Vocabulary. Tiers (not tears).

I’m interested to find out the actual origin of language tiers. At the moment there is an interest in vocabulary as a panacea for improving exam performance. As an English teacher I’m thoroughly supportive of improving children’s knowledge of language and literacy. Where I have my concerns is in the seemingly whole-scale adoption of a very mechanical, often decontextualised means of developing language skills. It suits non-English trained school managers as it’s an easy-to-comprehend method of tackling low levels of literacy. Obviously enabling children with a wider vocabulary will improve their educational performance. Obviously.

Instinctively, my assumption is that the source of this approach to teaching vocabulary is Hirsch Jr and American Common Core. I can’t say I’ve definitely tracked down the origin, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the source. For those of us who grew up under the shadow of Harold Bloom, Common Core is like The Western Canon. It’s a view and, in many respects, a partial one.

I heard tiers of vocabulary being talked about (in the same sort of reverent tones as “learning styles’) about 4-5 years ago at PiXL meetings. Then, rapidly, it seemed to be everywhere. The last PiXL conference had vocabulary as its keynote. Teaching vocabulary is seen as a means of tackling “knowledge deficit”. Or developing knowledge in a systematic way. As you know knowledge must be systematised.

The three tiers are simple:

  • Tier 1 – basic vocabulary (book, dog, clap)
  • Tier 2 – high frequency/multiple meaning (benevolent, industrious, cautiously)
  • Tier 3 – low-frequency/context-specific (cartographer, asphalt, isotope)

It looks like this:

Of course, a concept like tiers of vocabulary needs a graphic. Just to make the hierarchical systematised nature of vocabulary acquisition obvious at staff training sessions. Remember, diagrams always impress a sense of importance.

Decontextualised vocabulary drills mostly don’t work with lower-attaining children. It’s a bit like weekly spelling tests. They seem to work and children put a lot of effort into memorising words – but after the test most children happily carry on misspelling the same words. I’ve struggled for years with encouraging children to develop vocabulary and what I’ve learned is that it’s a mixture of engaging the student in the topic, providing examples where vocabulary is used, activities where students explicitly use the vocabulary and a great deal of subsequent practice. It’s really not a case of giving children a list of tier 2 and tier 3 words to learn and then drilling them. For some – a minority – it is. For the majority, learning vocabulary is more complex, longer-term endeavour in a language-rich school. It also requires a vibrant reading culture.

One fear I have is that those educational publishers immense media corporations who support have their hooks into American schools like teachers to think that vocabulary teaching is simple and straightforward. That you don’t even need a teacher to instruct: there’s an app that will do that in a systematic way. (When I first started teaching it was called SuccessMaker. It used to give us amazing data in all sorts of forms to show what amazing progress children made in reading comprehension. Only, in regular school activities and tests. the same children just didn’t seem to show any improvement. And SuccessMaker cost a lot of money.)

Anyhow, I’m still fairly interested in who first created the concept of tiers of vocabulary. I’m still incredibly interested in ways of teaching vocabulary that aren’t faddish and actually work.