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Bigger Is Better When It Comes to Vocabulary: Why You Should Rise to Tier 3

The words we use have the ability to shape our world. They can hurt and they can heal. Words can inspire and motivate. They can cause action and reaction. To paraphrase a J.K. Rowling character: Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.

“We use words to communicate, explore, and experience the world,” explains Seeds’ Site Coordinator Kara Krawiec. “Someone with a strong vocabulary is equipped with the necessary tools (words) to contribute to, and understand, the world around them.”

When it comes to vocabulary, there are three tiers*.

“Tier 1 words are based on our lives and lifestyles,” explains Program Director Dr. Carmine Stewart. They rarely require explanation, such as person, sad, run.

“Tier 2 vocabulary words are those that are not used as frequently in spoken language. These words can present challenges for students who see them in print,” she continues. “They can be used in different contexts, like predict, compare, contrast. Sometimes words in this category are described as academic vocabulary.”

Then there’s Tier 3. These are words that are specific to building knowledge in a specialized area such as medicine, law, or biology:  cardiology, legislative, photosynthesis. But even if you aren’t a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, you will still need this level of vocabulary.

Bigger is better when it comes to vocabulary. Here are the top three places you need Tier 3 words on your vocab list.


Academic Subjects: For students, a strong vocabulary is critical to academic success. Science, social studies, and math all have their own vocabulary words, and because they aren’t used outside of their specific subject area, these words are considered Tier 3.

“Words like slope in math, meiosis in science, and apartheid in social studies are all examples,” Dr. Stewart says. These are words students must know —and understand— to pass academic tests like the high school equivalency (HSE).

Standardized Testing: As a cost-saving measure, standardized tests rely on works from the public domain. This means they’re typically older, using far less modern vocabulary. Although not necessarily Tier 3 words, historical words such as thus and thrice can prove difficult for students. The difficulty level is compounded when Tier 2 vocabulary words like compare and contrast are also used in the questions and passages.

Fluency & Comprehension: Fluency is the ability to read conversationally, without hesitation and in the tone intended by the writer. Fluency decreases significantly when a passage is riddled with Tier 3 words, and thus, comprehension is negatively impacted.


Understanding Your Job: Each industry has its own language, and to be successful, you need to be fluent. Often, this means learning not only new words, but also words in different context.  In marketing, creative is not only an adjective, but a noun. A boom isn’t just a loud noise in construction, it’s also a primary part of heavy lift equipment. And obviously, core temperature is different for a human, a volcano, and a slab of ribs.

Being Credible: Vocabulary has the ability to lend credibility to a speaker. An employee who can explain the ROI (return on investment) of an initiative is more likely to have his idea selected than the idea of someone who suggests an initiative “just because.”

Providing Variety: “Vocabulary is more than just showing off five-dollar words,” says Billy Hallal, a freelance food writer and Seeds’ Digital Literacy Coordinator. “Word choice can add depth to a story.”  Hallal tells his students that readers can feel the difference. The work of a writer who wields vocabulary well will always feel more vivid.

“It would get boring quickly if I describe every dish I like as good. Tasty, mouth-watering, delicious, and delectable are just some of many options. Using only one kind of word is like painting with only one color!”


Maintaining Relationships: Your ability to articulate your meaning will add clarity and avoid confusion when communicating with loved ones. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that fine is never as simple as it sounds, and there’s a huge difference between mad and disappointed.

Learning a New Hobby: Our hobbies are chock-full of Tier 3 vocabulary.  “For example, if you are new to fitness, you may need to learn about interval training, recovery, plyometrics and more,” Dr. Stewart (who is also a fitness aficionado) says.  Fish keepers (or aquarists) need to know the difference between freshwater fish, brackish fish, and saltwater fish, or their new hobby might go belly-up.

Staying Healthy: The ability to manage your own health (or that of a loved one) is also heavily reliant on vocabulary. A diagnosis most certainly has Tier 3 vocabulary included, and widening your word-base to include specific Tier 3 words allows you to take an active role in your treatment (or prevention.) For example, if you have kidney disease, you need to reduce sodium (salt) from your diet.


Expanding our vocabulary continues far beyond the classroom, impacts multiple parts of our lives, and improves our ability to understand and be understood.

But it doesn’t just happen automatically. As British linguist David Crystal says, “Vocabulary is a matter of word-building as well as word-using.” Stay tuned for our next post in this series: Pump It Up: How To Build Your Vocabulary.




*Beck, I.L., & McKeown, M. G. (1985). Teaching vocabulary: Making the instruction fit the goal. Educational Perspectives, 23(1), 11-15