Learn what works

Choosing Vocabulary Words to Teach

According to Isabel Beck, words in the English language have different levels of utility. When considering which words to teach, consider them through the following lenses:

  • Tier One Words: The most basic words rarely requiring instruction in school. (Examples: dog, black, home)
  • Tier Two Words: High-frequency words for mature language users. Instruction adds productivity to an individual’s language ability. (Examples: typical, representative, compromise)
  • Tier Three Words: Low-frequency words, often limited to specific domains and best learned when needed in a content area. (Examples: crustacean, mitochondria, parallelogram)

Most vocabulary instruction should be focused on Tier Two words.

Sources of Vocabulary Words to Teach

When considering early readers, words for vocabulary come from text read aloud. Sophisticated vocabulary not specifically in a text can be introduced based on concepts or ideas in simple stories. For example, after a story has been read about good foods or meals, the readers can be introduced to the words “nutritious” or “scrumptious”. For older students, words for vocabulary may come from both text read aloud and from assigned readings.

Providing Student-Friendly Definitions

In many classrooms looking up definitions is synonymous with vocabulary instruction. However, research has shown that this is not an effective way to teach vocabulary. One problem with dictionary definitions is that many times they are so vague they provide little information about the word. Therefore, when introducing a new vocabulary word, providing a student-friendly definition can be helpful.

When developing a student-friendly definition there are two considerations:

  • Explain the meaning in everyday language; explanation should precede definitions
  • Distinguish the word and how it is typically used
  • It is preferable if students start with a concept of the word that is used most often rather than dealing with too much information to start with. Later students can extend the concept of the word as their use of the word grows. Use language that is accessible to students, language they can understand, and which allows them to grasp the entire meaning.

See how it works

Choosing Which Words to Teach: Three Tier Model of Vocabulary Words
Sample Planning Guide (kindergarten)
Choosing Words to Teach
Steps to Consider When Choosing Tier Two Words
Selecting Vocabulary Words
Sample: Choosing Words to Teach from Grandpa’s Teeth

Steps for Choosing Tier Two Words

List all the words in the text that are likely to be unfamiliar to students.

Examples: potable, potent, twirling, glance, avoid, ranch, private, tunnel, stealthily, swirl, market, merry, plead, pry, factory, …

Analyze the word list

  • Which words can be categorized as Tier Two words?
    • Is the word interesting?
    • Is the word useful?
    • Is the word found in other texts?
    • Can the word be defined using words the students will understand?
    • How does the word relate to other words the students are learning?
  • Which of the Tier Two words are most necessary for comprehension?
  • Are there other words needed for comprehension? Which ones?

Examples: potent, glance, avoid, ranch, private, market, plead

On the basis of your analysis, choose the words you will teach:

  • Which need only brief attention?
    • Examples: ranch, market
  • Which will you give more elaborate attention to?
    • Examples: potent, glance, avoid, private, plea

Central Rivers AEA Lending Library Resources

Do what works

Vocabulary Planning Guide
Choosing Words Template
Vocabulary Poster


  • Allen, J. (1999). Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4 – 12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Blachowicz, C. & Fisher, P.J. (2002). Teaching Vocabulary in all Classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NH: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • COBUILD Dictionary (1995). London, England: Harper Collins Publishers. (http://www.collins.co.uk/books.aspx?group=140)
  • Fisher, D. G., & Frey, N. (2003). Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies that Work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  • Stahl, S. & Kapinus, B. (2001). Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know about Teaching Vocabulary. National Education Association of the United States.