Research Says
  1. Read-alouds where the teacher explains and discusses new vocabulary
  2. Reading and writing activities that encourage the use of new words
  3. Teacher modeling of new and high-utility vocabulary usage (Blachowicz et al., 2006; Graves, 2007; Chung, 2012)
  4. Using the target words in sentences that construct a narrative (August et al., 2005).
  5. Multiple exposures to target words within a variety of contexts (Blachowicz et al., 2006; Beck et al., 2002; Carlo et al., 2008)

I have taken these research-backed practices and synthesized them into a system of teaching high-utility Tier 2 vocabulary words.

Past Practices: Teaching the “Wrong” Words

I used to select vocabulary words from a text and pre-teach them prior to reading the text as a class.  This worked well to teach vocabulary in context and scaffold comprehension during Visible Reading (my version of guided reading).  The practice of pre-teaching, though, was not really the problem.  The problem was the type of words I selected to teach;  they were not often frequently-used across various disciplines. Despite the fact that the word “thatched”, for example, is not as widely used across content classes as the word “significant”, I devoted a disproportionate amount of time to teaching words like it that gave little return on investment.  

I did not have a way to evaluate which words to teach.  When faced with so many choices, I froze and didn’t teach any.

The concept that words are “tiered” comes from Beck, MeKeown, and Kucan’s book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2002).  They suggested that words fall under one of three “tiers”.  Tier 1 words are commonly used such as “and”, “but”, “when” and also concrete words such as “laptops” and “table”.  Tier 3 words are domain-specific vocabulary such as “cytoplasm” and “cash flow”.  Tier 2 words are known as “Goldilocks” words because they appear frequently across various disciplines.  They are the high-utility words that empower ELs to have command of academic language. Unfortunately, I wrongly ignored teaching Tier 2 words my first few years in the field. I encourage you not to repeat my mistake.

Knowing what words to teach is an effective language instruction practice. Choosing the words to teach is just as important as the method of vocabulary instructionTwitter . Teaching Tier 2 words is not only about teaching words’ meaning, but also about incorporating strategies to internalize those meanings mentally and even physically.

Current PracticesTeaching Academic Word Lists

I developed this process after reading Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002). Of all the books about teaching vocabulary, this is my most trusted resource.  They described a concept called “Academic World Lists” (AWL), which are sets of the high-utility, Tier 2 words that are found most frequently across academic texts such as journals, reports, and newspapers (Coxhead, 2000). The Tier 2 list consists of 570 words including “contain”, “factors”, “significant”, and “effect”.  The document that I use each year to plan my vocabulary instruction is found here

I was excited to learn about this concept for two reasons: 1) time pressure and 2) transferability.  One year of schooling does not allow anyone to teach anything near 570 words, but, with AWL, the Tier 2 words narrowed down the terms that would be most helpful to ELs’ language development. Also, these words appear frequently in ELs’ science, humanities, math, design, and art lessons, so teaching them in English class would prepare them for reading texts in these other content classes.

Below are two of my favorite videos on how to teach Tier 2 words. The first one comes from the Institute for Education Sciences, and the second comes from Beth Skelton, an education consultant, who presented for VirtuEL19 on the topic of vocabulary instruction.

Step 1: Select Target Words

When I first developed this program, one vocabulary unit would consist of 8-9 words, but I found that it took too much time out of the regular class period.  Now I select only 3-4 words, and the process takes only 10 minutes from my lesson cycle.   

For the younger students and those ELs who are on the Entering and Beginning phases of language development, I select the vocabulary AWL words to learn because my ELs usually aren’t familiar with any of the academic words.  A pre-test would confirm what experience also indicates.

For my older ELs and students that are at the Expanding and Bridging phases of language development, I diagnose their prior knowledge with a simple pre-test as shown below. Notice that I do not use multiple choice, and I expect them to explain their answers.  Their writing reveals the level of understanding more than multiple choice answers do.


Step 2: Create “Context Cards”

I create a series of cards on Google Slides (the Google Drive version of Microsoft Powerpoint). Each card consists of a question with the target vocabulary word accompanied by a sentence frame to scaffold the answer.  Also, each slide has an image taken from  Here’s an example:


Step 3: Teacher Models Answer

The first few times that students are introduced to the word “increase”, I provide answers using the sentence stem.  I make sure to provide lots of context clues to help ELs construct the meaning of “increase”.  I might say:

“If the noise increases, I would go to my neighbor and politely say that it’s 10PM, and the increase in the noise is making it hard to sleep. If there was an increase of noise from 11AM to 5PM, I would not mind because I’m neither home nor sleeping.”

Step 4: Student Answers

I ask students to orally answer the vocabulary question using the sentence starter.  This also serves as a check for understanding, and their answers indicate if I need to provide more examples. The important thing to remember is that I make students explain their answers, which forces them to create context for the vocabulary word.  

Step 5: Quick Write Answers

Now students Quick Write their answers in their English notebooks using the sentence starter. The ELs are not expected to write the question, just the answer which includes the sentence starter.  As students QW, I walk around to check the answers of students who have not given an oral response.  

Below is an example of an ELs’ QW to internalize “increase”.  The Context Card for this question was: “Should Vientiane International School Increase the time students have for lunch?”  The sentence stem was: “VIS [should/ should not] increase the lunch time because…


Step 6: Sign Language Vocabulary Word

This is when students and I discuss what they think the vocabulary word means.  By now, students’ spoken and written answers indicate that they understand the vocabulary word because of all the various contexts that have been provided by me and other students.  It’s probable that they can create an EL-friendly definition of the word.   

To scaffold their understanding, I have ELs learn a gesture for each vocabulary word.  According to James Asher’s theory of Total Physical Response (TPR), a person’s memory is enhanced when associated with a physical movement (Asher, 1969).  Let’s face it – language is incredibly abstract.  Many ELs (and adults!) would rather be playing outside than learning mundane academic vocabulary.  By having students gesture a word, they become both more engaged in the process and more likely to remember it.

I find it helpful to ask students to learn the American Sign Language (ASL) for the words since they already have an established system.  The ASL website provides a dictionary, and each word has a short video to demonstrate the gesture.  Every time I display a Context Card, I can ask students for the action associated with the word.

Below is a video of me teaching this process using this Context Cards to teach the word significant. 

academic vocabulary

Notice how they’re listening to each other’s ideas, adding to it, and asking questions.  Observe how they are actively using examples to explain the meaning of significant. Look how interactive this experience is compared to completing workbook exercises. Notice how little time it takes to teach the word.

FAQs about this process

How long does a “unit” last?

I have found that it takes 10-12 sessions to have ELs internalize the target words’ meaning.  For each unit, I create 12 Context Cards for the word “increase”.  We engage with each word once a day over 12 class sessions. If a student does not grasp “increase” on a particular day, there are 11 more days when he can learn its meaning.

Are AWLs worth teaching?

Yes, because I have repeatedly seen how words taught using this process are used in other classes.  For example, the word “increase” and “decrease” appeared in Mr. A’s 7th grade science class when they were learning about the concept of friction.  My ELs have already developed an understanding of “increase” in my English class, so when these Tier 2 words showed up on one of Mr. A’s graphic organizers, my ELs had no problem engaging in the task.


In another example, an EL used the word “increased” in a presentation for Humanities class.  Mr. J, the Humanities teacher, wanted students to research and present the causes that created different conflicts.  Dexter, a 7th grade EL, decided to student the cause of the French Revolution. One of the causes was the increase price of bread.  He intentionally used the word “increase” in his presentation slide.

EmpoweringELLs teaching Tier 2 vocab

It’s Not Learning in Context

There are two ways that I attempt to build context for this approach to vocabulary instruction.  The first is by adding students’ experiences into the Context Cards.  For example, my school has an annual trip at the beginning of the year called “SALSA” when each grade travels together. Some schools call this the “Week Without Walls”, and its purpose is to develop a sense of community.   When I was teaching the word “factor”, I created a question that required them to use “factor” within the context of this SALSA trip.  Below is an example of the Context Card.

One way I build context into this approach is by adding students’ experiences into the Context Cards.  For example, my school has an annual trip at the beginning of the year called “SALSA” when each grade travels together. Some schools call this the “Week Without Walls”, and its purpose is to develop a sense of community.   When I was teaching the word “factor”, I created a question that required them to use “factor” within the context of this SALSA trip.  Below is an example of the Context Card.

EmpoweringELLs teaching Tier 2 vocab

Is this challenging?

Writing about the things one might pack on a trip is not that challenging. To make it more difficult, I combine two vocabulary words into one Context Card.  I only do this after the seventh day of interacting with the word because I want to make sure that they understand both words well enough to provide an appropriate answer.  Below is an example of how I combined the words “increase” and “factors”:

EmpoweringELLs teaching Tier 2 vocab

While I’m not 100% sure that this is the best method to teach vocabulary.  I am certain that if I teach vocabulary through: 1) visuals and actions, 2) various contexts, and 3) engagement through discussion and writing then my ELs stand a chance of internalizing the vocabulary word in a meaningful way.

For me, teaching vocabulary has been one of the most difficult skills to learn and master. Looking back, I naively searched for the “silver bullet” solution to effective vocabulary instruction.  With perspective and experience, I realized that vocabulary instruction takes many shapes, has many forms, and changes depending on the lesson cycle.  I hope that these vocabulary articles have shown you the process for creating your own robust vocabulary program that will support your learners.

This article also concludes the Visible Literacy series.  If you’ve followed the series, I hope three things stick out: 1) ELs learn best by constructing knowledge, 2) language learning is a social experience aided by scaffolds and discussions, and 3) literacy is an invisible process that can be made visible through scaffolding learning.

  1. Words fall into three “tiers”.
  2. Tier Two words consist of academic vocabulary.
  3. Educators can create a process to systematically teach academic vocabulary within context.

If you like your own copy of Unit 1 Slides, you can click on this link.

Next Week

Next week’s post is the final vocabulary post, and it will conclude the Visible Learning Series.  I’ll end the series sharing my process of teaching Tier 3 vocabulary words, which are high-utility academic words that are used across content areas. 

a17-EmpoweringELLs teaching-tier-2-words

Asher, J. (1969). The Total Physical Response Approach to Second Language Learning.The Modern Language Journal, 53 (1), 3-17.

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

Blachowicz, C., Fisher, P., Ogle, D., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2006). Vocabulary: Questions from the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(4), 524-539.

Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C., Dressler, C., Lippman, D. Lively, T. J. & White, C. E. (2008). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs of English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Journal of Education, 189(1/2), 57-76.

Chung, S. F. (2012, September). Research-Based Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners.The Reading Matrix, 12(2), 105-120. Retrieved from

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238. Retrieved from

Graves, M. (2007). Conceptual and empirical bases for providing struggling readers with multifaceted and long-term vocabulary instruction. In B. Taylor & J. Ysseldyke (Eds.), Effective instruction for struggling readers, K-6 (pp. 55-83). NY: Teachers College.