5 Strategies you need to know if you’re teaching Tier 2 words

Editor’s notes: After Helen’s previous two blogs on 19th century texts and Macbeth proved so popular, I’m very excited to introduce Helen Sharpe’s latest advice around effective vocabulary teaching. This time, she is sharing her list of ‘five strategies for teaching tier words’. Remember to follow Helen on Twitter and to check out her personal blog. And if you’d like to have your own vocabulary work published on our website, make sure to contact us to become one of our Bedrock guest bloggers!

As Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Exposing students to as much new language as possible, therefore, doesn’t only increase the scope of their vocabulary – it also provides them with a wider, clearer lens through which they can perceive and understand the world around them. But how do we know which words to teach?

Well, Isabel Beck et al gave us a handy system that allows us to answer this question. In her research, she splits the words into three tiers, which are categorised like so:

Tier 1 words: common, everyday words that students are likely to encounter with or without our intervention.

Tier 2 words: higher-level vocabulary that is less common.

Tier 3 words: technical, subject-specific vocabulary.

Tier two words are the key here. It’s important we don’t neglect these words, not only because students are less likely to encounter them, but also because they will empower students to access a higher level of language with which they can communicate and understand ideas across the curriculum. Beck also states that to learn new vocabulary, students need to be exposed to it at least three times. With this research in mind, I have adopted the strategies listed below to make my students even more word rich!

1. Reading and vocabulary homework

This idea is an amalgamation of Lemov’s suggestion of teaching key ideas through non-fiction texts and Head of English Rebecca Foster’s Reading Challenges. Each week, students are given a text related to the current unit, which is rich in Tier 2 vocabulary. I select a maximum of 8 Tier 2 words that students must learn for homework as well as reading the weekly text. They are then tested on the words (first just definitions, then more challenging questions, putting the words in context).

2. Low-stakes testing

I use Lemov’s ‘cold calling’ and ‘no opt out’ to test students on the vocabulary and they must answer in full sentences. So the students know that if they have forgotten or answer incorrectly I will go back to them after the correct answer has been given! For questions that place the words in context, I try to link to the current unit and real-life examples (e.g. why might Malala be a positive example of defiance? Why did Theresa May recently condemn the Russian President?).

3. Deliberate practice

After testing students on their homework words, we look at the different forms that the words can appear in (e.g. adjective and verb form if the original word is a noun). We then list some synonyms and antonyms to aid their understanding. We may also look at prefixes and suffixes. Finally, students work in pairs writing sentences using the new vocabulary. I would usually circulate the classroom during this time, checking for accuracy and asking students to ‘upgrade’ their sentences through rephrasing, punctuation etc. They have now practised using the words orally and in writing.

4. Writing with Tier 2 vocabulary:

Finally (and this idea is taken from Rebecca Foster and Chris Curtis’ writing challenges), students are set a writing challenge in which they must use the new vocabulary. This is done in silence so I am again able to circulate the classroom, asking students to make changes where necessary.

5. Feedback lessons

When I read the writing challenges, I make a note of any brilliant usages of the new vocabulary to share with the class. In a feedback lesson, we would discuss these sentences and why they are effective. Students who did not use the vocabulary words as well (and even those who did) are able to learn from their peers’ examples. I often find students are very eager for their writing to be chosen to be shared as an example of excellence – a little extra motivation for writing brilliantly with ambitious Tier 2 words! They are then given an opportunity to redraft a section of their work, improving or correcting their use of new vocabulary.

It is early days with this system but I can honestly say the students feel challenged and are not only empowered by the wealth of new vocabulary but also the high-quality texts and their skilful use of language to influence the reader in a range of ways – exciting times ahead!

What are your top tips for vocabulary teaching? We’d love to hear! Comment below.

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