The Tiers of Vocabulary in Primary Grades

The Tiers of Vocabulary in the Primary Grades 

         Did you know it takes the average person seven years to become fluent in a language? That is for both first and secondary languages! In a study I completed in college, most people thought that it would only take about 18 months to learn a new language. I find that to be very interesting for multiple reasons!

1.     If you were learning Portuguese and you expected to be fluent in 18 months, you’d probably feel really down about yourself when you hit the 18 months mark and still didn’t speak, listen, read, and write the language fluently.
2.      If you expect someone to learn your native language in 18 months and they don’t meet your expectation, you may just consider them to be less than you.
3.     If teachers expect this, and the student doesn’t measure up, then they may be referred for intensive interventions, or worse, put in a “special” classroom.

This common misconception causes grief and insecurity with the learner, frustration with the teacher and general public. When we think about our primary learners, many believe that students are already fluent in a language without considering the reading and writing piece. Fluency is reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We must teach skills for each piece!

The English language vocabulary is one of the trickiest in the world! One of the main reasons is because the English language is a trade language. Due to that reason, it has adopted an enormous amount of words from other languages that don’t follow “normal” English language rules. So as a teacher, teaching vocabulary cannot be strictly based on the spelling patterns or grammar rules. Primary students need practice in a variety of different ways for new vocabulary to STICK!

When think about what words you want your students to know, think about the purpose of WHY they should know the words. What tier are the words? Tier 1 words are words that follow a pattern or high frequency words. These are simple words that we see often. Tier 2 words are interesting words, usually descriptive words, that don’t necessarily follow a pattern. These are juicy words. Tier III words are scientific words that are usually difficult to understand because they are not used too often. Here are some activities for each tier:

Tier I Words (sight words): The purpose should be to have your students remember how to spell these words through rote (muscle) memory. 

1.     Rainbow write: Have students practice spelling these words by using a blue color for consonants and a red color for vowels. Students can also use a different color for each letter.
2.      Tracing: Tracing is super traditional and can be done in the air with a finger (kinesthetic), tracing on a paper with a finger, pencil, crayon, marker, paint, etc., or tracing on a smart board with magic ink. I like typing the words out in this font: Bubbles Outline, printing it out, then letting the students trace inside the font.
3.     World Build: This is where students will begin writing the first letter of the word, then move to the second line and write the first and second letters and so forth until the student has written the entire word. Here’s an example:
4.   Word Scrabble or Word Value: I love these two activities because it integrates a little math. This is perfect for logical thinkers. Students write a word, use a reference to find how much each letter is worth, and finally they write an addition equation to find the total amount of the word. I have activities like this in my Word Work for Literacy CentersPack.

The purpose of Tier II words is to expand vocabulary and get little learners using these words in their speaking and writing while being able to understand them when listening and reading. Here are some activities to help students understand the meaning behind these words.

1.   Think-Pair-Share: Students listen to a word used in a sentence. They think about what it may mean and think of an example of how they can use the word in a sentence. Then, discuss with their partner, and eventually they share together with the class. We record examples on chart paper or smart board.
2.   Word Cards: My students love these! We cut out word cards at the beginning of the week (or on a Friday afternoon). Then, I show the students pictures of the words, talk to students about what they mean and how to use them, and they verbally share examples. On the back of the card, students draw a picture of what the word reminds them of. Then we do a walking museum. It is interesting to see everyone’s ideas. This is what my word cards look like from my Oil Spill Clean Up! resource and my Life Cycle of a Butterfly resource.

3.   Synonyms and Antonyms: This is super easy! Students write the unknown word at the top of a two-column chart and label the left column of the chart “What it is” and the right side of the chart “What it isn’t” They write examples of each one, share with a partner, and then share with the class. Again, this is really neat to see the different perspectives each student brings to the classroom!

The purpose of Tier III words is to teach students subject related words. We would like for youngsters to use the words in speaking and writing, but most importantly, we need them to identify the words and understand the words when they read and listen to them. Tier III Words are tricky and require a lot of concentration. Here are some games I like to play with these:

1.     Charades: Place students in groups of 3 4 and give students about 10 minutes to practice each word. Students will create a motion (similar to sign language) to have the other students guess the word. After the 10 minutes is up, each group will have 1 minute to guess as many words as they possibly can. For every word guessed correctly, the team earns 1 point. The team with the most points wins!
2.       Guess the Word: Write one word on an index card. Continue until you have all of your words for that week written on them. The guesser will place the index card on their forehead so they cannot see. The other player will then try to help the guesser guess the word correctly by telling them synonyms or antonyms.
3.   Bingo:  Use a Bingo generator (I like: and plug in your words. Print out the number of cards for each student. Give the students clues as to which words you are calling out without saying the word. For example: frog These amphibians have smooth skin and are usually smaller than toads. They jump further than toads. What is it?
4.   Pictionary: Place the students in groups of 3 4. There will be one drawer from each group. Show the drawers the word. They will have to draw a picture of what the word means to get the team to guess the word. The first team to guess correctly earns a point. Teams with the most points win.

These games are fun and highly entertaining! They build community and help your students remember the word. I hope that these activities are useful for you and your kids. Please let me know in the comments how your students liked these activities or if you have some others that I didn’t list here that you think are FABULOUS! Thanks so much!

-Sarah B. 
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