I find it fascinating how the human mind works and is able to learn new things and allows us to learn about countless topics. One of the key factors that allow us to do this is that our vocabulary. Vocabulary plays a huge role in our ability to understand concepts, conversations, and what we read.

Luckily, our brains are designed to learn new words at an amazing rate and we do not need to be explicitly or directly taught each new word we add to our vocabulary.

Young children learn new words naturally through exposure as they hear everyday conversations and are read to. As they get older those around them can help them grow an increasingly colorful and sophisticated vocabulary. As adults, we can do this by making a conscious choice to use more advanced words as we are speaking to them. You would be amazed at the language they can pick up through mere exposure.

For example, in my backyard, we have hydrangea bushes and that is what we call them. My three year old will call them by their proper name instead of just calling them flowers. One day she was leading her Granddad around the backyard and told him how “These hydrangeas are my favourite!” I can assure you, we have never taken her up to them and explained to her that they were hydrangea bushes, but on the other hand, we have never called them flower bushes either. She was able to pick up the proper name by just hearing us talk about them.

As children get older they move from learning the majority of their vocabulary words through everyday spoken language to learning new words through reading a wide range of texts. So as we get older, our vocabulary growth depends on how much and the quality of information that we read. This can be very problematic for an individual who struggles with reading or is a reluctant reader because, with less text exposure, they have access to fewer words. Learning new vocabulary becomes effortful and more difficult to pick up.

Vocabulary words fall into three categories or tiers, and once you are more familiar with these categories, it will be easier to understand why we need to read to gain access to these more complex words.

Tier 1 Words
I call these Everyday Words because they are common words that we use in our everyday words that an individual will pick up through everyday conversations. Learning their meaning is almost effortless as we learn their meaning through association. Some examples include: go, and, girl, chair, floor.

Tier 2 Words
These words are words you would likely come across in general written language and more serious spoken conversation. These are the words that provide general information around procedures and give us more detailed information about topics. They are also the words that you will see students using the synonym option on their computer to make their writing sound more ‘grown-up’. I like to call these words Thesaurus Words for that reason. Some examples would be: terrified, desire, compare, contrast

Tier 3 Words
Tier 3 words are what I call Glossary words. They are the ones that you find in the glossaries of textbooks. These words are subject-specific and not needed for everyday conversation but essential if you are speaking about the topic they relate to. Some examples of these words are: atom, sedimentary, scapula, onomatopoeia

Parents and classroom teachers should focus on building Tier 2 or Thesaurus Words when they are trying to work on building vocabularies. These are the words that will make the biggest impact on an individual’s vocabulary. As we are introducing these words, it is important to do more than just teaching the definition. This will only give the individual a limited understanding of the word. An individual needs to read or hear the word in a couple of different contexts before they really get to know a word and be able to use it properly.

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