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Vocabulary Instruction: Selecting Words to Teach

Vocabulary instruction plays a significant role in reading comprehension across grade levels (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). In fact, “the size of a child’s vocabulary is one of the best predictors of reading comprehension” (Shaywitz, 2020, p. 259). In order to comprehend what we read, we must understand the words within our text. While this may seem like common sense, all too often, vocabulary instruction takes a backseat in early literacy programs. There are many existing language arts curricula that do not address vocabulary instruction at all. There are also curricula that provide lists of potential unfamiliar vocabulary words, yet these same curricula often provide minimal guidance regarding how to teach these words in a meaningful way that “sticks.”

In our upcoming vocabulary blog posts, we will explore best practices in vocabulary instruction, diving into what vocabulary instruction could look like within our classroom or home. Today, we’ll explore one question in particular:

Which vocabulary words should I teach?

Ipad displays the vocabulary words essential, archaic, persist, require, bog, and osmosis in different colors under the title, "Vocabulary Instruction: Selecting Words to Teach." Colorful pencils, confetti, a pom pom pen, and a journal with daisies sit in the background.

Before diving deeper, let’s start with a disclaimer – every child enters a classroom with a unique set of experiences and knowledge that shape the words they know and are able to use. Some students frequently listen to stories read aloud. Others have mastered decoding and read independently on their own. Some students listen to audio books, visit museums, or travel abroad. Yet many of our students have limited access to language-rich experiences. Others are just starting to learn English. Exposure to specific words varies greatly depending on a child’s circumstances, and this must be kept in mind. A gap exists in the vocabulary knowledge of students from different socioeconomic statuses, and this gap is visible as early as the age of three years old (Hart & Risley, 1995). As educators, we must do our part to level the playing field and make vocabulary knowledge increasingly accessible (and meaningful) for all. Additionally, while we can make generalizations regarding the likelihood that children will know certain words, we must be cautious with our assumptions, acknowledging the variance that exists amongst our students.


The Oxford English dictionary includes over 600,000 entries. Despite the obsolete nature of many of these words, if we spent time directly teaching every word within the dictionary, we would have little time for anything else! Because directly teaching every word to our students is not possible (nor would it make for a very exciting school day), we must be intentional about the words we choose to teach. Which words can we explicitly teach our students that will ultimately provide them with the greatest value? Which variables should we consider?

There is a three-tiered framework of vocabulary that can guide us. Introduced by Beck, McKeown, & Omanson (1987), this model addresses the problem of being unable to teach all vocabulary words and posits that instruction should prioritize the highest-utility words for both comprehension and written composition. According to this model, this kind of utility is the most important consideration when selecting words to teach, moreso even than word frequency.

Below, we outline the three tiers of vocabulary instruction as well as Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2013) recommendations in relation to these three tiers.

A bright pink clipboard with title, "Three Tiers of Vocabulary." A blue, pink, and yellow pyramid are divided into sections titled, "Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3."  Colorful pens, paper clips, and post it notes,  surround the clipboard.


Tier 1 vocabulary words are common, everyday words frequently utilized in everyday speech. These words are more likely to be familiar to students than words in other tiers due to their high frequency within conversational English.

Examples: happy, bath, look, cat, play


Tier 2 vocabulary words tend to occur frequently within written language but less frequently within spoken language. They appear across multiple content areas. Tier 2 words are often described as academic language, but they are also present within fiction texts as well. These words can be difficult to learn just from reading, as context is often insufficient when determining word meaning.

Examples: require, investigate, complex, persist, essential


Tier 3 vocabulary words are low-frequency words specific to a particular domain. Tier 3 words can also be so rare that we will never personally encounter them at all.

Examples: isotope, filibuster, antagonist, osmosis, apricity


Now that we understand this three tier framework for categorizing vocabulary words, how do we know which word tier to prioritize for instruction?

Students often have substantial exposure to Tier 1 vocabulary words prior to entering a classroom. Due to their high frequency, direct instruction at school is usually not necessary to teach these word meanings.

Tier 3 vocabulary words occur infrequently. They are either specific to a particular domain or rare in occurrence. Because they are rare, Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2013) recommend teaching these words only as needed when encountered within specific domains.

This leaves Tier 2 vocabulary words as the main priority for vocabulary instruction. Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2013) consider words in this tier to be high-utility words. Because these words occur less frequently within speech than print, students have less exposure to Tier 2 words than Tier 1 words. Despite this decrease in exposure, Tier 2 words are not rare. Consider how the word “complex” can describe a math problem, a chemical reaction, the relationship between two individuals, filing one’s taxes (tell me I’m not alone here), and so much more. These words occur often enough that an understanding of them is necessary to fully comprehend a variety of texts. Tier 2 words also tend to be complex enough (see what I did there?) that direct instruction is necessary, as meaning may be unable to be inferred accurately from context alone.


If we know Tier 2 words are a recommended priority for vocabulary instruction, how can we locate Tier 2 words within our students' texts?

Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2013) outline three criteria we can use to determine if a word could be considered Tier 2. These criteria come directly from their work, which you can access a portion of here! We have framed these criteria in the form of questions to ask yourself when evaluating a word’s categorization.

  1. Importance and utility -

Is this word utilized by “mature language users”?

Is this word utilized across multiple domains?

2. Instructional potential -

Can this word be worked with in multiple, varied ways so students can build a strong word representation?

Can this word be connected to other words and ideas the student already knows?

3. Conceptual understanding -

Does this word provide “precision and specificity,” bringing a general concept that a student already knows more to life?

Ultimately, the selection of Tier 2 words has a subjective element where educators must rely on their own insights and student knowledge to choose meaningful words that advance learning. If you know passages your students will be reading, you can find relevant Tier 2 words within them. When conceptualizing a cohesive literacy curriculum, vocabulary instruction directly connected to student reading material would be a core component.

However, lists of Tier 2 words do exist that can be helpful references when learning about word tiers. Remember, academic word lists do not include Tier 2 words that are characteristic of fiction texts, and Tier 2 words specific to character and plot development certainly do exist.

McKeown (2019) provides the following sources as word lists to reference, shown in the image below.

Image titled, "Tier 2 Example Word Lists." List includes Coxhead's Academic Word List (2002), Garner and Davies' Academic Vocabulary List (2013), Stahl and Nagy (2006), and Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2008).

Becoming confident selecting Tier 2 words for instruction takes practice. Beck, McKeown, & Kucan (2002) have created space for this by providing sample passages that explicitly walk us through how to select Tier 2 words from these passages. In order to try this yourself, click here to access an excerpt from their work shared on Reading Rockets.



Now that you are familiar with a framework for selecting vocabulary words, an upcoming post will address the following question:

How should I teach new vocabulary words?

We now know there are ways to teach vocabulary that are far more meaningful and effective than simply copying down definitions from dictionaries. We’re looking forward to sharing some of these strategies with you. Make sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter so you never miss a new blog post!


Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC


Interested in purchasing your own vocabulary books? Check these ones out below!



Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (15-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M.G., & Omanson, R.C. (1987) The effects and uses of diverse vocabulary instructional techniques. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The Nature of Vocabulary Acquisition (pp. 147-163). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences. Baltimore: Brookes.

McKeown, M.G. (2019). Effective vocabulary instruction fosters knowing words, using words, and understanding how words work. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 50(4), 466-476.

Shaywitz, S. (2020). Overcoming dyslexia (2nd ed.). Vintage Books.


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