Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.

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