Select Page

Vocabulary is the key that unlocks the vast treasury of human knowledge for children. Every new word a child learns enriches their understanding, broadens their perspectives, and enhances their ability to express themselves. More than just building blocks of language, words are the tools with which young minds construct their reality and navigate their social environments. By empowering children with a strong vocabulary, we equip them to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally, laying a foundation for lifelong learning and confident communication.

But how exactly do children develop their vocabulary? Is it through the books they devour, the conversations they overhear, or the structured learning provided at school?

The development of a child’s vocabulary is a multifaceted process influenced by numerous factors. At its core, it involves both direct and indirect learning experiences, encompassing everything from the structured educational settings of schools to the informal learning that occurs at home.

As a primary teacher, I am constantly exploring innovative methods to enhance vocabulary learning among my students. At our school, we employ a variety of strategies to achieve this. These include introducing a “Word of the Week” and placing posters around the school for “Retired Words,” where we swap out commonly used terms like “small” for more nuanced words such as “tiny” or “minuscule.” We also incorporate daily library sessions where students read independently from a selection of books. These books are either recommended by us or chosen by the students based on their personal interests.

However, despite these efforts, I still felt something was missing, and I’ve finally realised why!

I’ve started to view the process of developing vocabulary much like building a car. Of course this might be because I have two boys at home and I am surrounded by a big amount of all types of cars. But think about it: each word acts as a crucial component, similar to the individual parts of a vehicle. Just as a car cannot function without its engine, wheels, or brakes, effective communication can’t happen without a robust vocabulary. The foundation starts with basic, everyday words—these are the nuts and bolts. As students’ language skills grow, we add more complex parts, such as specialised vocabulary and nuanced synonyms, enhancing their ability to express themselves clearly and accurately.

But the cars of today are not like those of the past. They’ve become more complex, more sophisticated, and come equipped with a myriad of features and options.

As a teacher, I am particularly interested in these features and options and the complexity they bring to a student’s vocabulary. I believe this is an aspect that all teachers should focus on.

In my independent research, I came across what language scientists refer to as “tier words.” Language scientists categorise vocabulary into three levels known as “tier words,” which help educators understand the complexity and utility of different words in learning and teaching.

Tier 1 Words

These are the basic words that most children learn naturally through everyday conversation. They are simple, commonly understood words that do not usually require explicit instruction. Examples include basic nouns, verbs, and adjectives like “dog,” “run,” and “happy.” These words form the fundamental layer of a person’s vocabulary.

Tier 2 Words

These words are more complex than Tier 1 words and are crucial for academic success. They are used across different subjects and are vital for reading comprehension and school success. Tier 2 words often require direct instruction because they are less likely to be learned from everyday speech. Examples include “analyse,” “determine,” and “complex.” These words are also more likely to appear in written texts than in everyday conversation, making them essential for academic reading and writing.

Tier 3 Words

Tier 3 words are specialised vocabulary associated with specific fields of study, hobbies, or careers, tailored to the context in which they are used. For primary students, these words are typically introduced when discussing particular topics or subjects. Examples might include “habitat” in science when discussing animals and their living environments, “citizen” in social studies when learning about community and responsibility, or “sum” in mathematics when doing addition. These words are crucial for building expertise and understanding in specific subjects at a young age.

After learning about this categorisation, my next question is how we can effectively teach Tier 2 and Tier 3 words in schools? A common misstep, even among the best teachers, is assuming that teaching vocabulary alone is sufficient for students to understand language contexts, such as following written instructions in math or comprehending specific explanations in science. Even the best primary students in

math, who can handle large numbers for sums or complex multiplications, often struggle with word problems. Even proficient primary student readers, capable of decoding sophisticated, long words in English or their native language, sometimes find themselves challenged by text comprehension or explaining what they enjoyed about the various books they read.

This article raises a critical question: How can schools and teachers implement strategies that effectively address these challenges? How do we ensure that the vocabulary taught is not just memorised but actively used and understood across different contexts? Moreover, what steps can we take to help students integrate new words into their language repertoire so they can excel in comprehension and application, from math problems to literary analysis?


As I persist in my search for the most effective vocabulary teaching strategies, I’ve noticed an intriguing trend: the words I casually use when speaking with students during breaks or informal chats are rapidly picked up and utilised by them. This realisation underscores the power of everyday interactions in language learning. While I continue to explore and refine our approach, I will start by leveraging this natural absorption of language.

Stay tuned, as I will soon share more insights and strategies that I plan to implement!

In the meantime, take a moment to see how we engage with young minds, starting with one word!

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!