Targeting Tiered Vocabulary Words Using Picture Books

Do you think that read alouds are the perfect vehicle for most any language intervention? Me too! And today, I want to share some ideas for how you can include tiered vocabulary instruction in your read alouds—even if your options from the text itself seem limited!

Disclaimer and Disclosure: Though I am an ASHA-licensed SLP, the information in this post is intended only for informational purposes. It is not associated with the book, authors or research mentioned but is instead based on my clinical experience and judgment. You are responsible for using your own clinical judgment and doing your own research before implementing any intervention strategy. I hope this post inspires you to research these ideas and determine if they are appropriate for your clients or students. Additionally, links marked with an * are affiliate links. Purchasing from this link will support this blog at no additional cost to you. You’re under no obligation to purchase anything from this post.

what is tiered vocabulary?

Tiered vocabulary is a system for helping us categorize words based on their frequency, complexity, and meaning. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (authors of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction*) analyze words for instruction based on their usefulness.

Let’s look at the tiers.

Tier 1 words are high-frequency words that don’t (normally) require direct instruction. These are words like dog, tree, ball, and hat—words that students will be exposed to in normal conversations and in read alouds. For those of us in intervention and remediation, we likely find ourselves directly teaching this tier of words more than a classroom teacher.

Tier 2 words are less frequent, more mature vocabulary words. I divide tier two words into two groups. First is academic vocabulary. These tier two words consist of words like analyze and contrast—words students are likely to see on assignments and tests. Second is a more mature array of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. These could be words like detest and obsessed.

Tier 3 words are infrequent, highly specific vocabulary words. These words are very domain specific, like words that you would see only in a math or science text—think algorithm and molecule.

It is important to note that there are no hard and fast rules for categorizing these words! You can use your clinical judgment to determine what vocabulary words will be beneficial for your students and why. Beck, McKeown, and Kucan recommend asking questions about a word’s…

  • usefulness
  • relationship to the curriculum
  • role in comprehension
  • relevance

Asking these kinds of questions can help guide your word choice when planning sessions and read alouds.

(As an addendum, if you’re working with older students, you might want to check out my product for teaching tier two academic vocabulary words).

how to incorporate tiered vocabulary into read alouds

Now that we’ve looked at the tiers of vocabulary, let’s look at some ideas for how to incorporate all three tiers into a read aloud.

Identify the high frequency nouns and verbs that are most important to understanding the story.

These words will likely be the easiest to find as picture books are filled with common nouns and verbs. But for direct instruction, it’s important to choose just a handful of words that are most important for understanding the story. You can draw attention to a variety of words while reading using interactive book reading practices but select only a few for direct instruction.

Identify descriptors or features of high frequency nouns to expand knowledge.

When you’ve selected your tier one words for direct instruction, you can expand those words by introducing more tier one words and new tier two words. By choosing descriptors and features of tier one words, you can build on a student’s knowledge in a way that is meaningful and relevant. For example, if you’ve chosen “bear” as one of your tier one words, you can introduce a variety of words: claws, fur, ferocious, growl.

Identify the complex nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs that are important to understanding the story.

After you’ve identified high frequency words, you can begin looking for more complex words in the text. In picture books, these often consist of more specific verbs and descriptive adjectives and adverbs. Picture books might describe a bear as “lumbering” instead of walking or describe a “towering” tree rather than a tall one. You may also find some less frequently used nouns, like cashier or bungalow.

Identify tier one and two words that have more complex synonyms.

If your story is lacking in more complex words (or even if it isn’t), take notice of high frequency words and whether or not they have synonyms that would be beneficial for students to learn. Carefully selecting synonyms for higher frequency words in a text can be an effective way to help students understand tier two words when they do appear in future stories.

Generate 2 – 3 prompts or questions using academic vocabulary.

When it comes time to prompt discussion, carefully choose two or three academic vocabulary words to create questions. For example, ask students to compare and contrast two characters. Or, ask your student for their opinion and then to cite their evidence from the text, giving examples and explaining what the words mean as you go (but do use the word themselves, first!).

Identify academic topics either directly included or adjacent to the story and the most relevant curricular vocabulary words.

Lastly, take note of any curricular topics you can bring into the discussion. For example, in a book that focuses on weather, you might introduce one or two key terms. Just be careful in choosing—as always, think in terms of what words you can bring in that will be most useful to your student’s understanding, both now and in the future.

Library Lion picture book

choosing target words: an example

Now that I’ve walked you through the process I follow for using tiered vocabulary during read alouds, I want to share an example with you. So, let’s look at how we can use Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen.

First, let’s look at a selection of tier one and tier two words that I identified on a quick read through.

Tier 1 Words

  • lion
  • library
  • desk
  • running
  • rules
  • sleep
  • reading
  • story
  • books
  • dust
  • lick
  • helpful
  • walked

Tier 2 Words

  • allowed
  • office
  • particular
  • wandered
  • sniffed
  • rubbed
  • padded
  • roar
  • noise
  • quiet
  • overdue
  • useful
  • nervous
  • break

Now, we have to remember to narrow our target vocabulary words to those that are most important to the story. With that in mind, I’ll reduce the target vocabulary words to five of each.

Tier 1 words: lion, library, rules, run, walk

Tier 2 words: roar, noise, quiet, useful, break

These are the words directly from the text that I would explicitly focus on.

Next, let’s look at how we can expand upon these words.

Lion: fur, mane, paws, claws, sharp teeth, large

Library: building, books, bookshelves, card, computers

Synonyms: rule/command/law/order; noise/clamor/racket/commotion; run/sprint/hasten/dash/race; useful/helpful/beneficial

BONUS: break is a multiple meaning word and both meanings are used in the story

Then, we’ll choose a couple of academic words to use to facilitate discussion.

“Using the picture on page 31, infer how Miss Merriweather feels about the lion not being at the library. Infer means to use the picture as a clue to figure out how she feels.”

“By the end of the story, what conclusion have you come to about following rules? A conclusion is a decision you make at the end of something.”

Lastly, we’ll look for any domain-specific vocabulary words included or that we can bring in.

In the case of Library Lion, there are actually a couple domain-specific words right in the text! You might also include a few additional words that students might encounter in a library.

Tier 3 words: circulation, stacks (included); periodical, reference

an example session using library lion

When it comes to the specific activities you use with these words, I try to provide multiple exposures. Provide initial exposure through reading and implementing interactive reading strategies. I would also expand on these words through a variety of games, worksheets, crafts, or writing tasks.

A session using Library Lion for middle elementary students might look like this:

  • Begin by discussing the words library and lion. During a verbal discussion or using a graphic organizer, help students describe the words, encouraging students to use related vocabulary like those listed above (paws, claws, bookshelves, etc…) Use this time to establish background knowledge necessary for the story.
  • Tell students you’re going to learn new words that are unique to a library. Using pictures or video, discuss the words (circulation, stacks, periodical, reference).
  • Read the story, implementing interactive or dialogic strategies as you do. Use this as an opportunity to point out target vocabulary words and mention synonyms and multple meanings.
  • Target reading comprehension skills by encouraging retell and sequencing, as well as asking discussion questions using academic words.
  • Focus on the words walk/run and noise/quiet by sorting or matching photos or situations (depending on age and reading level).
  • Practice expanding on the word rules by having students list rules they follow in different situations (the library, the classroom, at the grocery store, etc…)
  • Encourage students to draw or write sentences with target words and their synonyms.

final thoughts on targeting tiered vocabulary using picture books

While it’s easy to target Tier 1 vocabulary words using picture books, I hope that I’ve encouraged you to consider also looking for Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary words for direct instruction. Although exposure to words through reading alone is not sufficient for building a strong semantic foundation, especially for students with language and reading deficits, books can serve as a great jumping off point! They’re rich in language and, most importantly, context that is perfect for helping students make connections in a meaningful way.

I also encourage you to find Bringing Words to Life* to learn more about tiered vocabulary instruction. The ideas in this post are not in any way associated with the authors or their research and framework; rather, these are just my ideas based on my own clinical experience. Always do your own research and use your own clinical and professional judgment to make the best intervention decisions for your students!

my resources

Tiered Vocabulary: What it is, and why does it matter?

Choosing Words to Teach

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction*

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