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Common Core Conversations: Vocabulary

Amanda Adrian and Heather Rader

What do you remember about vocabulary instruction and assessment as a student? We remember weekly lists of words and definitions, especially in high school. Sometimes we'd memorize 20 or even 30 words a week. Come Friday we'd pair those words up with definitions on a test to prove we understood what they meant. Because we were both hardworking and dutiful students, we studied those words for a week, were successful on the test, and then forgot the majority of them. This is not the "nuanced and flexible understanding" that we now know is needed to learn new words.

Appendix A of the Common Core Standards states, "Key to students' vocabulary development is building rich and flexible word knowledge. Students need plentiful opportunities to use and respond to the words they learn through playful informal talk, discussion, reading or being read to, and responding to what is read. Students benefit from instruction about the connections and patterns in language."

Tiers of Vocabulary

Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan have outlined a model of categories for thinking about vocabulary. The tiers are not intended to be a hierarchy; Tier 1 is not more or less important than Tier 2. All three are necessary for vocabulary development and teachers need to decide the "top tier" for their particular students. Here is a description of each tier:

Tier 1: Everyday speech words. These are words that our students are likely to hear in daily language, and can easily define or use in spoken language and writing (i.e.,  book or orange).

Tier 2: General academic words. These words are likely to have root words, prefixes, suffixes, or other word parts. Students are likely to encounter these words across content areas, in a variety of texts (i.e., expectation or government).

Tier 3: Domain-specific words. These words are rarely used in daily language, and would be found in texts specific to a certain subject area. Knowledge of these words is vital to understanding content areas (i.e., associative property or photosynthesis).

Before coteaching a unit on summary, Heather conducted an informal preassessment of students' knowledge of the word summary. One student wrote, "It's when it's warm." Another wrote, "I think we do it in math, like addition" and a third wrote, "It's a kind of ship." Three students understood three very different meanings (summery, sum and submarine) of this Tier 2 word. It's a Tier 2 word because it's not a word from everyday speech nor is it a domain-specific word. We summarize in a variety of ways and across content areas. Yet the word summary and other Tier 2 words like it are frequently encountered in complex texts. Not surprisingly, every year kids are stumped when they are asked to write a summary or summarize on a state test. So what helps students learn Tier 2 words like summary?

What This May Mean for Teachers

In this shift to focus on vocabulary, teachers are given the autonomy to decide which words are "top tier" for kids. For many teachers, most of the time will be spent in Tier 2. Because these words are rich in word parts, time spent learning the meaning of the root word, prefix or suffix gives students the tools to unlock the meaning of many other words.

For other teachers, "top tier" status will mean zeroing in on the Tier 3 words necessary for student understanding of the content they teach. Teachers of math, science, social studies, and other content areas will determine which words students need in order to unlock the meaning of the subject they are learning.

What This May Mean for Literacy Leaders

In order to decide which words get "top tier" status and how vocabulary acquisition will be supported, professional development is needed. The major focus of this work will be on selecting those high-impact words. In working with teachers, we will use two questions to guide this work:

  • Which words must our students understand in order to grasp the content?
  • Which words are made up of word parts that our students will find in other words across content areas and texts?

Using these questions as a lens, we hope to support teachers in a shift toward deep, quality instruction of a small number of words, resulting in student command of vocabulary that they will carry with them beyond the walls of the classroom.

Recently, Amanda was working with a team of second grade teachers who were hoping to explore this very topic. She began by defining the three tiers of vocabulary as described above.

Hoping the teachers would feel prepared to apply this work beyond the professional development session, Amanda led the team to their own school library and asked each teacher to choose a nonfiction text. Within a few minutes in the library, the group had a variety of engaging texts, rich with vocabulary from each of the tiers.

The teachers were asked to open the book to any page and start reading. Their task was to identify a Tier 2 word. The guiding lens? Any word that is made up of word parts (containing a prefix, suffix, and/or root word) that are commonly found in other words. 

Navigate, committed, and government were tossed around. A key part of the Common Core shift is transitioning from a long list of vocabulary words to in-depth instruction on only a few words at a time. Amanda encouraged the group to choose just one word to focus on that day. This forced the group to debate and identify the word that would have the most impact for their students. Finally selecting the word editor, the team worked to define the parts of the word and then planned for instruction, using research-supported vocabulary strategies. The end result was a framework for vocabulary instruction that can be used for the word editor, as well as other Tier 2 words that they will be teaching in the future.

In her time with these teachers and in other professional development focused on vocabulary instruction, Amanda has found that teachers are receptive to the idea of teaching Tier 2 words, and surprised by the suggestion that they teach only a few words at a time. More often than not, each of these concepts is new to teachers. Professional development that enables teachers to identify essential vocabulary, recognizes the power of teaching fewer words deeply, and leads teachers to informed decision-making about where and when to dwell in the appropriate tiers will support this shift. 


Beck, Isabel L., Linda Kucan and Margaret G. McKeown. 2002. Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.


Amanda Adrian

Amanda Adrian is an instructional specialist for North Thurston Public Schools in Lacey, Washington. By leading in-district professional development, study groups, one-on-one and small group coaching, Amanda works to support teachers in developing confidence and competence in their literacy instruction.

Heather Rader

Heather Rader is an instructional coach in Washington State. Her Choice Literacy publications include the book Side By Side: Short Takes on Best Practice for Teachers & Literacy Leaders and the DVD On the Same Page. You can find her "Coach to Coach" blog at www.heatherrader.com.