Learn a fancy new word in 11 easy steps!
Royal Far West Speech Pathologist Kate explains how kids and adults alike can vitalise their vocabulary. 

There are common words, like ‘bed’ or ‘tractor’ only take about 10 exposures to learn. These are called Tier 1 words. Tier 3 words are subject-specific, technical words, like ‘mitochondria’, ‘sulphate’, ‘suffix’ and ‘hematoma’. In the middle is the good stuff. The Tier 2 words. These are the fancy, descriptive words that add meaning and depth to our communication. Words like analyse, dainty, persevere, consider, sparkly, vibrant.

Vocabulary is crucial to reading comprehension and general communicative success. We need lots of words to clearly express ourselves and to understand others. The challenge is that there are millions of words in the world… so, what words do we teach our kids to have the most impact with the least effort, and how do we do it?

Target Tier 2 words. These words have the most power in a vocabulary, are academically relevant, and result in the child also learning other associated words. Tier 2 words power up a lexicon. The easiest way to decide if a word is Tier 2 is by elimination: is it an ordinary everyday word? Is it a word very specific to one or two subjects? If the answer to both questions is no, you’ve got a Tier 2 word. If you’d just like a handy list, check out the resources from Queensland Department of Education based on the Australian Curriculum.

It can be easiest and most effective to teach a word in the context of a book or newspaper article. Then the child can see where the word sits in a sentence and a paragraph and how it influences the meaning. However, for older children and adults, it can also work to choose a word and then go looking for it in books or sample assignment questions from the Australian Curriculum.

Here’s how to teach a new Tier 2 word (and easily get 36 meaningful exposures!):

1. Show the child the written form of the word.

2. Have the child say the word. Get them to clap the syllables / beats in the word.

3. Have the child write or type the word (this is called ‘orthographic imprinting’).

4. Help the child to look up the word in a dictionary or a good online dictionary.

5. Work together to help the child put the definition into their own words.

6. Work together to practice using the word in sentences. The adult should make some examples for the child to copy initially, then make some together, then encourage the child to make their own. If it’s tricky for them it means you’ve chosen a good that they need lots of help to learn – keep practicing!

7. Write out some sentences with the word.

8. Re-read the sentences but replace the target word with the definition, e.g. ‘demonstrate’ means ‘to show’, so if the sentence is: “Jo demonstrated how to cut the timber.” You’d read it as: “Jo showed how to cut the timber.” This is a good way to check that you’re using the right word in the right way.

9. Talk about the parts of the word to better understand the meaning. You can’t do this with all words, but it is helpful when you can, e.g. in the word ‘unfortunate’ – the ‘un’ means ‘not’, when combined, it means ‘not fortunate’ or ‘not lucky’.

10. Think of all the variations of the word – repeat the word in its various forms in a robust discussion, e.g.: if the target word is ‘confess’, you’d learn about confession, confessed, confessing, confesses. Talk about what the change to the word does to the definition. Make up sentences for all the variations of the word.

11. Find out interesting facts about the word, like where it originally came from, and how it evolved over time.

For younger school children, it is much easier and more effective to find and teach Tier 2 words in the context of a quality picture book. Choose three words per book. Tell the child the words to listen for in the book and to flag with you when they hear them. Read the book through. Then go back to the relevant pages and follow the process above to teach the words.

If you are concerned about your child’s vocabulary, ability to express themselves, ability to understand others and/or reading comprehension, an assessment with a Speech Pathologist is a good idea. Talk to your child’s teacher, GP or paediatrician.