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Reading Comprehension: Vocabulary

When it comes to reading, the primary objective is to understand and comprehend what we read. In order to do that, we need to be able to decode words and have the language skills necessary to understand the words that we have decoded.


Scarborough's Reading Rope highlights these two skills:



One sub strand of language comprehension is vocabulary. It is critical for reading success. When students are reading texts, if there are too many words that the child is not familiar with, context clues and decoding will result in frustration and a lack of understanding of the text.


When discussing vocabulary there are three categories of vocabulary:


Tier 1

Tier 1 vocabulary words are the words that we use frequently in speech. These words are learned through casual oral language.

Examples: dog, sad, eat, go, up


Tier 2

Tier 2 vocabulary words are words that are used less often and are used in a variety of contexts and subjects.

Examples: assume, essentially, interpret


Tier 3

Tier 3 vocabulary words are subject-specific words that are used when discussing certain things.

Examples: regrouping, metamorphic rock, phoneme


As students progress through the grades, we want students to not only be able to decode these words but understand what they mean and be able to effectively use them in their daily speech and writing.


Tier 1 Vocabulary Strategies

When it comes to tier 1 vocabulary, the best thing that parents can do is to read books to their child early and often. The more students hear these words the more they will be able to use and understand them. Tier 1 vocabulary words are typically learned in daily conversations with friends, parents, or educators so keep talking to your child! Ask questions, point out the names of various objects, and talk - talk - talk. The vocabulary you model to your child is what impacts tier 1 vocabulary the most.


Tier 2 Vocabulary Strategies

Tier 2 vocabulary words may require more explicit instruction. For example, we can directly teach words that have multiple meanings, synonyms, and antonyms. Some of these words may be obvious to us as adults but to children they can be confusing, especially idioms. For example, "on the other hand" taken literally means something much different then what it means figurately. Some students may be able to pick up on the context clues to determine the meaning of these phrases but other students need that explicitly started child-friendly explanation.


Here are three fun online ABCYA games that target those skills:

Pancake Panic - Homophone Game

Hold the Phone - Idiom Game

Step Right Up - Synonyms and Antonyms Game


Tier 2 vocabulary words also include those words that we want to encourage students to use in order for their writing to be richer, deeper, or create imagery for the reader. This can include shades of meaning or alternative words for 'said', like: uttered, stated, announced, asserted, or expressed. Using thesauruses can be a powerful tool to support students use of vocabulary in their writing.


Tier 3 Vocabulary Strategies

Tier 3 vocabulary words are words that students use when exploring specific subjects. For example, if a student is interested in a certain sport their are specific words that they would be familiar with. In golf, tier 3 vocabulary words would include: ace, albatross, apron, back nine, banana-ball or big dog. If you talk to a student or adult about something they are interested in, they will likely have specific vocabulary words that you may or may not be familiar with.


Tier 3 vocabulary words are also integrated in subjects outside of Language Arts. For example, each Science and Social Studies Unit has specific vocabulary words that students are expected to learn and apply when studying the topic. Here is an example from the Ontario Grade 2 Social Studies Curriculum:

Ontario Science Curriculum:

It is important that when students are asked to learn about a specific topic they are explicitly taught these key vocabulary words so that they can understand the lessons and demonstrate their understanding with precision.


Explicitly Teaching Vocabulary:

  • Play Charades with targeted vocabulary words

  • Praise students for using Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary words in their casual speech

  • Use sentence prompts that encourage a student to dig into the meaning of a targeted vocabulary word

  • Consider integrating morphology into your vocabulary instruction so the student will learn not only 1 word but a family of connected words

  • Provide opportunities for the student to apply and use the vocabulary instruction


Integrating Vocabulary instruction into Reading Activities:

  • Teach students to use context clues to determine a general understanding of an unknown word

  • Be available to support students with unknown vocabulary words

  • Consider pre-teaching tier 3 vocabulary words that occur in books

  • Show students how to use a dictionary or glossary

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