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What are Tier 2 Words?

Tier 2 words are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas. The term was developed by Beck, McKeown, & Omanson in 1987.

_What are tier 2 words.pngTo learn about the importance of Tier 2 words and how to properly teach them, keep reading below.

Or click the following link if you’re searching for a vocabulary program that provides robust Tier 2 vocabulary instruction.

Table of Contents

  1. What are Tier 2 Words?
  2. Why Tier 2 Words are Important for Young Learners
  3. The Benefits of Teaching Tier 2 Words
  4. How to Teach Tier 2 Words

What are Tier 2 Words?

There are tens of thousands of words in the English language. The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 entries for words in current use and another 47,156 obsolete words.

That’s a lot of vocabulary. And for Reading/Language Arts educators, that can make for a pretty tough time when trying to decide which words are most worth teaching to your students.

Do you focus on words that are easy for students to pronounce? Or more complex words that challenge them?

Should you teach words that appear more in books? Or words that you hear in conversation a lot? Or is it a mixture?

Deciding what words offer the most instructional benefit can be a tough task for a teacher. But here’s the good news: not every word needs to be taught. In fact, there is an abundance of vocabulary terms that educators really shouldn't even waste their time teaching.

Consider a spectrum that ranks vocabulary by level of complexity…

At one end of the spectrum are words with meanings so simple and so common that most children are exposed to them at a high frequency before they ever set foot in a classroom.


These are considered Tier 1 words. 

Because children are so familiar with Tier1  words and have a working idea of their meanings before they enter the classroom, these words rarely require any instructional attention in school.

At the other end of the spectrum are words that are encountered so infrequently and are tied so closely to a specific topic or domain that instruction is only necessary when a specific need arises, such as during a math or science lesson.

These are called Tier 3 words.


While Tier 3 words are very sophisticated, they have a very limited used outside of their content areas and won't typically have a large effect on students' general literacy abilities. 

Right smack in the middle of these two extremes are words that are more sophisticated than Tier 1, but also possess a higher utility than Tier 3.

These are known as Tier 2 words, and they are at the very core of effective vocabulary instruction.

Why Tier 2 Are Important for Young Learners

Tier 2 words are academic words that are general enough to be used across all domains, yet are not part of students’ everyday social language.

AnalyzeConcealConcentrateRequireInevitable – words like these are found in all sorts of academic writings, from content-area texts to articles and biographies to fictional stories and poems.

Yet because they are not featured heavily in everyday conversations, they require a heavy dose of instruction in school.


The reason learning Tier 2 words is so important for children at an early age is because it helps them move past what is known as the “lexical bar” – a hypothetical barrier that exists between social, conversational language and more formal, sophisticated language that helps students succeed academically.

This barrier exists because gathering meaning from written context is much more difficult than gaining meaning from oral language.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2008 book, Creating Robust Vocabulary, written by Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown – the authors who developed the concept of “word tiers” in 1987.

“Tier Two words are the words that characterize written text – but are not so common in everyday conversation. What this means in that learners are less likely to run into these words as they listen to daily language.

The opportunities to learn Tier Two words come mainly from interaction with books. And because getting meaning from written context is more difficult than getting meaning from oral contexts, learners are less likely to learn Tier Two words on their own in comparison to the words of everyday oral language.”

With oral conversations, children can glean insight into the meanings of words with the help of intonation, gestures, and the surrounding context in which they are communicating. These clues aren’t always available in written texts.

So if children aren’t learning sophisticated words from conversations, but need knowledge of these words to understand new texts they counter, that means vocabulary lessons for young students must focus heavily – it not entirely – on Tier 2 words.

The Benefits of Teaching Tier 2 Words

Having a firm grasp on the meanings of sophisticated vocabulary words greatly improves students’ ability to comprehend written text. This is important considering written language has, on average, nearly twice as many uncommon words as spoken conversations.

Research was done by Haynes and Ahrens (1988) that examined the conversations that were had by college-educated adults speaking with each other.

Their study found that those conversations contained about 17 rare vocabulary terms for every 1,000 words spoken (rare words meaning words that are beyond the 10,000 most common in the English language).

By comparison, they found that books written specifically for children contained about 30 rare words per 1,000 words written.

In other words, students are more likely to encounter robust vocabulary words in texts they read or have read to them, as opposed to hearing them spoken in oral conversations. 

And by building knowledge of Tier 2 words, children are better equipped to comprehend new concepts and express their thoughts and emotions in a more sophisticated and nuanced way. 


Remember, many Tier 2 words are the types of “rare” words that appear frequently in writing -- even texts created specifically for children. So broadening students’ knowledge of robust, sophisticated words like these will help them comprehend other similar words that they encounter across all academic domains.

How to Teach Tier 2 Words

Focusing vocabulary instruction on words that fall in the second tier is crucial for helping students achieve academic success.

Not only does understanding these words and their meanings improve overall reading comprehension, it also helps students better express their thoughts and ideas, and makes it easier for them to interpret the meanings of other unknown words they encounter.

But just teaching vocabulary definitions isn’t enough. Dictionary definitions aren’t memorable enough to help word meanings stick.

Truly robust vocabulary instruction requires explaining the meanings of sophisticated words through multiple contexts and reinforcing those meanings through thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up lessons.

This includes learning the meanings of new vocabulary through:

  • the context of a story or poem.
  • whole group and peer discussions.
  • games and/or puzzles.
  • visual aids and photo definitions.
  • writing activities.
  • opportunities to act out the word's meaning.

The trick to maximizing vocabulary instruction is to remember to focus on helping students make connections between word meanings and ideas.


Tying the meaning of a word to how it is used, to situations where it is used, and to related words creates real, physical connections in the brain.

A variety of encounters and lessons with word meanings help build connections between words and concepts. This way, students aren’t just memorizing word definitions – instead, they are learning what the word sounds like, what it looks like, and how it relates to other words.

It opens a whole direction for thought and analysis as students realize that words are not simple, separate entities with isolated definitions. Rather, students see that words are complex, meanings are nuanced, and individual words have varying levels of connection and overlap.

This helps children to better understand the world of language and to begin grasping the inherent complexities of thought and ideas.

Word Heroes

Also from the brilliant minds of Isabel Beck & Margaret McKeown is Word Heroes—an all-new literacy booster! Click the picture below to see how Word Heroes supercharges vocabulary and powers up comprehension.