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Skill Overview

What is knowledge of words?

Knowledge of words refers to the recognition of and memory for words and word parts by accessing meaning from background knowledge.  Word knowledge is cultivated by developing word consciousness. Word consciousness means being intentional about learning new words, knowing their meanings, and incorporating them into our speaking, reading, and writing vocabularies.


What tasks should students be able to demonstrate to indicate mastery of this skill?

  • Connecting new vocabulary to prior knowledge (integration)

  • Using the word/concept many times in various contexts (repetition)

  • Apply new words in reading, writing, and discussion (meaningful use)


Why is knowledge of words important to reading? 

The knowledge of word meaning in oral language and written text is critical to becoming a fluent reader and comprehending text. Typically our receptive, oral vocabularies are larger than our expressive vocabularies. 

How are deficits determined for knowledge of words?

Assessing word knowledge is difficult because language is multidimensional due to varying degrees of breadth and depth of knowledge. Attached below are academic word lists compiled by Berkeley Unified School District with the help from reading experts. Also attached is a matrix and scoring guide that gives instructions on how to administer this summative assessment each quarter. Subject area teachers can use Marzano's Domain Specific Academic Word list to assess knowledge of words related to the respective subject taught.

Structured Literacy Tools

Sequential and Cumulative

Systematic and Explicit

To Mastery

Systematic vocabulary instruction develops word consciousness by making word learning an integral part of all aspects of the school day.  Systematic instruction includes the use of interactive word walls, personal word journals, and familiar graphic organizers for framing instruction. 


Explicit vocabulary instruction includes a clear definition in student terms and a focus on building associations to other words.  Students should be required to spell the word correctly, apply words in different contexts, understand its origin, and use the word appropriately in speaking and writing. 

There are three tiers of vocabulary instruction which reflect both the frequency of use and the complexity of the words.  Tier instruction is relative to the grade and age of the students being taught. 


Tier 1 words are common words that typically do not require direct and elongated instruction.  However, Tier 1 vocabularies vary among students, and studies indicate that economically disadvantaged students may arrive at school with limited word knowledge (Hart & Risley, 1995) as compared to their more privileged counterparts.  Therefore, the cumulative benefit of vocabulary instruction may require a more strategic focus on Tier 1 words for some students.


Tier 2 words are “academic” words that appear frequently in educational texts and general narratives.  These are words that are high utility but often more sophisticated with nuanced and multiple meanings.  These words should be targeted for direct and explicit instruction.  A good curriculum that builds background knowledge should provide a logical sequence and depth for Tier 2 word study across the elementary grades.


Tier 3 words are “domain-specific” words that are referenced and explained as they appear in content-specific texts but are not the target words for intensive instruction.  These are words that add to background knowledge of a student, and their meanings and usage are important to comprehending the topic addressed in the text. 


For a cumulative effect, six to eight new Tier 2 words should be taught each week.

Mastery of accumulated word knowledge is difficult to measure since there are an infinite number of words one can know. However, mastery of individual words from reliable high-utility word lists and curriculum sources is doable and recommended.  Students should be assessed weekly for mastery of word knowledge and usage.  Assessment should include an understanding of meaning, proper usage in a variety of contexts, synonyms and antonyms, and origin of words parts.  Mastery of a word is revealed when the student uses the word in writing and speaking. 

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