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Vocabulary Knowledge

Vocabulary is critical to success in reading. Vocabulary knowledge involves understanding the meaning of spoken and written words and using words to create and understand texts. This includes knowledge of high-frequency words, subject and content-specific words and infrequently encountered words. Vocbulary knowledge supports students in learning to read and reading to learn.


Words come in at least two forms - oral and print. Knowledge of words comes in at least two forms - receptive and productive. Receptive vocabulary knowledge is the set of words a person can assign meaning to when listening, viewing or reading texts. Productive vocabulary knowledge are the words a student can use when speaking and writing. These words are well-known, familiar and used frequently and spontaneously.


When we say that a student "knows" a word, what we mean is that this word forms part of their productive vocabulary. That is, they:

  • know the word meaning when reading in a variety of texts (oral, print and visual)
  • can pronounce the word correctly
  • can spell the word correctly (when creating new texts)
  • recognise characteristics of the word, such as multiple meanings
  • can explain its meaning within the context of reading
  • can use it as a natural part of his/her speech and writing repertoire

(taken from Teaching Reading for English Language Learners)


 Vocabulary knowledge is best developed when instruction is planned around the "Fab Four":

  1. Fostering word awareness - engaging students in an awareness of, and interest in, words and their meaning. This should permeate through all areas of vocabulary instruction and is especially important in less advantaged students.
  2. Teaching individual word meanings - research suggests that the focus for explicit instruction in word meaning should be on tier 2 words (words that are high frequency and occur across a range of domains. These words usually occur in mature language situations).
  3. Teaching word learning strategies - explicitly teaching students how to make meaning from unknown words and/or phrases. This is incredibly important as it is impossible to teach students the meaning of every word that currently exists and will exist in the future.
  4. Providing rich and varied language experiences - students need to be exposed to explicit instruction and incidental encounters with a large number of words in a range of texts, contexts, situations and learning area.


Isobel Beck and her colleagues (2002) devised a three-tiered system to help teachers decide which words to teach.


Tier 1 words are basic and high frequency words such as mother, said and house – words used in everyday conversation. Most children will learn these words relatively quickly through frequent exposure, and because they are usually taught as part of sight word instruction, there is usually little point in targeting these for explicit instruction.

Tier 2 words are those used by mature users of a particular age group so will differ depending on the age of the children. These words appear more frequently in text than in oral language, thus children are less likely to learn them without assistance. For middle primary students, words such as persistent and frail might be Tier 2 words. They are words that can be used across contexts to add clarity and/or descriptive power.

Tier 3 words are those that relate to specific fields of knowledge, such as the sciences. Words such as mesa, xylem and annulus would be classified as Tier 3 words. These words should be taught as part of content–area literacy when required.

Beck recommends that Tier 2 words should be the focus of direct vocabulary instruction as these are the words that will be most useful across multiple contexts and that children are less likely to learn without assistance.


Information about tiered words and ESL learners 

A 6-page acticle that summarises research into vocabulary knowledge and provides practical strategies for the classroom.

Scaffolded silent reading


Word study

The link to the KNATIM youtube channel set up by the Ontario literacy and numeracy secretariat. A range of great videos supporting explicit instruction in vocabulary knowledge.