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Choosing Words to Teach

Since there never seems to be enough time for in-class vocabulary instruction, this excerpt from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, can help teachers decide which "Tier Two" words to prioritize.

The teacher's edition for a fourth-grade anthology suggests teaching the following words before inviting students to read an excerpt from Charlotte's Web (White, 1952): comfort, cunning, endure, friendless, frolic, lonely, soaked, and stealthily. Why do you think these words were selected? One obvious reason for selecting words to teach is that students do not know the words. Although cunning, endure, frolic, and stealthily are probably unfamiliar to most fourth graders, comfort, friendless, lonely, and soaked are probably not. Familiarity does not seem to be the principle used to make the selection. What about importance or usefulness? Are the selected words useful for writing or talking? Would the words be important to know because they appear in other texts with a high degree of frequency? Some — but not all — of the words might be considered useful or important. Thus, the question remains: Why were the words selected? The purpose of this chapter is to consider what principles might be used for selecting words to teach.

Useful Words

As a way to begin thinking about which words to teach, consider that words in the language have different levels of utility. In this regard, we have found our notion of tiers, as discussed in Chapter 1, to be one helpful lens through which to consider words for instructional attention. Recall that Tier One consists of the most basic words — clock, baby, happy — rarely requiring instruction in school. Tier Three includes words whose frequency of use is quite low, often being limited to specific domains — isotope, lathe, peninsula — and probably best learned when needed in a content area. Tier Two words are high-frequency words for mature language users — coincidence, absurd, industrious — and thus instruction in these words can add productively to an individual's language ability.

Identifying Tier Two Words in Texts

To get an idea of the process of identifying Tier Two words, consider an example. Below is the opening paragraph of a retelling of an old tale (Kohnke, 2001, p. 12) about a donkey who is under a magical spell that forces him to do the chores for a group of lazy servants. The story would likely be of interest to third and fourth graders.

Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated his servants fairly. He was also a successful wool merchant, and his business required that he travel often. In his absence, his servants would tend to the fields and cattle and maintain the upkeep of his mansion. They performed their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to have such a benevolent and trusting master.

The underlined words are those we identified as consistent with the notion of Tier Two words. That is, most of the words are likely to appear frequently in a wide variety of texts and in the written and oral language of mature language users. (Note: We chose this paragraph because there were so many candidate Tier Two words; however, most grade-level material would not have so many words in only one paragraph.)

One "test" of whether a word meets the Tier Two criterion of being a useful addition to students' repertoires is to think about whether the students already have ways to express the concepts represented by the words. Would students be able to explain these words using words that are already well known to them? If that is the case, it suggests that the new words offer students more precise or mature ways of referring to ideas they already know about. One way to answer the question is to think about how average third and fourth graders would talk about the concepts represented by the Tier Two words. We think that students would be likely to offer the explanations shown in the accompanying list.

Tier Two words Students' likely expressions
merchant salesperson or clerk
required have to
tend take care of
maintain keep going
performed did
fortunate lucky
benevolent kind

Adding the seven target words to young students' vocabulary repertoires would seem to be quite productive, because learning the words would allow students to describe with greater specificity people and situations with which they already have some familiarity. Note that these words are not simple synonyms of the familiar ones, however, instead representing more precise or more complex forms of the familiar words. Maintain means not only "keep going," for example, but also "to continue something in its present condition or at its present level." Benevolent has the dimension of tolerance as well as kindness.

Selecting from a Pool of Words

The decision about which words to teach must also take into account how many words to teach in conjunction with any given text or lesson. Given that students are learning vocabulary in social studies and science as well as reading or language arts, there needs to be some basis for limiting the number of words so that students will have the opportunity to learn some words well.

Now consider which of the words will be most useful in helping students understand the above paragraph. For the seven words noted there, our thinking is that fortunate is particularly important because the fact that the servants thought they were lucky is an important condition of the story. Similarly, benevolent plays an important role in setting up the story, as the servants appreciate their master's kindness and do not want to upset their pleasant living situation. If one other word were to be selected, a good choice would be merchant. Merchant is a word that comes up in fourth- and fifth-grade social studies textbooks in discussions of colonization of the Americas (e.g., "European merchants were eager to locate new resources like tobacco and indigo which could be found in the colonies"; or "Colonial merchants were dismayed by the taxes on English goods which meant higher prices for their customers but no more profit for themselves").

The other candidate words, tend, required, performed, and maintain, are also words of strong general utility, and the choice of whether to include any more words is based solely on considering how many words one thinks students can usefully handle.

You Try It

Below is another excerpt from the tale about the donkey under the magical spell described above (Kohnke, 2001, p. 12). You might find it useful to try your hand at identifying Tier Two words. You will get to see our choices below the excerpt, so that you can compare your selections with ours.

The servants would never comment on this strange occurrence [finding the kitchen clean even though none of them were seen doing the cleaning], each servant hoping the other had tended to the chores. Never would they mention the loud noises they'd hear emerging from the kitchen in the in middle of the night. Nor would they admit to pulling the covers under their chins as they listened to the sound of haunting laughter that drifted down the halls to their bedrooms each night. In reality, they knew there was a more sinister reason behind their good fortune.

Which words did you select? Trying to be all-inclusive, selecting any words that might fit Tier Two, we chose comment, occurrence, tended, mention, emerging, admit, haunting, reality, sinister, and fortune. We considered them Tier Two words as we viewed them as fairly "general but sophisticated words." That is, they are not the most basic or common ways of expressing ideas, but they are familiar to mature language users as ordinary as opposed to specialized language. The concepts embodied in each word are ones that students already have some understanding of, as shown in the accompanying list.

Tier Two words Students' likely expressions
comment something someone has to say
occurrence something happening
tended took care of
mention tell
emerging coming out
admit to say you did something
haunting scary
reality being real
sinister scary
fortune luck

Now, the notion of tiers of words is not a precise one, and the lines between tiers are not clear-cut, so your selection may not match ours. Thinking in terms of tiers is just a starting point — a way of framing the task of choosing candidate words for instruction (see the accompanying box). Even within Tier Two, some words will be more easily familiar and some will be more useful than others. For example, our hunch is that admit, reality, and fortune are likely known to most fourth or fifth graders; that tended is not often used in a way that is key to understanding; and that fifth graders may already associate haunting with scary things — a Halloween context — which is fitting for this story. Thus we ended up with comment, occurrence, mention, emerging, and sinister. We judged the first four of these to be most useful across a range of contexts, and we chose sinister because it is a strong word with emotional impact that is used in literature to describe fictional characters as well as in nonfiction, such as when describing a group's sinister plans to invade another's territory.

From Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan. Copyright 2002 by Guilford Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 1st 2009, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
One of the best books EVER for thinking about vocabulary. I used this book with at least 2000 teachers in workshops (and they all received a copy of the book) for over 4 years. HIGHLY recommended.

Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 2:32 PM
Comment by: GUSTAVO D. (Brazil)
I need to learn tier two words for my Studies of Law. What do you recommend?
Tuesday October 22nd 2013, 7:11 PM
Comment by: (NY)Visual Thesaurus Moderator
Hi Gustavo,
I suggest checking out the following lists.
Here is a short one for starters:
Then you could progress to mastering this one for a long-term goal:

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Our first excerpt from "Bringing Words to Life" offers creative ideas about how to motivate "word wizards."