Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed (Part 1)

Sep 13, 2016 by

Part I: Tiers of Vocabulary and General Education

In many courses in higher education, we have a need for the students to learn a new set of vocabulary. Vocabulary words can be broken into three tiers (the following are the definitions from Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2013):

Tier One: Words typically found in oral language.

Tier Two: Wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users.

Tier Three: Words limited to a specific domain.

While there are three (simple) tiers of vocabulary, and these are often depicted in a pyramid or a cake with three levels, I think the learning of vocabulary is much more complex than that, especially as a student acquires the very domain-specific vocabulary of their future career. I prefer to think of the tiers as a more complicated structure of garden tiers, where the plants from one tier might intermingle with other tiers as priorities shift for the learner.

Landscaped tiers containing a variety of garden plants.

Let’s assume that Tier 1 words are what a college student picks up in K-12 education. For solid instructional design of assessments (both formative and summative) in higher education, first consider whether the vocabulary should be learned at the level of Tier 2 or Tier 3.  You might think of this as the difference between teaching to recognize a word and identifying some general connections to it or teaching to recall a word with specifics of function/definition.

As an example of this critical design thinking, let’s do a brief analysis for a set of biology vocabulary for a general education biology course:

  • cytoplasm
  • mitochondrion
  • cell
  • nucleus
  • nucleolus
  • vacuole
  • virus
  • chlorophyll
  • chromosome
  • chloroplast

Pay attention, because in this context of general education, the highest cognitive-level learning objectives do not occur at the highest vocabulary tier.

Tier 1 (words typically found in oral language): cell, virus

Most likely, college students already have common knowledge of how these two Tier 1 words are used in context, but they may lack specific details on how we differentiate between the words. For example, a student may understand both a cell and a virus to be very small structures in the body that carry genetic material but not understand the differences between them. In a college course, you may want to focus learning objectives for already-acquired Tier One vocabulary on differentiation of these words from other common language words, a deeper dive into the understanding of the word, or on how these words relate to other newly acquired higher-tiered vocabulary.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Compare the structures in a virus and a cell.
  • List the types of cells.
  • Identify the organelles that are often found in a cell.

Tier 2 (wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users): nucleus, chromosome, chlorophyll

Even if this is a general education biology course, it is likely that students will hear, read, and use these Tier 2 words again during their lives. High-utility means we should try to help the student learn the words at a permanent recall/mastery level (understanding both definition and context).  Learning objectives should be focused on definition (with relevance, like function), characteristics, and comprehension in context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the function of the nucleus.
  • Describe the function of chlorophyll.
  • Locate the nucleus, nucleolus, and mitochondrion in a cell.
  • Explain how a plant cell benefits from its chlorophyll.
  • Describe the structure of chromosomes in the human body.
  • Explain the function of chromosomes during human reproduction.

Tier 3 (words limited to a specific domain): cytoplasm, mitochondrion, nucleolus, vacuole, chloroplast

In a general education biology class, it might be important to recognize Tier 3 words and their functions, but it may not be necessary to recall specific definitions of the word or store it in long-term memory past the end of the course. Remember that biology majors that take this general education course will take more biology courses. Each subsequent biology course will provide opportunities for repeated vocabulary retrieval and in-depth learning. A general education course is not the time to drill in every property.  The learning objectives for Tier 3 words in a general education course should focus on the recognition-level with enough comprehension to make sense of the context in which the vocabulary words appear. These learning objectives should also focus on how the Tier Three words relate to lower-tiered words, since that is what will help the learning do sense-making around context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the function of the mitochondrion, nucleus, and nucleolus.
  • Label the chlorophyll, chloroplast, and vacuole in a plant cell.
  • Select the organelles that might appear in a plant or animal cell.

As the student moves from general education to a majors-oriented biology course, the learning objectives should also shift and scaffold to support the deeper learning requirements. In this example, Tier 2 vocabulary should be treated as known by the student, but needing further differentiation. Tier 3 vocabulary should be learned to the recall level (instead of recognition). In addition, we ask students to do more sense-making with higher-order concepts while using the acquired vocabulary (even though we no longer mention the vocabulary by name).

Stay tuned for Part II of this series on Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed, where we will start to focus on designing digital interaction to teach vocabulary.

Note: I’m not 100% sure that cell and virus would be considered Tier 1 vocabulary words, but it seems to me that these are the most obvious candidates from the example list provided.  Both words appear in the Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary (which provides definitions in simple English). If you know of a definitive source for Tier 1 vocabulary words online, please let me know.

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