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Tier Two Words

From Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan

 What Words Should We Teach?

In spite of common lists that claim to be “Grade 9” or “Grade 12” words, there is no formula for determining the grade-level of a word. The authors of Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown, Kucan) classify words in three tiers:

  • Tier One: Basic words that rarely require instruction in school (car, drive, fast)
  • Tier Two: High frequency, mature words found across a variety of domains (ramification, maintain, benevolent)
  • Tier Three: Specialized words of relatively low frequency, often limited to a specific domain (isotope, lathe, retronym). 

They argue that the focus of instruction in school should be on tier two words.


Criteria for Identifying Tier Two Words

Importance and utility: Words that are characteristic of mature language users and appear frequently across a variety of domains

Instructional potential: Words that can be worked with in a variety of ways so that students can build rich representations of them and of their connections to other words and concepts

Conceptual understanding: Words for which students understand the general concept but provide precision and specificity in describing the concept (Beck 19).


How Many Words Should Students Be Expected to Acquire in an Academic Year?

The ideal answer is 700 tier two words per year, but a more reasonable goal of 400 words per year would allow for “the depth of instruction needed to affect students’ text comprehension” while making a “significant contribution to an individual’s verbal functioning” (Beck 9).


What Does It Mean to Know a Word?

Since the mid-twentieth century, researchers have attempted to answer this question and to explore the implications of their answers for classroom teachers. The answer is complex, but this continuum attempts a summary (Beck et al 9-11):

  • No knowledge
  • General sense of a word’s use and positive or negative connotations
  • Narrow, context-bound knowledge
  • Rich, decontextualized knowledge

RHS English teacher Sara Rice begins word study by asking students to describe their word knowledge using this chart adapted from Joan Sedita's The Key Vocabulary Routine: Content Vocabulary Instruction:

How Do We Learn Words?

The traditional approach is to assign lists of definitions for difficult words that appear in a unit or text, but definitions are only the starting point of word knowledge and for some students, definitions can be deadly. Teaching students to search for context clues can be helpful, but unlike oral context clues – tones of voice, facial expressions, bodily gestures – written context clues vary in degree of helpfulness.

Word Talk

Standards: SL1, SL6

Instead of merely reproducing published definitions of words, revise them using everyday language, questions, and explanations. Then encourage students to compare your user-friendly explanations with the definitions provided in a dictionary or glossary (36-39).

Consider the shortcomings of this dictionary definition:


disrupt: break up; split


This could easily be interpreted as physical breaking, as in, “We disrupted the candy bar so we could all share it.” What’s the nature of disrupt that needs to be captured? It would seem to be that disrupting is like rudely stopping something that’s going on, or causing a problem that makes some activity cease. Using these ideas might lead to the student-friendly explanation: “to cause difficulties that stop something from continuing easily or peacefully.”


On the day you introduce a new word or word list, even one with user-friendly explanations, engage students in a conversation about the words through questions:


·      paranoid: Where have you seen or heard this word before?

·      irrational: Do you recognize a smaller word inside this word?

·      equivocate: Does anyone know what equi might mean in Latin? What does the expression mean, to speak out of both sides of your mouth?