describes 7 instructional strategies to support each word fact. This video has implications for vocabulary instruction at the (narrative and information) text levels.
Download supporting materials and the presentation slides here.





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