What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to the words we must know and understand to communicate effectively. It is the knowledge of words and word meanings. Reading vocabulary refers to words we recognise or use in print. The words we need to know to understand what we read.

Why is vocabulary important for reading instruction?

Vocabulary plays an important role in word recognition. A student is more likely to be able to read a word if they find a match between the word on the page and a word they have learnt through listening and speaking. This also supports them to read related words.

Vocabulary is also the key to reading comprehension. Readers cannot understand what they are reading without knowing what most of the words mean. As children learn to read more advanced texts, they must learn the meaning of new words that are not part of their oral vocabulary.

Dr Deslea Konza says that the number and variety of words that children know in the preschool and initial years of schooling, is a significant predictor of reading comprehension in the middle and secondary years of schooling and of broader academic and vocational success.

Watch Dr Deslea Konza speak about vocabulary.

Dr Deslea Konza on vocabulary in children

How to teach vocabulary

Almost all children are experienced users of language when they begin school, but reading requires more complex, and often more abstract vocabulary than that used in everyday interactions. Developing a vocabulary is an incremental process in which there are degrees of knowing words.

It is not possible to directly teach the meaning of every single word that a student will encounter in reading. An important consideration involves how to choose the words.

The three-tiered model of vocabulary development, described by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) is a framework to classify words. Isabel Beck’s distinctions among three types or tiers of vocabulary words are very helpful in making choices of specific vocabulary to teach.

Three tier framework for considering vocabulary


The three-tier model of vocabulary development, described by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) is a framework to classify words.

The framework groups words starting from those that are most common in Tier 1 to those that are more specific in Tier 3. Isabel Beck’s distinction between the three types or tiers of vocabulary is very helpful in making choices about specific vocabulary to teach.

Tier 1 words are the common, everyday words that most children enter school knowing already – either in English or their first language.  They do not usually require explicit instruction, however, where they do, particularly for students learning Standard Australian English, they are easily explained and understood, as they are highly concrete nouns, verbs and adjectives. Some examples are 'small', 'big' or 'walk'. Tier 1 words will continue to be acquired from everyday life including through school life.

We can consider this text from the 2016 NAPLAN Year 5 and 7 Reading Magazine called ‘Please do not feed native animals.’ The first paragraph says "You might think that you are being kind to the native birds and animals by giving them your food scraps, but feeding them or leaving rubbish around that they might eat is cruel, not kind!" We can identify lots of Tier 1 words in this paragraph: 'think', 'kind', 'giving' and 'food' are all examples of Tier 1 words. They are common in everyday language.

Let’s now consider Tier 3 words. This set of words has a low frequency of use in everyday conversation. They are often limited to specific topics and domains, and Tier 3 words are likely to be new for all students so they can represent a level playing field for all students. Some examples of Tier 3 words might be 'Pantheon', 'diameter' and 'epidermis'.  In general, we learn these words when there is a specific need.

We can return to our example text. The final bullet point says “Feeding animals can encourage them to look for food in residential areas or nearby farms. This is dangerous for both the animals and residents.” The words 'residential' and 'residents' have specific meanings to do with location of living. These are examples of Tier 3 words from the text.

The final tier for consideration is perhaps the most important but often the overlooked tier. Tier 2 words occur across a variety of domains and subjects. They appear more frequently in texts than in oral language, so children are less likely to learn them without engaging with texts. They usually have multiple meanings based on the context they are used in.

Tier 2 words are essential for building formal academic language and they add precision and sophistication to texts. They add precision by providing new ways to express concepts that are already understood. For example, 'miniscule' is a more precise way of saying the Tier 1 word 'small', or 'saunter' instead of 'walk' or 'atrocious' instead of 'bad'. These words require explicit teaching as they are unlikely to be part of children’s everyday oral language.

As we return to our example text, we can see many examples of Tier 2 words. One of the bullet points says “Animals that rely on being fed by humans may become aggressive. They gather near areas of high human activity such as campsites and walking tracks …” Words such as 'rely', 'gather', 'aggressive' and 'activity' are examples of Tier 2 words that add precision and a more academic way of expressing common concepts.

Now that we understand the tier framework, it is important to think about where we need to focus our time and attention.

In general, Tier 2 are the words that we need to focus our teaching of vocabulary on from kindergarten through to high school. Focusing on these words promotes high expectations, supports reading comprehension and encourages precision in writing. Tier 2 words are necessary for abstract and symbolic thinking. It’s incredibly important that students learn and develop a large vocabulary and deep understanding of Tier 2 words.

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Tier 2 words appear more frequently in text than in oral language, so children are less likely to learn them without assistance.

In this video, Jessica Venables explains how teaching tier 2 words adds precision by providing new ways to express concepts that are already understood and that these words require explicit teaching as they may not be part of children’s everyday oral language.

A focus on tier 2 words

When considering what we want our students to learn we must also have an understanding that as vocabulary learners the knowledge of words will include the morphology of words, being word conscious and knowing the meanings or semantics of a word and that they can use words in context – so the relationships to other words. It is important to keep this in mind during our planning.

Although a great deal of vocabulary is learnt indirectly some vocabulary should be taught explicitly.

This video provides an example of how explicit instruction helps students learn new words that are not part of their everyday experiences.

Explicit instruction of vocabulary

Dr Deslea Konza recognises that word lists, the use of dictionaries and putting words into sentences are traditional ways of teaching vocabulary, but this is not sufficient for students who need to build vocabulary and Dr Konza recommends these strategies for vocabulary development:

  1. build vocabulary instruction into everyday routines
  2. select the best words to teach
  3. explicitly teach new words
  4. teach students to use contextual strategies
  5. teach the use of graphic organisers.

Classroom resources

Resources have been developed to support teachers implement evidence-based practices in the classroom. Resources to support explicit Vocabulary instruction can be found on the Universal Resources Hub (staff only).

The Understanding prefixes (staff only) resource is an example of learning tasks to explicitly teach prefixes to build vocabulary and support reading comprehension.

The Vocabulary knowledge scale for assessment (staff only) gives students an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of vocabulary.

The Vocabulary sort assessment tool (staff only) and the Vocabulary recognition tool for assessment (staff only) gives students opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge of vocabulary in relation to a specific topic or unit of learning.

Professional learning

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