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Tier 2 vocabulary – How it builds precision

Close-up photograph of the inner workings of a watch, representing tier 2 vocabulary

Subject-specific vocabulary is important, concedes Matt MacGuire – but we neglect that crucial tier 2 vocabulary at our peril…

Matt MacGuire
by Matt MacGuire
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When starting to think about tier 2 vocabulary, consider the following sentence:

The food dye will eventually turn all of the water blue, because the fluid molecules will continually move from areas of high concentration to areas of lower concentration, across the concentration gradient, until the fluid molecules are evenly distributed across the body of water.

And now consider this sentence:

Through the process of diffusion, the food dye will turn all of the water blue.

The difference between these two sentences is that the latter uses the expert word ‘diffusion’. This word, with its precise definition (the net movement of molecules from an area where they are at a higher concentration, to areas where they are at a lower concentration) obviates the need for a longer and clunkier explanation.

Of course, this second, much shorter sentence contains an element of assumed knowledge with its use of the word ‘diffusion’. Words carry knowledge, which is drawn from the precise definition associated with the signifier.

Words are, essentially, shorthand for their respective definitions. The correct deployment of expert words demonstrates expert understanding.

A laborious struggle

Consider another pair of example sentences. This…

The repetition of the consonant sound at the beginning of nearby words in the sentence, ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ establishes the rhythmic and inescapable power of the tide and the past.

And then this…

The alliteration in the sentence ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ establishes the rhythmic and inescapable power of the tide and the past.

Once again, expert language allows for concision and precision – albeit with the shorter sentence relying upon shared understanding of expert vocabulary. It only works if everyone understands, and agrees upon, the definition of ‘alliteration’.

In order to use expert vocabulary confidently, students must develop automaticity. If the process of writing involves a laborious struggle to call to mind the right words, then the student will have little remaining cognitive capacity to think about the bigger concepts they’re exploring, or the exam question they’re answering.

Automatised actions

When you drive a car, you don’t consciously think about performing the actions of changing gears, adjusting your foot on the clutch, holding the steering wheel in the right position or flicking the indicator switch because you don’t need to. Those actions have become automatic for you, the expert driver.

Having these automatised actions at your disposal helps you enormously with the task of driving to work. If someone steps into the road unexpectedly, you can instantly respond with the correct, automatised action – namely hitting the brakes.

Similarly, we need our students to be able to quickly and effortlessly draw upon the best vocabulary for getting the job done. If they can’t, their only recourse is to produce laborious, imprecise and long-winded sentences. There simply isn’t time for this in public examinations or academic university interviews.

Specialist language

As we strive to develop automaticity in our students’ use of vocabulary, it’s become popular in education to refer to the specialist language of academic subjects as ‘tier 3 vocabulary’. These are the words most strongly associated with a particular discipline.

English, for example, has ‘metaphor’. Geography has ‘tectonic’; history has ‘anachronistic’; biology has ‘peristalsis’; ICT has ‘algorithm’. These words amount to a subject’s jargon, forming an ‘in-language’ for those in the know. Once you’ve internalised this secret code, you can better understand the subject and communicate your expertise much more efficiently.

The importance of tier 3 vocabulary is widely recognised. Teachers give due emphasis to instructing students in its proper usage. It’s long been obvious to secondary school teachers that students need these tier 3 words in order to succeed.

But increasingly, teachers have also been turning their attention to tier 2 vocabulary.

Tier 2 vocabulary

Tier 2 vocabulary isn’t as specialist as tier 3 vocabulary, but nor is it as simplistic as tier 1 vocabulary. It’s not ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘mum’ or ‘keys’, and isn’t ‘longshore drift’, ‘pathetic fallacy’, ‘nucleus’, ‘leverage’ or ‘ratio’. It’s the language in between; the kind of intelligent and sophisticated vocabulary that’s useful across all subject domains.

Tier 2 vocabulary consists of words like ‘pragmatic’, ‘façade’ and ‘interconnected’. These are the words of The Guardian, BBC Radio 4 and educational documentaries. Some families will transmit these words to their children by osmosis when speaking at the dinner table or around the house.

“Increasingly, teachers have also been turning their attention to tier 2 vocabulary”

These are the words that will be missing for some disadvantaged children. This is possibly because their parents don’t have those words themselves, or lack the time to sit with them at mealtimes.

Tier 2 words are the words that create the vocabulary gap. They leave underprivileged students without the words they’ll need to understand new content, or express their ideas convincingly and with nuance.

Consequently, these students fall further behind every year because words are sticky, just like knowledge itself. When a student knows the word ‘implicit’, it’s easier for them to then learn ‘imply’, ‘implied’, ‘implication’, ‘implicitly’ and ‘implicated’. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to ‘explicit’, ‘explicitly’ and ‘explication’.

Lazy assertions

Words work in family groups, and it’s far easier to learn a new word if you already have a related word in your vocabulary. For more advantaged children, the massive web of more sophisticated vocabulary endowed upon them by their position of relative privilege makes language acquisition an almost automatic process.

For those with the most restricted vocabularies, on the other hand, learning new words is a hugely demanding task that impacts upon cognitive load. If you don’t understand the words, you’ll have little chance of grasping the meaning of the sentence.

Please don’t believe the lazy, ill-informed assertion that you can work out the meaning of a word from the context of the sentence, because you can’t. Disadvantaged students certainly can’t. At best, you can work out the function of the word – whether it’s an adjective, verb and so on – from its position in relation to other words. Beyond that, it’s guesswork.

Combatting inequality

Our students deserve better than the mere opportunity to try and guess the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary. They need proper, robust vocabulary instruction.

Words are power. When we build our students’ tier 3 vocabulary, we’re doing the bare minimum by equipping them with subject knowledge. Once we expand this into the realm of tier 2 vocabulary, we’re suddenly doing much more. We’re combatting inequality by bridging the vocabulary gap.

Teachers and subject leaders should give careful thought to the words that will be taught to students during each unit or scheme of work. Vocabulary acquisition in tier 2 and tier 3 should be carefully mapped out in advance, rather than left to chance. That way, all our students stand a better chance of understanding nuance and communicating with precision.

Matt MacGuire is an assistant headteacher; this article is based on a post originally published at his blog, Ten Rules for Teaching

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