Tier 3 vocabulary: 10 top tips for teaching subject-specific terminology

How a curriculum-wide approach can support your whole-school literacy strategy

Tier 3 vocabulary teaching can be incorporated into any lesson – whatever the subject. Here, we share tips for:
assessing students’ understanding of subject-specific terminology
setting engaging, multimodal tasks
igniting social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL)
encouraging students to reflect on how they learn new words (meta-cognitive learning)

How to incorporate Tier 3 vocabulary into your literacy strategy

Why is subject-specific terminology so difficult for students to learn?

Education researcher Isabel Beck calls the subject-specific words that learners only come across in particular contexts ‘Tier 3’ words.

Recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation into improving literacy in schools confirms how crucial subject-specific vocabulary teaching is:

“Literacy in secondary school must not simply be seen as a basket of general skills. Instead, it must be grounded in the specifics of each subject. Crucially, by attending to the literacy demands of their subjects, teachers increase their students’ chance of success in their subjects. Secondary school teachers should ask not what they can do for literacy, but what literacy can do for them.”

However, students can find Tier 3 words especially difficult to learn because they’ve never heard them before. A Year 8 student, for example, will rarely see ‘chromosome’ or ‘tributary’ in their wider reading.

When students can’t understand the terminology, they can’t access the content being taught. Luckily, content and vocabulary don’t have to be taught separately. Our ten methods for incorporating teaching new terms into lesson plans across the curriculum can be shared with teachers of any subject. They can also help you develop a whole-school literacy strategy. Our Tier 3 vocabulary curriculum tool, Bedrock Mapper, can easily enable teachers across your school to consistently teach and assess their own subject-specific vocabulary.

Find out about Bedrock Mapper

10 methods for teaching subject-specific terminology

1. Preselect key terms

To avoid wasting time teaching language students already know, preselect the words you’re going to focus on. Look ahead to the next lesson, think about which terms are going to prove tricky, and then assess students’ understanding.

To do this, you can use a grid like this one. Alternatively, try making a continuum. Place a word on the board and ask students to place themselves along the continuum depending on how well they understand it. It may take a few minutes to plan, but it’ll save you lots of time in the long run.

2. Present terms in context

Context is essential when we try to understand new words. Don’t start your lesson with a confusing terms-and-definitions match up. Instead, give the class a piece of text that uses the terms in context. Once they’ve seen the new words as part of a whole, you can start to explain what they mean on their own.

3. Break words down

Teaching morphology – breaking words into prefixes, suffixes and roots – is a really effective way to help students make links with familiar language. So many terms that seem intimidating at first actually contain parts that students already know.

For example, they will know that ‘biology’ is the study of living things. Breaking this down and looking at the prefix ‘bio’ – life – will help them define what the new word ‘biography’ means.

Why not ask your class to design a root word display for your classroom wall or science corridor? You can also download our free roots flashcards. Bedrock’s 37 Common Roots learning scheme also improves understanding of unfamiliar words by teaching common Greek and Latin roots and is free to all Bedrock Vocabulary customers.

4. Create terminology trading cards

As you move through a unit and come across new key terms, get your students to design trading cards to represent the new concepts. On the front, they should write the term and draw a related image. On the back, they write a description plus two key points. Making the cards helps students to remember the new terminology, and there are also lots of games you can play with them.

For example, you could split students into two teams. Team A can only look at the term and picture side. Team B can only look at the description side. Students from Team B might ask: “who has a type of energy that comes from the Earth?” Team A might ask: “who has a description of geothermal energy?” Once everyone has found their partner, students can swap trading cards.

5. Make justified lists

Often students understand what they’re being taught but don’t know how to explain it. Asking students to justify something is a great way of encouraging them to practise that tricky process. This works really well in a scheme of work on variation or classification. Here’s an example.

Students should pick out the building here without too much trouble. What will be interesting is their explanations. You might hear variations on “it’s not a living thing,” at which point you can ask them what they think an organism is. It shouldn’t be too much of a leap from there to ask the students to come up with their own definition of the term ‘organism’ and hey presto, they’ve learnt a term.

6. Try charades

For this game, split the class into teams and give each team a word list. Students take it in turns to act out each word for the rest of their team to guess. ‘Photosynthesis’ may seem impossible to act out, but asking students to do this will really test their understanding of the term!

7. Play taboo

Put the class into teams. Write the new term at the top of a piece of paper. Below, write five obvious words that describe it. These words are taboo – the students can’t use them. This means the players have to describe the new term in other ways to help their team guess the word.

8. Set up a game of bullseye

Write your new terms on pieces of A4 paper. Scrunch the pieces into balls and put them in a big pot. Bring up an image of a bullseye or draw one on the board. Each ring of the bullseye represents a different challenge, and a different amount of points. A student throws the word ball, you note where it lands on the target, and the student opens the ball to see which new word they have.

Make the tasks progressively harder as you move towards the centre. For example, if the student throws a word ball and it lands in the outer ring, they might have to say a sentence that uses that word. If the ball lands right on the bullseye, they must come up with a definition for that word. Try playing this in teams, adding up the points as you go.

9. Make bingo cards

Give each student a bingo card with nine new words As you give clues – a mixture of descriptions, images, metaphors and so on – pupils cross off the words on their card. They shout “bingo” as soon as they have crossed off all of their new words.

10. Play jeopardy

To play this game, you give an answer first, and the students have to buzz in with the matching question. For example, if you said “equilateral triangle,” the students could say, “which type of triangle has three equal sides and angles of 60°?” Alternatively, you could say “a shape with three equal sides and angles,” for which the correct question would be “what is an equilateral triangle?”

Bonus activity!

Try this to help your students remember terminology when it comes to revision time.

One science teacher at a Bedrock school gets his students to make a keyword booklet they can add to each lesson. He starts the lesson by introducing key terms. At the end of a lesson, students write a definition and add images, analogies, synonyms, antonyms and example sentences. This helps them record their learning and develop a more nuanced understanding of terms.


We’d love to hear how you got on with our tips and tricks, and if you’ve got any great ideas for teaching new subject-specific terms. Get in touch via Twitter or email us at hello@bedrocklearning.org. And don’t forget to download our detailed, step-by-step guide to effective vocabulary teaching!

See our article for three strategic ways to teach Tier 3 vocabulary, and for more help with effective vocabulary teaching, download our evidence-based, step-by-step guide.

Teach and assess Tier 3 vocabulary consistently across your school with Bedrock Mapper

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