Research School Network: For your eyes only? Using the Tiers of Vocabulary model with students – a suggestion

For your eyes only?

Using the Tiers of Vocabulary model with students – a suggestion

by Kingsbridge Research School
on the

The concept of tiers of vocabulary, developed by Beck et al (2013), aims to help teachers identify words that need explicit teaching:

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Tier 1 describes everyday vocabulary, especially that encountered in speech.

Tier 3 contains subject-specific vocabulary: caesura, diffraction, batik.

Tier 2 includes high-frequency vocabulary that might be encountered in many subject disciplines, especially in writing. In this set, for example, we’d find analyse, quantify and delineate. Although these words might have subtly different meanings in different subjects (catalyst means something specific in Chemistry but also has a general metaphorical use), an expansion of this academic vocabulary’ is an obvious benefit for reading. 

While a useful tool to help teachers prioritise vocabulary teaching, can we use the concept of tiered vocabulary with students as well?

The following is offered as something to explore. In the example described below, it is used to highlight the need for content-specific vocabulary within an English Literature response to poetry. First, the model has been adapted to the subject.

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Tier 1 is still called everyday vocabulary’. Tier 2 is labelled General Poetry vocabulary’ – in this sense, it would include terms like adverb, metaphor, image and symbolism (note that in the standard model, these would most likely be placed into the subject-specific Tier 3). Tier 3 in this version, however, is labelled Expert vocabulary specific to this poem’. In other words, the hierarchical principle of the model is the same but we’re making subdivisions within the discipline of English itself.

One way to use this would be by comparing sample responses. Let’s say our class have been studying Wordsworth’s The Prelude. First, we activate prior knowledge:

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Then we read a sample response:

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Introducing the tiered model, we ask students to highlight examples of vocabulary that would fit into tier 2 and 3.

Vocab annotation

Just to hammer home the specificity of the vocabulary used here, we might follow up with a few questions:

- How is concrete example’ different from example’?

- Why say aspirational images’ instead of images’?

- How is a commonplace image’ different from an image’?

Next, we might have them highlight further examples of tiered vocabulary with a different sample response:

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The point is that although both examples are saying more or less the same thing, the first is clearly more sophisticated – despite the fact that they use a similar quantity of general English vocabulary’ (noun, denotes, connote, simile and image).

We could argue about what has and hasn’t been highlighted (and even about how complex a particular word is), but would probably agree a) that the student who uses vocabulary like rationalism’, imposes barriers’, free imagination’, exhilaration’ and commonplace image’ is more engaged with this particular poem than one who uses fear of nature’, overpowered’, safe’, achievement’, exploring’, and b) that at least some of the difference is down to the specificity of the vocabulary.


Beck, I., McKeown, M.G., and Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.

Quigley, A. and Coleman, R., n.d. Improving Literacy In Secondary Schools.

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