Academic Vocabulary Development in Grades 3-5

by | Jan 30, 2024


In the second part of our series on academic vocabulary development, we shift our focus to grades 3-5, where students continue to build upon their foundational vocabulary skills. Drawing upon the framework of Beck, McKeown, and Kucan and the guidance of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), we explore strategies for effective vocabulary instruction tailored to the needs of upper elementary students.


Building upon the Three Tiers of Vocabulary


In grades 3-5, students transition from basic language acquisition to more nuanced comprehension and expression. Understanding the three tiers of vocabulary remains essential for guiding instruction:


  • Tier One Words: While students have a solid grasp of Tier One words by this stage, continued exposure and reinforcement are vital for consolidating their understanding and usage.


  • Tier Two Words: Emphasizing Tier Two words becomes increasingly important as students tackle more complex texts across various subjects. These words, such as “analyze,” “summarize,” and “interpret,” enable students to navigate academic discourse with confidence and precision.


  • Tier Three Words: Domain-specific vocabulary continues to play a significant role in comprehension, particularly as students delve deeper into specific content areas. Explicit instruction and reinforcement of Tier Three words, such as “gravity,” “photosynthesis,” and “legislature,” are essential for mastering subject-specific concepts.


Strategies for Effective Instruction


In grades 3-5, educators must employ targeted strategies to ensure the mastery of academic vocabulary:


  • Cumulative Instruction: Vocabulary instruction should be cumulative, with words integrated into increasingly complex tasks and contexts. Provide opportunities for students to apply newly acquired words across multiple subjects and real-world scenarios.


  • Explicit Instruction: Deliver explicit instruction that includes practice, review, and deep processing of vocabulary terms. Encourage active engagement through discussions, word games, and hands-on activities that reinforce understanding and retention.


  • Integration Across Subjects: Collaborate with colleagues to integrate vocabulary instruction seamlessly across subjects. Reinforce common Tier Two words across disciplines and leverage thematic units to reinforce domain-specific vocabulary.


Choosing an Approach: Autonomy vs. Words of the Week


The Autonomy Approach and Words of the Week Approach remain viable options for vocabulary instruction in grades 3-5:


  • Autonomy Approach: Offering teachers flexibility in selecting and teaching one to two words per week promotes authenticity and creativity in instruction. However, it requires careful planning and coordination among educators to ensure consistency and effectiveness.


  • Words of the Week Approach: Implementing a school-wide focus on two words per grade level each week fosters consistency and alignment across classrooms. While simplifying monitoring, contextualizing these words authentically across all subjects may pose challenges.




Academic vocabulary development in grades 3-5 builds upon the foundation laid in earlier years, equipping students with the language skills necessary for academic success. By prioritizing Tier Two and Tier Three words and employing targeted instructional strategies, educators can empower upper elementary students to comprehend complex texts, engage critically with content, and communicate effectively across various subjects. Through collaboration, creativity, and intentional planning, we can ensure that all students have the vocabulary proficiency needed to thrive in their academic endeavors.