In 1987, Beck and colleagues introduced the idea of a three-tier system to guide teachers as they chose words to explicitly teach. Their purpose was to help teachers understand which words should receive the most explicit instruction. As they built the tiered system, they focused on the function of words in language. Basals and reading programs often have different goals when choosing words for explicit instruction. It’s important to note that Beck and McKeown’s work focuses on the function and meaning of the words, not the spelling or reading difficulty. As a teacher, you might choose to intentionally pre-teach a difficult word or a spelling pattern. That goal differs from the goals of vocabulary instruction, which include building familiarity with words and capacity to use a word in speaking and writing.
According to “Bringing Words to Life“, Tier One words are “typically found in oral language”. These are words like dog, warm, run, talk, tired, party, look and swim. Because these are common in everyday speech, children are exposed to these words in a variety of contexts and with great frequency. This familiarity means that for a native speaker, these words rarely need to be taught. Keep in mind that we are focusing on students’ ability to use these words in their speaking and writing. You may want to explicitly teach how to spell these words, but that is a separate focus from building the capacity to use a word.
The second tier is where teachers should spend the majority of their instructional time. In this tier we find words that cross many domains and are used by mature language users. In my classroom we call these “scholarly words”. Tier Two words include words like circumstances, contradict, precede, auspicious, fervent and retrospect. One hallmark of Tier Two words is that they are seldom used in conversation, but are frequently found in written text. That means that students will seldom encounter these words in daily life. However, knowledge of these words can enhance a student’s ability to read grade level texts and also to express themselves exactly and precisely in their written work. Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.Mark Twain
You are probably wondering how many Tier Two words there are and which ones to focus on. Good question! Beck and McKeown helpfully analyze a study from Nagy and Anderson (1984) that focused on words in printed school English for third through ninth graders. They found that:
- Good readers in this age range typically read about one million words per year.
- There are about 88,500 word families in printed school English. A word family is a group of related words, for example introduce, introduced, introduction and reintroduce.
- About half of these word families are extremely rare, meaning that even a voracious reader may encounter them only once in their lifetime.
- About 15,000 word families would likely be encountered at least once every 10 years. Those are the words that Beck and McKeown have designated as Tier One and Tier Two words.
- Approximately 8,000 of those word families fall in Tier One, so students will likely learn those words through repeated exposure and multiple contexts without explicit instruction.
So, that leaves us with about 7,000 word families to teach. If we start in kindergarten with a goal of teaching those words by ninth grade, that averages out to about 700 words. No problem! Right?
Well, not exactly. I’ve been at this for a long time, and in my best years I am able to get in about 500 words that I’ve taught explicitly. And if I’m perfectly honest, just because I’ve taught them explicitly, it doesn’t meant that my students have learned them. I would love to think differently, but that just isn’t realistic. Beck and McKeown suggest that if just 400 words are taught explicitly each year, that would have a significant affect on students’ ability to comprehend text at their grade level. In fact, they have research to prove that it does! That is a bit easier, but still a lofty goal! We’ll cover strategies to meet that goal in future blog posts.
Tier Three words are domain specific or extremely rare. These are the words that students need to understand science, social studies and math concepts. Think of words like quotient, epidermis and filibuster. These words generally don’t cross domains, so Beck and McKeown suggest teaching them in context. When a student encounters a Tier Three word, that is moment to teach it. The other type of Tier Three word is a very rare word, such as abecedarian. Quite possibly you’ve never encountered that word, and it’s likely your students won’t either. (Interestingly, an abecedarain is a novice learner.) Because these words don’t have great utility in the majority of texts, teachers should not spend a significant amount of instructional time on them. In my experience, that’s where we spend the majority of our vocabulary instruction time – just the reverse of what we should be doing!
So, how to reverse that trend and still find time to eat dinner with your family? My blog post, “Words, Words Wonderful Words! – Strategies to engage your students” will give you some of my tried and true ideas. And, Bringing Words to Life has lots more great ideas. Get the book! It’s really worth it!