5 strategies for teaching Tier 2 words

By Helen Sharpe

07 Dec 2021

A teacher helping a learner with her reading

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 as 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 2 words are the key here. It’s important we don’t neglect these words, not only because learners are less likely to encounter them, but also because they will empower learners 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, learners must 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!

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, learners 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).

I use Lemov’s "cold calling" and "no opt-out" to test learners on vocabulary, and they must answer in full sentences - the learners know that if they have forgotten or answered 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 them to the current unit and real-life examples.

After testing learners 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, learners work in pairs writing sentences using the new vocabulary. I would usually circulate the classroom during this time, checking for accuracy and asking learners to ‘upgrade’ their sentences through rephrasing, punctuation etc. They have now practised using the words orally and in writing.

Finally (and this idea is taken from Rebecca Foster and Chris Curtis’ writing challenges), learners 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 learners to make changes where necessary.

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 by the high-quality texts and their skilful use of language to influence the reader in a range of ways – exciting times ahead!

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