Tier 2 words – how to choose what vocab to teach

Try using these strategies to decide which terms to focus on, says Ruth Baker-Leask…

Ruth Baker-Leask
by Ruth Baker-Leask
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There are over a million words in the English language, so it is no wonder that teachers feel overwhelmed when choosing the words to form the focus of their vocabulary teaching.

I’m going to tell you about some simple strategies that can help, but never forget that many of the words we chose to use ourselves are ‘caught’ from the books we read and the language-rich environment in which we live, so use every opportunity to model your own expertise in using language and words.

Let’s start with a very popular resource. I have noticed that many schools are now familiar with the tiered vocabulary framework, created by education researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown. This is a great place to start because of the useful way it categorises words:

Tier 1 – everyday, familiar words for those children who speak English as their primary language. These are often ‘caught’ rather than learned through direct instruction.  Tier 2 – high-frequency, impactful language encountered more often when reading than used when speaking. These words are useful in multiple contexts and help children express themselves clearly and with precision. These are the words that you should be directly teaching during English lessons (and beyond).  Tier 3 – The words we use when talking and writing about specific subjects or a particular field of study.   

This framework is a useful guide when selecting words, and we have become experts at spotting tier two language in a text, but this can still leave us with an unmanageable amount of words to focus on.

So what else might we use as a measure of a word’s usefulness?

High-value words (tier 2)

The direct teaching of tier 2 words will broaden children’s vocabularies. While planning a Year 5 teaching sequence on The Explorer by Katherine Rundell recently, I stumbled across several tier 2 words in the space of one paragraph: summon, cascaded, assumed, compulsory, and exasperate, to name but a few!

It would take a week’s worth of lessons to study all of these words, which we just don’t have to spare. So, how do we decide which ones to focus on? Answering these questions can help:

  • Which words are most useful to the children? Are any of the words transferable to other subjects or scenarios already familiar to pupils, allowing them to use these words more frequently? For example, summon and compulsory can both be related to a school context: it is compulsory to attend when summoned by the headteacher.
  • Which words are vital to understanding the plot? For example, cascaded describes the motion of a fast-moving river, and therefore impacts on the main characters’ decision regarding the safety of building a raft.
  • Which words are the children likely to understand most easily? Choosing words for which there is a simple definition can help to save time.
  • Do any of the words have interesting histories (etymology), and will studying the morphology (root, prefixes and suffixes) of the word be of interest?

A wise combination of these factors can help clarify the process of choosing the ‘right’ words to study.

Book talk

Sometimes, choosing words to focus on can depend on the text you’re using. For instance, The Explorer traces the adventures of four children stranded in the rainforest, following a fatal plane crash.

This, of course, is an experience you would hope that the children do not have first-hand experience of! Bearing that in mind, there may be additional words that become your focus for vocabulary instruction; words that are not necessarily part of the text itself but will help the children talk about it.

For example: tropical, vegetation, humidity, peril, jeopardy, and quest.

One way you can test whether a word might be classified as tier 2 is to imagine its tier 1 counterpart. In this case, rather than peril or jeopardy the children might say danger. A quest may be replaced by a hunt or a journey.

Morphology and etymology

Learning word families – that is, words that share a common root – is an important part of broadening vocabulary. It can be useful to look out for such words when reading.

In this case, when looking at the word assume, I would focus on the root ‘-sume’ which means to take up (derived from the Latin ‘sumere’). To assume is to take meaning from something but this is just the start:

Consume: to take and use up e.g. Being hungry, he consumed his lunch with vigor!

Presume: to take onboard a thought or believe something without proof e.g. I presumed you weren’t coming and yet here you are!

Subsume: to take something in or absorb something e.g. All of the information was subsumed under one heading.

And there’s more…

Some of the other words in the passage from The Explorer also have interesting roots, and although exploring this will take some internet research, you will be expanding your own knowledge of words and how they work as well as the children’s.

For example: compulsory has its root in the word compel which means to drive together (from the Latin >com, meaning together, and pollere to drive). This provides a number of options for how you might dive deeper into this word, such as:

  • How many words can you find with the prefix com that relate to togetherness? E.g. combine, community, comfort, and communicate.
  • Can you add further affixes to the words above to create other words in the same word family? E.g. combination, telecommunication.
  • Think about the meanings of the following words: connect, congregate, concord. Does the prefix con- have the same meaning as com-? How do you know?

Now, you are not going to study every word at this level of detail, but showing an interest and delving a bit deeper when the opportunity arises, will not only broaden children’s knowledge of words, but also their interest in how language works.

I know that the words above actually have multiple, nuanced meanings that are not represented here, but language is tricky and sometimes simplifying definitions, as long as you don’t lose the meanings along the way, can help children understand how to use the word.

Based on my basic definitions you can see that each involves taking or taking in something – be it information, ideas or food. And you don’t need to be Susie Dent to plan such activities, there are many reputable websites that list root words and their meanings.

Language is fun

Finally, be vigilant for those words that children just like the sound of. Learning language should be fun and I often find myself talking about how, if you really want children to have a more expressive vocabulary, they must care about words and language; they must become ‘word nerds’!

We focus on word meanings and usage but sometimes it is just as important to ask the children what words interest them (regardless of their root or tier) and take it from there.

A former primary head, Ruth Baker-Leask is director of Minerva Learning and chair of the National Association of Advisers in English (NAAE). To discover more about teaching vocabulary, including a range of teaching approaches and activities, please head to Plazoom and watch our developing vocabulary videos, made in partnership with the National Literacy Trust.

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