What words should I choose for vocabulary instruction?

Vocabulary consists of words that we understand (receptive vocabulary) and words that we use (expressive vocabulary). At 18 months of age children have an expressive vocabulary of about 50 words and then they experience a “vocabulary explosion” where they are learning new words rapidly. By age 12, children should have an expressive vocabulary of 50,000 words! For our kiddos with language disorders, how do we even begin to select the words we should be targeting?

That’s where tiered vocabulary instruction comes in! There are three tiers that vocabulary words can be sorted into. Words are sorted based on how often they are used, whether or not they have multiple meanings, and their definition. Tier 1 words are basic words, tier 2 words are high frequency words with multiple meanings and tier 3 words are specific and academic.

Tier 1 – Basic

Tier 1 words are the most basic words. These are words we use in everyday conversation, and are typically learned from conversation. They usually don’t involve specific instruction to understand and use. These are basic verbs (go, run, jump, eat), basic nouns (book, apple, cow), basic adjectives like colors, pronouns and function words. When children are first learning to talk these are the words we typically think of.

Tier 2 – High Frequency & Multiple Meanings

Tier 2 words occur frequently and in a variety of contexts. They may have multiple meanings and applications. Often these words are important for reading comprehension and writing, as well as more advanced conversations. These are the words that usually require direct instruction. Examples include exclusive, contradictory, objective, determined, affect, measure. These words become important for school age children to understand and use in order to access a variety of curriculum. We can work with preschool age children on tier 2 words as well. These words might look a little different, for example concepts like wet, dry, sticky, and same would be considered tier 2 words for this age group.

Tier 3 -Academic, Subject-Specific Words

Tier 3 words are specific to a subject or academic area, like weather, algebra, biology, hobbies, etc. These words are not found across a variety of contexts and are low in frequency. Although academic words are important for learning about certain areas, they do not generalize to other topics. Examples include electron, economics, aorta, legislature.

Now what?

Selecting vocabulary depends on the end-goal. If your child is lacking in basic words, start there! However, if your child has a good foundation of basic words, go ahead and start on those tier 2 words. Since tier 2 words can be generalized across subject areas, these are typically more effective and powerful to teach than tier 3 words. However, tier 3 words have their time and place, too.

Be on the look out for future posts about how to target tier 2 words!


Beck, Isabel L., McKeown, Margaret G., and Kucan, Linda. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

“Vocabulary.” Guide to Communication Milestones: Concepts, Feeding, Morphology, Literacy, Mean Length of Utterance, Phonological Awareness, Pragmatics, Pronouns, Questions, Speech Sound Acquisition, Vocabulary, by Janet R. Lanza and Lynn K. Flahive, LinguiSystems, 20012, p. 18.

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