How 3 Tiers of Vocab Make It Easier to Learn New Terms

Despite almost 40 years of speaking English, I often reach for a dictionary when adapting lessons for my ELLs. And, most of the time, I’m not happy with what I find. I usually get a concise definition that, while accurate, is at a level higher than what my students can easily understand. In these situations I have to find a way to articulate the meaning to my students in a way they can understand. But my goal isn’t to have the students understand the words for a few minutes—I need to move it through the exposure phase through conscious learning and ultimately to unconscious acquisition for them to get a step closer to fluency, even if it is for words they won’t hear outside of school often.

Thankfully, our colleagues have a similar problem when they teach academic vocabulary. Researchers such as McKeown (2014) have found a framework that helps students better understand difficult words they see for the first time in the context of what they already know. Although these techniques are often meant for students mastering their first language, I found they can be very applicable to ELLs, too.
We need to keep in mind that some words we want our students may not show up often in conversations they have outside of classrooms (Adrian & Rader, 2016). That being said, some words will also show up very rarely in the classroom, but still need to be understood so the concepts will make sense.

McKeown suggests separating relevant vocabulary words into three tiers (McKeown, 2014):

Tier 1 – These words come up in everyday context and usually only have a single meaning—words such as “happy” or “baby” that you won’t have to worry about except at the introductory levels (and, at that level, make these a focus). These are the sorts of things that can help you develop a real-life setting or example that shows the concepts, such as railroad tracks for parallel lines, the resemblance students have to their parents to explain genetics, or why police read criminals the Miranda Warning for Civics or American History classes. If more dictionaries used these for their definitions, our jobs would be considerably easier. Since they don’t, we may want to latch onto as many of these as possible when figuring out how to define the concepts to our students.

Tier 2 – These are the more technical words like “virtual,” “perspective,” or “consistent” that may show up in practically any subject but aren’t used in daily conversation. They may be polysemous or they may have definitions that start to move beyond the more common usages, but either way these are the terms students will see in their questions. Be sure they can tell the difference between “analyze” and “infer” when reading passages, and take the time to look at your colleagues’ questions more than their content so you can be sure your activities target the skills students need to demonstrate understanding. This may go a long way toward improving not only your students’ grades, but also their WIDA or other language assessment scores.

Tier 3 – These are the subject-specific words like “photosynthesis” that are very specific to the subject and may not be heard elsewhere. The key here is to remember that we can’t teach the definitions of these words in isolation, because the students may not understand how they work with a larger concept. Your lessons should show how these terms work with a particular situation, and even then don’t expect them to grasp the meaning the first or even second time. Rather, these words should be what you make the point of your informal reviews before seeing how well the students can understand the terms.


Adrian, A., & Rader, H. (2016). Common Core conversations: Vocabulary. Retrieved from

McKeown, M. G. (2014). What do we know about how learners acquire new vocabulary? Retrieved from

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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