The 3 Tiers of Vocabulary for Classroom Instruction

Learn what the three tiers of vocabulary are, examples of words for each vocabulary tier, and what tier teachers should spend the most time on for instruction!

Did you know that not all vocabulary words are created equally? This is especially true when it comes to classroom instruction. The type of words we focus on can make a big impact on students’ vocabulary progress. Within this blog post, we’ll chat about the three tiers of vocabulary. We’ll also discuss what each vocabulary tier consists of, examples of words for each tier, and how we can use this information as teachers. Let’s get started!

What are the Three Tiers of Vocabulary?

For instructional purposes, vocabulary words are sorted into three tiers: Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. The illustration below shows the three tiers of vocabulary. As you can see, we move from Tier 1 on the bottom of the triangle up to Tier 3 at the top of the triangle.

Let's learn about the three tiers of vocabulary!

What is the difference between each vocabulary tier? The image below gives a quick, concise explanation of each tier. I will break down each tier for you and give examples of words for each tier.

What is Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 vocabulary? This chart quickly summarizes each vocabulary tier for teachers and educators.

As you can see in the image above, each tier consists of a very different type of word list. Let’s break down each vocabulary tier and discuss what it means for us as classroom teachers and the focus for our instruction.

Tier 1 Vocabulary

Tier 1 vocabulary words consist of basic, familiar words. These words are commonly used by most students in everyday conversation.  Students have the highest exposure with Tier 1 words. In fact, children are exposed to Tier 1 words from an early age, and as a result, they become easily familiar with this set of words. Perhaps the easiest way to think about Tier 1 words is to remember that the words are often used in oral conversations and familiar in speech. Examples of Tier 1 words are shown in the image below.

Tier 1 Vocabulary consists of basic, familiar words. Examples of tier 1 vocabulary are included in this image and blog post.

Tier 1 word examples in the image above include: sad, walk, elephant, baby, red, bus, clock, phone, and rain. Tier 1 vocabulary words are words students come to school knowing and using the most. In fact, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan explain in their book, Bringing Words to Life, that students are likely able to learn Tier 1 words naturally and independently!

Tier 2 Vocabulary

Tier 2 vocabulary words are robust, high-frequency words that students encounter across the content areas. They are not widely used in speech and daily conversation. Unlike Tier 1 words, Tier 2 words are not usually learned naturally or independently because students do not hear or use them in conversation. A key point to understand is that Tier 2 words are often used and found in books and written text. Tier 2 vocabulary words often have multiple meanings. This tier can also be referred to as academic vocabulary words.  Examples of Tier 2 vocabulary words are listed in the image below.

Examples of Tier 2 vocabulary words are bolt, fine, amiable, rare, harmony, blush, astute, and valuable. As you can see, these words have multiple meanings and are not typically used in everyday, causal conversation. However, it is Tier 2 words that students will encounter frequently in written texts. Tier 2 words will have an important impact on your students’ comprehension skills. 

(Pssst! Guess what?! If you use any of my Vocabulary Curriculum Sets already in your kindergarten, first grade, or second grade classroom, you are already a ROCKSTAR at explicitly teaching Tier 2 words! Go you!)

Tier 3 Vocabulary

Tier 3 vocabulary words are low-frequency words. These words are content specific and have distinct meanings and purposes. Examples of Tier 3 words are listed in the image below.

Tier 3 Vocabulary consists of low-frequency words that are content specific. Examples of tier 3 vocabulary are included in this image and blog post.

Tier 3 words like pterodactyl, aorta, thesis, isosceles, osmosis, electrolyte, photosynthesis, and igneous are not words we often use in everyday conversations. These words have a distinct purpose and we use them only when they relate to a specific topic or domain. When we use a Tier 3 word, there is a specific reason to do so, such as when we are learning about plants in a science unit or triangles during math class.

Which Tier Should We Focus Instruction On?

Let’s recap what we learned about the three tiers of vocabulary. We learned that Tier 1 vocabulary words are words students come to school knowing and using the most. Therefore, as teachers, we naturally do not (and should not) spend the bulk of our time explicitly teaching the meanings of Tier 1 words. Remember, most students can naturally and independently learn Tier 1 words. For example, if the word “dinosaur” is part of your district’s reading curriculum, I think it’s safe to say that most first graders have heard of the word dinosaur before. They know what a dinosaur is and what it looks like! A quick review or picture card would probably be all they need to remind them of what a dinosaur is. Spending a week on the word dinosaur is not an effective use of instructional time!

Students will need to know Tier 3 words, however, Tier 3 words will not make up the bulk of the words they encounter in written text. For example, if your students are reading a chapter series, the frequency of the word “mitosis” in each book is going to be really low! Furthermore, Tier 3 words typically do not have synonyms and antonyms, so learning the definition to a Tier 3 word is usually pretty “cut and dry”. Students only need to learn Tier 3 words when a specific need is present.

So, did a lightbulb go off for you yet?! Do you know which vocabulary tier we want to spent the most time on each week? If you answered Tier 2, you are correct!

As teachers, we will get the most “bang for our buck” if we spend the bulk of our vocabulary instruction on Tier 2 words. These are words that are found and used across variety of topics, domains, areas, and content. Since MANY Tier 2 words have multiple meanings, they are more difficult to learn because students need to understand the word within multiple contexts, as well as understand the connection between the words’ synonyms and antonyms.

Having a robust vocabulary and knowledge of Tier 2 words directly impacts our students’ reading comprehension skills.

Our students' vocabulary is directly related to their comprehension success.

Ways To Focus on Tier 2 Vocabulary

Now that we know the importance of Tier 2 vocabulary words, let’s chat about ways to incorporate these words into our daily routine! Several years ago, I created an engaging and easy-to-follow vocabulary routine for kindergarten, first-grade, and second-grade teachers! I often get asked, “Where did the words in each set come from?” The words I chose for my curriculum are Tier 2 words that often have multiple meanings and can be seen in written text, across multiple contents, topics, and domains! Sounds pretty spot-on to what we just learned about in this post, right?! Take a look at some of the word lists below. These Tier 2 words are words that students will not typically learn independently. It’s important we have a routine and a plan for explicitly teaching Tier 2 vocabulary in our classrooms.

Word lists for first grade and second grade vocabulary curriculum

Synonyms and Shades of Meaning

We can expose students to multiple Tier 2 words by spending time on the synonyms and antonyms for Tier 2 words. When we teach our students even three to five Tier 2 words, we can actually expose them to up to TWENTY Tier 2 words throughout the week by discussing the synonyms associated with these words, and their shades of meaning. The image below shows you an easy routine for teaching and exposing your students to a variety of Tier 2 words:

Easy and engaging vocabulary routine for teaching synonyms in the context of written text.

Multiple Meanings and Multiple Contexts

As we learned in this post, many Tier 2 words have multiple meanings. It’s important to explicitly point out these multiple meanings and help students understand how they are used in various contexts. Each week’s vocabulary lessons in my curriculum includes a passage AND a read aloud! The read aloud (often presented on Day 2 each week) uses the Tier 2 words in a different context than the passage on Day 1. Exposing our students to various contexts and situations helps them to better understand the word and see it used in various ways! (Bonus: Each read aloud comes in a printable version AND a digital version!)



Tier 2 Vocabulary Word Play

Pointing Tier 2 words out in the books you read and allowing students to “play” with words is also an important part of vocabulary instruction. We want our students to have a lot of opportunities for word play and practice using the words in their daily discussions. Examples of word play games include:

  • songs
  • art games
  • charades
  • chants
  • puzzles
  • drama games
  • …and SO many more!

Word Play activities are a great way to teach students Tier 2 vocabulary words and their multiple meanings!

One of the best parts of my vocabulary sets are the included word play games for each week’s Tier 2 words! You can see the table of contents in image above, and a page out of the word play section called Sing-Along Antonyms! Each word play activity has a teacher direction page and if required, the printable materials that are needed. You can read more about Vocabulary Word Play ideas in another blog post I wrote by clicking HERE.

Learn More About Vocabulary Instruction

That was ALOT of information on the three tiers of vocabulary, and some various activities and ideas for teaching Tier 2 words within your classroom! If you’d like to learn more about my simple, already-done-for-you vocabulary routine click HERE to check out my vocabulary curriculum blog post! In this post, I go into depth on even more vocabulary research and why it is so important to have an explicit plan in place for your vocabulary instruction.

You can check out my vocabulary curriculum bundles by clicking on your grade level below. The vocabulary bundles are also sold as individual sets, too!

If you’d like to refer back to this post, or share it with a colleague, feel free to pin the image below to your Pinterest page! Thank you so much for hanging out with me and learning about the three tiers of vocabulary and how they impact our classroom instruction. Don’t forget to make sure you are following me on Instagram @missdecarbo for weekly tips, ideas, activities, resources, and freebies!

Learn what the three tiers of vocabulary are, examples of words for each vocabulary tier, and what tier teachers should spend the most time on for instruction!

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