The New Word on Learning Vocabulary

June 3, 2013

Three Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction That Meet Common Core State Standards

Mentoring MindsA national news story described one contestant as screaming “No!” when he first learned there would be a vocabulary component in the 2013 National Spelling Bee, which took place last week.

While I can understand his pain, I agree with the Bee’s director, Paige Kimble, who said that adding vocabulary shows the competition is more than about spelling; it’s about helping students learn concepts and develop an engrained, working knowledge of English that would help them all of their lives.

Like the National Spelling Bee, the new Common Core State Standards also emphasize the importance of building a strong vocabulary. That emphasis is crucial. Studies have shown, again and again, that students who develop a rich and flexible vocabulary have better reading skills, including phonological awareness and comprehension, as well as are more academically successful. Research also shows that the systematic teaching of vocabulary is more effective than having students acquire new word meanings on their own (Nagy, 2005).

Common Core State Standards Vocabulary: Three Tiers

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) divide vocabulary words into three tiers,

  • Tier One words are the most basic and concrete. Because these are high-frequency words, a student is most likely to already know Tier One words their grade level (examples: clock, baby).
  • Tier Twowords are more abstract; CCSS calls them “general academic words.” These words are used across content areas, and are encountered more in written text than spoken (examples: vary, relative, innovation, layer).
  • Tier Three words are highly specialized. CCSS refers to these terms as “domain specific” because they are necessary for developing an understanding of content-specific concepts. Tier Three words are not seen nearly as often as Tier Two words, and generally are found in informational text (examples: lava, aorta, legislature, circumference).

It’s the Tier Two words that CCSS deems “particularly powerful.” They apply to many types of reading, so all teachers – not just language arts – can help students identify Tier Two words that need careful attention.

Three Teaching Strategies for CCSS Vocabulary Requirements

Here are three teaching strategies to create engagement, richness, and rigor in vocabulary instruction.


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