Are your kids Fancy Nancys?

Some parents may be very familiar with Fancy Nancy ( – a fictional children’s book character who loves anything ‘fancy’. The books encourages kids to use sophisticated vocabulary like scrumptious (instead of yummy), exquisite (instead of pretty), gigantic (instead of big). While it is exciting for kids to delve into Nancy’s fancy world of delectable cupcakes, aspiring artistry and spectacular soccer games, there is merit in what the author is trying to do.

Vocabulary Matters

Did You Know:

  • a child’s vocabulary growth is directly linked to his or her overall school achievement [1]
  • the size of a child’s vocabulary in kindergarten predicts his ability to learn to read [2]
  • the number of words a child is exposed to by his parents relates directly to the size of the child’s vocabulary [3].

How do kids learn vocabulary?

The number of words students learn varies greatly:

2 vs. 8 words per day = 750 vs. 3,000 per year

You may start to notice differences in size of children’s vocabulary first appears around 18 months. Look out for a blog coming soon about 18-24 month olds who seem to have lots of single words but are not combining words.

Kids learn vocabulary through:

  • Wide reading and in context – children who have been read to from an early age develop larger vocabularies than those who have not had the same exposure to books. Books reading promotes vocabulary learning because books provide a familiar and motivating context for word learning. Books contain words and phrases children don’t typically hear in everyday conversation.
  • External sources e.g. dictionary
  • Direct instruction


Just reading books to children, however, is not enough to build their vocabularies to their full potential. Children may not learn any new words from listening to a story unless the adult makes the words sparkle and help the children to understand what they mean. How do we know which words to help our children learn?

The three tiers of vocabulary

Beck & McKeown [4] suggest that there are three tiers of vocabulary that every literate person knows and uses.

Tier 1 consist of everyday words. These words usually do not have multiple meanings and rarely need explanations for Tier 1 words since they hear and use them so often. Examples of Tier 1 words are book, girl, sad, clock, baby, dog, and orange. There are about 8,000 word families in English included in Tier 1.

Tier 2 consists of high-frequency words that occur across a variety of domains.These words are typically found in books and heard less frequently in conversations. Tier 2 words consist of such words as coincidence, masterpiece, absurd, industrious, and benevolent. Tier 2 words:

  • Are necessary for reading comprehension
  • Are more sophisticated words which can replace familiar words e.g. purchase for buy, release for let go
  • Are more precise descriptive words e.g., exhausted for tired; horrendous for bad
  • Can be used across a variety of environments
  • Can have multiple meanings

There are about 7,000 word families in English (or 700 per year) in Tier 2.

Tier 2 words in this common sign: unauthorized, vehicles, towed, expense

Most of our vocabulary instruction focuses on Tier 2 words because they are the most useful for understanding written text.

Tier 3 consists of low-frequency specialized words which that are subject-specific e.g., condensation, evaporation, precipitation when learning about states of water.The remaining 400,000 words in English fall in this tier.

What can YOU do with Tier 2 words?

Children’s vocabulary at 42 months was influenced by parents’ use of a variety of sophisticated words one year earlier – Children aged 24-36 months have learned a lot of common vocabulary, and are ready to learn more difficult words, such as “minute” instead of “small”, or “weary” instead of “tired”. [2]

Here are some easy ways to help your learn Tier 2 words:

  • Show your child the meaning of the word:
    • Point to the illustrations if they relate to the word
    • Use facial expressions e.g., – you can look confused, miserable, or furious,
    • Show a picture, or object to clarify the word’s meaning – e.g., a rock is ‘solid’.
    • Play games with the words
  • Tell your child the meaning of the word:
    • Avoid using other Tier 2 words in your explanation e..g, When someone is being selfish, they only care about what they want, not what other people want.
  • Use the word yourself repeatedly
    • Read the book and stress the word again
    • Make the word sparkle throughout the day – use the word in different situations to provide more exposure and deepen understanding
    • Repetition is not boring for children – it gives them more opportunities to increase their understanding.

Little Birdie Book Boxes incorporate sophisticated vocabulary learning in our WordPLAY activities. Our Favourite Foods box is available now!

Thanks for hearing our call,

Your Little Birdies


  1. Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.
  2. Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development.
  3. Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
  4. Beck,I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.