Known to many as the “gold Cadillac” of vocabulary instruction, Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown’s work in tiered vocabulary has served as the entry point for many into making the language of school explicit to all.
But . . . what makes it so great?
There are 88,533 word families in printed school English (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). That’s a lot of words. Actually, there are way more words than that (actually 6 times that amount to be precise). We’d need to teach 6,810 words each year starting in kindergarten through 12th grade which equates to about 34 a day based on a ten month school year. Sane teachers say, 'Not possible, no dice.' However, Beck and McKeown say, ‘Hold up, let’s look at this again.’ Which words will be most valuable to teach? Which ones show up across the content areas, in all subjects? They call these words Tier 2 words, and using a bit of deductive reasoning from Nagy & Anderson’s work, they figure there are about 7,000 of these tier 2 words in printed school English which brings down the impossible to the possible: teach three Tier 2 words a day. Sounds a lot a better, right? We don’t ignore the content specific words (Tier 3) of course, and we still need to teach some Tier 1, particularly for beginner English learners, but the vocabulary gurus made our work a whole lot more manageable. Now, Beck & McKeown do suggest stretching these 4,000 words across just 10 grades (K-9) which puts the words per year at 700. Can’t teach all 700? No problem; their research says that teaching more than half that, 400 words per year, will result in improved word knowledge and comprehension of text (Beck & McKeown, 2013).
Give me the skinny . . . How do I do it?
Below, we’ve provided a step-by-step outline of how to introduce and follow-up with the vocabulary words following Beck & McKeown’s protocol. Then, log into our resources page to access a free template of the protocol as well as a sample from a comprehension lesson.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.
Nagy, W. E., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How Many Words Are There in Printed School English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19(3), 304.
Beck & McKeown's Protocol for Tier 2 Vocabulary Instruction
Purpose: Students will increase academic vocabulary by receiving explicit instruction in high utility vocabulary found across domains.
Designed to be used by and with: Students who need to build academic vocabulary to increase comprehension of academic text.
Materials: An academic text, preferably from the curriculum
Preparation: Select about 3-5 tier 2 words from a selection. The procedure can be used before reading to build background, during reading to support comprehension, or after reading to provide a context for learning. Note: Beck and McKeown assert that teaching an average of 400 Tier 2 words per year (about 8-10 per school week) will make a significant contribution to an individual’s verbal functioning.
Procedure: Repeat for each word. A sample is provided below.