No Tears for Tiers: Common Core Tiered Vocabulary Made Simple

No Tears for Tiers - Common Core Vocabulary Made SimpleThe Common Core State Standards place an importance on academic vocabulary. In addition to developing an advanced vocabulary, the CCSS calls for increasing the amount of nonfiction and informational text in classrooms. We know that vocabulary knowledge influences fluency, comprehension, and student achievement. And, vocabulary plays an even more important role in understanding nonfiction and informational text. It has been estimated that 80% of comprehension in nonfiction is dependent upon understanding the vocabulary.

In Appendix A of the Standards, the Tiered Vocabulary framework by Isabel Beck is summarized. To many educators, the idea of tiered vocabulary is rather new. In this post, I’ll define Tiered Vocabulary and lay out a simple framework for thinking about the tiers, including examples for each tier, and provide implications for instruction.

Tiered Vocabulary: Definitions and Examples

Definition: Tiered Vocabulary is an organizational framework for categorizing words and suggests implications for instruction. (The three-tier framework was developed by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown.)

Tier 1: Common, Known Words

Examples: big, small, house, table, family

Tier I words are basic, everyday words that are a part of most children’s vocabulary. These are words used every day in conversation, and most of them are learned by hearing family, peers, and teachers use them when speaking. These words are especially important for English language learners who may not be familiar with them.

Tier 2: High-Frequency Words (aka Cross-Curricular Vocabulary)Tiered Vocabulary

Examples: justify, explain, expand, predict, summarize, maintain

Tier 2 words include frequently occurring words that appear in various contexts and topics and play an important role in verbal functioning across a variety of content areas. These are general academic words and have high utility across a wide range of topics and contexts.

Another way to think of Tier 2 vocabulary is as cross-curricular terms. For example, the term “justify” and “predict” frequently appear in Science, Social Studies, and English texts.

Tier 3: Low-Frequency, Domain-Specific words

Examples: isotope, tectonic plates, carcinogens, mitosis, lithosphere

Tier 3 words are domain specific vocabulary. Words in this category are low frequency, specialized words that appear in specific fields or content areas. We anticipate that students will be unfamiliar with Tier 3 words. Beck suggests teaching these words as the need arises for comprehension in specific content areas.

Instructional Implications

Understanding tiered vocabulary has practical applications for the Common Core and classroom instruction.

Listed below are several instructional implications.

1. Content Vocabulary Lists

First, as teachers work through content units to create key vocabulary lists, understanding the three tiers can help separate the “should-know words (Tier 3)” from the “must-knows (Tier 2)” and the “already-known words (Tier 1).” Too frequently, vocabulary lists are unnecessarily long. That leads to just-in-time cramming and promptly forgetting the words following the quiz or test.

2. Focus for InstructionVocabulary Quote 

There isn’t enough time in the day for teachers to teach all words with the same amount of emphasis. Multiple exposures and practice are key characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction.

Tier 2 words are important for students to master and understand deeply. Why? Because academic words such as justify, expand, maximum, and barren are found in many content area texts such as social studies, Science, Mathematics, English, and History texts. Understanding these terms greatly increases comprehension of academic texts.

Creating a streamlined list of words helps teachers focus their instructional efforts and use strategies that help students master these terms. There are many evidenced-based vocabulary strategies. One of my favorites is Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Process which includes multiple exposures, linguistic and nonlinguistic definitions, and games to reinforce word learning.

3. Districtwide K-12 Core Vocabulary Lists

Many districts we work with create K-12 vocabulary lists. While including other terms, these K-12 core vocabulary lists often focus on the broad-based Tier 2 words. Not only are these terms important for reading and comprehending in a cross-curricular sense, Tier 2 terms also frequently appear on standardized assessments.

Math Dictionary

Math Dictionary for

4. Digital Tools to Support Word Learning

In today’s 21st century classrooms, digital tools must coexist alongside more traditional tools to help students increase their word learning and master academic terms. Online tools, compared to their more traditional counterparts, provide a broader array of information about words and word meanings. In addition, some tools allow teachers to easily customize words so that students can practice, review, and play games with content or unit-specific words.

I’ve reviewed 21 digital tools that may help you plan and organize vocabulary activities. Students, too, can benefit by using online reference tools and various apps for practicing and reviewing terms.

Final Thoughts

Tiered vocabulary doesn’t have to be complicated.

To start, review key terms from one unit and sorting them into Tier 2 and Tier 3 words which make up academic vocabulary.

Then, you need to think about how you will teach some of those words, particularly Tier 2 vocabulary. Check out 5 Simple Steps to Effective Vocabulary Instruction – you’ll get a few solid ideas and strategies there.

Put simply, creating tiered vocabulary lists and effective vocabulary instruction support student learning, achievement, and the Common Core State Standards.

bvocab thumbnailOur new book, Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Direct Instruction is available now online at Solution Tree, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. And, if you order, we’d greatly appreciate you leaving a review online. 


The following two tabs change content below.


Kimberly has been a teacher, administrator, and literacy consultant who worked in districts across the country to improve student literacy achievement. She currently serves as an Educational Specialist with Solution Tree and project manager for large-scale PLC implementations. Her new book, Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Effective Instruction, was recently released in February, 2017.