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Tiered System for Vocabulary Instruction

What is a 3-Tier System for Vocabulary Instruction?

Beck and McKeown (1985) created a three-tiered system for selecting target words.

The utility of using this system for children who are DHH is not yet clear. However, many teachers hear “Tier-2 vocabulary” and are stumped as to what this means or how these words should be included in their instruction.

The CORE Literacy Library (Diamond & Gutlohn, 2006) gives more information on how teachers can make instructional decisions using the tiered system. The authors suggest targeting Tier-2 words for direct instruction and eliminating Tier-1 and Tier-3 words from your target list, unless the need arises. For children who are DHH with language delays, Tier-1 words may also appear on a target word list.

Managing Your Target Word List

Lesson Example

Mouse Was Mad (Urban, 2009) is a preschool/kindergarten level book teachers sometimes use to address social and emotional development (see Olinger & Yates, 2012). Olinger and Yates (2012) describe a lesson using the story to teach children about anger and appropriate behavior to calm down. The target words for this lesson may vary depending on the language level of the children. The teacher needs to ask himself/herself the questions listed above and categorize the target words into three tiers. Then teacher would then eliminate tier 1 and 3 words based on the needs of the students in the class. However, for teachers of the DHH, tier 1 words may need to be included in instruction for some students so the teacher may end up with a range of tier 1 and tier 2 target words (and potentially tier 3 words).

For language learners (children with language in the average range), tier 2 words may include ridiculous, angry, rumbling, earth, echo, or sphere.

For language developers (children with delayed language), children may need direct instruction on the tier 1 words and phrases which may include any of the following: mad/angry, bear, mucky, mud (puddle), standing still, mouse, I feel . . ., calm down, stomping, screaming, and shaking .


Beck, I.L., & McKeown, M. G. (1985). Teaching vocabulary: Making the instruction fit the goal. Educational Perspectives, 23(1), 11-15.  Presents an approach to vocabulary instruction that serves to increase knowledge of word definitions, to provide semantic links to words, and to promote greater facility in using words. Reviews studies associated with the "fertile vocabulary" instructional plan and discusses program results and benefits.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. Bringing words to Life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.  This book provides a research-based framework and practical strategies for vocabulary development with children from the earliest grades through high school. The authors emphasize instruction that offers rich information about words and their uses and enhances students' language comprehension and production. Teachers are guided in selecting words for instruction; developing student-friendly explanations of new words; creating meaningful learning activities; and getting students involved in thinking about, using, and noticing new words both within and outside the classroom. Many concrete examples, sample classroom dialogues, and exercises for teachers bring the material to life.

Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. CORE Literacy Library: Berkeley, California.  Educators and reading specialists from elementary to high school will get in-depth, ready-to-use guidance on the three main elements of high quality vocabulary instruction: specific word instruction, independent word-learning strategies, and word consciousness. For each of these elements, four sections give teachers the what, the why, the when, and the how.

Lederberg, A.R., Prezbindowski, A.K., & Spencer, P.E. (2000). Word-learning skills of deaf preschoolers: The development of novel mapping and rapid word-learning strategies. Child Development, 71(6), 1571-1585.  Assessed word-learning skills of 19 deaf/hard-of-hearing preschoolers either with novel mapping strategy to learn new words, or after minimal exposure when reference was explicitly established. Found that 11 children were able to learn words in both contexts, five only in the second, and two in neither. The latter seven children eventually were able to learn in both contexts.

Lederberg, A.R. & Spencer, P.E. (2009). Word learning abilities in Deaf and hard of hearing preschoolers: Effect of lexicon size and language modality. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14(1), 44-62.  Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children's ability to rapidly learn novel words through direct reference and through novel mapping (i.e., inferring that a novel word refers to a novel object) was examined. Ninety-eight DHH children, ranging from 27 to 82 months old, drawn from 12 schools in five states participated. In two tasks that differed in how reference was established, word-learning abilities were measured by children's ability to learn novel words after only three exposures. Three levels of word-learning abilities were identified. Twelve children did not rapidly learn novel words. Thirty-six children learned novel words rapidly but only in the direct reference task. Forty-nine children learned novel words rapidly in both direct reference and novel mapping tasks. These levels of word-learning abilities were evident in children who were in oral-only and in signing environments, in children with cochlear implants, and in deaf children of deaf parents. Children's word-learning abilities were more strongly correlated to lexicon size than age, and this relation was similar for children in these different language-learning environments. Acquisition of these word-learning abilities seems based on linguistic mechanisms that are available to children in a wide range of linguistic environments. In addition, the word-learning tasks offer a promising dynamic assessment tool.

Olinger, E. & Yates, T. (2012). Book Nook: Using Books to Support Social and Emotional Development.  These easy-to-use guides were created especially for teachers/caregivers and parents to provide hands-on ways to embed social emotional skill building activities into everyday routines. Each book nook is comprised of ideas and activities designed around popular children’s books such as Big Al, Hands are Not for Hitting, On Monday When it Rained and My Many Colored Days. Examples of suggested activities include using rhymes to talk about being friends, making emotion masks to help children identify and talk about different feelings, playing games around what to do with hands instead of hitting and fun music and movement activities to express emotions.