Tier two vocabulary for primary teachers – the 3-4-5 list

Vocabulary is an essential component of reading comprehension and learning. The challenge for teachers is that it is hard to know where to begin when teaching vocabulary. Too many words, too little time. In their influential book, Bringing Words to Life, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan attempt to provide some structure to this challenge by suggesting that vocabulary can be divided into three tiers:

Tier one: Common words that students are likely to pick up through everyday conversation. (E.g. dog, through, chair, know.)

Tier two: High-frequency words for “mature language users”. In other words, the sort of words that are useful and that appear across learning domains, but that students might not experience in everyday language. (E.g. distribute, analyse, context.)

Tier three: Subject-specific words. (E.g. photosynthesis, alliteration, refraction.)

Beck et al argue that teachers should pay particular attention to tier two words due to their high utility and because students may not be exposed to them otherwise. To facilitate this, they point to academic word lists made up of tier two vocabulary. This is a useful jumping off point, but this raises two questions for primary teachers:

  1. Which tier two words that are not on these academic word lists should we teach?
  2. Which tier two words on the academic word lists are most appropriate to teach at primary school? (As ever, there is a balance between aspiration and practicability.)

To answer the first question, I read various lists of the most common words in the English language, found the tier two words within these lists and then added them to the original academic word list to make a longer hybrid list.

My answer to the second question is, inevitably, a judgment call. I resorted to using my best guess to decide which words from this new hybrid list should be removed and left for secondary school. I have worked in year 5 and 6 for the last decade – briefly teaching key stage 3 students before that – so my ‘best guess’ is also, I hope, a somewhat educated guess. Nonetheless, I recognise that there is something entirely subjective about judging whether or not a year 6 pupil should be taught, for example, the word ‘subsidiary’. I suspect that no single teacher would agree with every one of my chosen omissions, but I hope that this doesn’t entirely devalue the list itself.

The end result is the list of 345 words you see below. In compiling the list, I had to decide whether to keep words in the form in which they were found or to convert them to different forms. (E.g. Keep ‘accurate’ in its adjective form or whether to change it to the noun ‘accuracy’.) I decided on the former, but I would hope that any teaching of these words would involve the explicit sharing of the related forms. You might spot glaring omissions in the list or think that certain words don’t belong. You may well be right. Regardless, I hope that this list of 345 tier two words – one I have imaginatively titled ‘the 3-4-5-list’ when discussing it with colleagues – might prove useful:

abandon, abstract, absolutely, access, accompany, accurate, achieve, acquire, adaptation, advantage, affect, aid, alter, alternative,  analysis, announce, annual, anticipate, appearance, appreciation, approach, appropriate, area, assessment, association, assume, assumption, atmosphere, attached, attained, attitudes, attract, audience, authority, automatic, available, aware, basic, benefit, bond, brief, budget, capable, category, cease, channel, circumstances, civil, clarity, code, collapse, combine, comment, commit, common, communication, community, compare, complex, component, conceived, concept, conclusion, condition, confirmed, confined, conflict, conscious, consequences, consider, consistent, constant, construction, contact, context, contract, contrast, contribution, control, controversial, converted, convinced, co-operation, core, couple, create, crucial, cultural, cycle, data, debate decline, definite, definition demonstrate, deny, design, despite, detect, develop, device, dimension, discrimination, display, distorted, distribute, diversity, document, dominant, draft, duration, dynamic, economy, efficient, eliminate, emerged, emphasis, enable, encounter, energy, enhanced, ensure, entire, environment, equipment, error, establish, estimate, ethical, evaluation, eventually, evidence, evolution, examine, example, exceed, exchange, excluded, exhibit, exist, expansion, experience, expert, exploitation, external, extract, factor, familiar, features, file, final, flexibility, focus, format, foundation, framework, frequent, furthermore, generated, global, goals, government, guarantee, hierarchy, highlighted, identical, identified, ignored, image, impact, imposed, incident, indicate, individual, inferred, influence, initial, innovation, input, insert, insight, instruction, intelligence, intensity, intention, interaction, internal, international, investigate, involved, isolated, issues, justification, label, layer, limit, link, literature, location, logic, maintain, major, market, maximum, media, medium, mental, method, migration, military, minimum, monitoring, motivation, national, necessary, negotiation, neutral, nevertheless, nonetheless, object, objective, obtained, obvious, occur, odd, option, organise, outcomes, overall, overcome, overseas, period, persistent, perspective, phase, phenomenon philosophy, physical, political, popular, positive, possession, potential, precise, predicted, previous, principle, prior, priority, procedure, process, prohibited, propose, prospect, public, published, pursue, quotation, random, reaction, recognise, recovery, refine, region, rejected, related, release, reluctant, removed, represent, required, research, reserve, resources, response, restore, retained, revealed, reverse, revision, revolution, rigid, role, route, schedule, scheme, section, security, select, sensitive, separate, sequence, series, severe, shift, signal, significant, similar, site, society, solely, source, specific, stability, standard, strategies, structure, style, subsequent, substitution, sufficient, suitable, summary, supply, support, survive, sustainable, symbol, system, target, technique, technology, temporary, tension, text, theme, theory, traditional, transfer, transform, transport, transition, trend, trigger, typical, underlying, unique, united, variation, via, visible, visual, volume, voluntary, whereas

Here are some resources I used in compiling this list and others that you might find useful:

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Quigley, A. (2018). Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Abingdon, Oxon : New York, NY : Routledge





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