Academic Vocabulary Strategies Module

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Level 1 - This level will provide you with background knowledge of academic vocabulary and the three tiers used to categorize vocabulary words. The next level will provide you with research-based strategies on how to teach academic vocabulary.

1) Why should we teach vocabulary?

Common Core State Standards ([CCSS], 2016) confirmed that acquiring vocabulary is very important in relation to a child’s comprehension skills. CCSS (2016) identified the following about a child’s vocabulary:

  • “They need incremental, repeated exposure through a variety of contexts” (p. 32)
  • Kids learn through oral conversations early in life
  • School age children need to be introduced to new words because new words are introduced less frequently in conversation
  • Vocabulary stagnates in conversation by grade four or five unless it is acquired from written context (Hayes & Ahrens as cited by CCSS, 2016).
  • “If students are truly to understand what they read, they must grasp upward of 95 percent of the words” (Betts; Carver; Hu & Nation; Laufer as cited by CCSS, 2016, p. 32)

2) Defining Academic Vocabulary

According to Adams, “When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford” (as cited in Common Core State Standards [CCSS], 2016).

“Vocabulary consists of the words we understand when we hear or read them (receptive vocabulary) and words we speak or write (expressive vocabulary)” (Hutton, 2008, p. 1).

According to NCDPI (n.d, Slide 17) “the goal of vocabulary instruction is for students to know words well, be able to explain them, and use them in multiple contexts.”

The two videos define and provide further explanations as to the importance of academic vocabulary. 

Video 1

           (LearningAZ Video, 2016)

Video 2

Click the following link to view a conversation from Engage NY between Kate Gerson, Senior Fellow for Educator Engagement & the Common Core; New York State Commissioner John B. King, Jr.; and David Coleman, a contributing author of Common Core State Standards (EngageNY, 2016). 

3) The 3 Tiers of Vocabulary

In order to determine the appropriate words to teach children words can be sorted into three different tiers based on their “use, complexity, and meaning” (NCDPI, n.d.; Hutton, 2008, CCSS, 2016). Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2002) designed the Tiered Vocabulary framework to help organize words and determine their need for instruction.

Tier 1 (Basic Vocabulary) – According to NCDPI these words are in 80% of text (n.d.). Tier 1 words are the “most basic words” of oral language and “rarely require instruction attention” (Hutton, 2008); “do not typically have multiple meanings” (Hutton, 2008); includes “sight words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and early reading words” (Hutton, 2008)

Tyson (2013) stated that Tier 1 words are words students used daily in their conversations and are learned by listening to adults in their lives. Examples: friend, large, sister, brother

Tier 2 (High Frequency/Multiple Meaning Vocabulary) – words that are more sophisticated and used often across disciplines; words that appear in literature and adult conversations; influence speaking and reading; contain multiple meanings; important for comprehension; used by mature language users; helps students describe concepts in more detail; most important words for instruction (Hutton, 2008)

Tyson (2013) defined Tier 2 words as words that are “general academic words and have utility across a wide range of topics” (p. 1). Tyson stated that these words are “primarily learned through reading and explicit instruction” (2013, p. 1). Further, focusing on Tier 2 words is essential in “comprehending nonfiction and informational text” (Tyson, 2013, p. 1). Examples: conclude, estimate, justify, examine

Tier 3 (Low-frequency, Context-Specific Vocabulary) – words that are very rare or apply to specific domains; content specific words; these words are learned as students study topics (Hutton, 2008)

The videos below further explain and provide examples of the three tiers.

Video 1

Video 2

(MrsLDubinsky, 2016)

Click the following link to see how the three tiers are used.

(PBS Learning Media, 2016)

4) Vocabulary Sort 

Use your knowledge of academic vocabulary and the 3 tiers to complete the vocabulary sort. An answer key is provided for you to check your answers.


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Common Core State Standards (2016). Common core state standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects Appendix 

                 A: Research supporting key elements of the standards. Retrieved from

EngageNY. (2016). Shift 6: Academic vocabulary [Vimeo]. Retrieved July 16, 2016 from

Hutton, T. L. (2008). Three tiers of vocabulary and education. Super duper publications (182). Retrieved from     


Learning AZVideo. (2013, December 17). Common core: Academic vocabulary [YouTube]. Retrieved July 16, 2016 from 


MrsLDubinsky (Powtoon). (2016, March 8). Tiers 1,2,3 – Academic vocabulary [YouTube]. Retrieved July 16, 2016 from

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (n.d.). NC public schools ready for success: Academic vocabulary. Retrieved from 


Marzano, R. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

PBS Learning Media (PBS & WFBH Edcuational Foundation). (2016). Academic vocabulary in the common core: An introduction. Retrieved July 16, 2016 from


Tyson, K. (2013, May 26). No tears for tiers: Common core tiered vocabulary made simple [Blog post]. Retrieved from