3 Strategies for teaching Tier 3 vocabulary

For the most part, when students and parents (and even a lot of teachers!) hear terms like ‘literacy’ and ‘vocabulary’ being thrown around, they tend to come to the same conclusion: these are issues for the English department to solve. On the surface, this seems like a pretty sensible viewpoint. Maths teachers have all sorts of complicated equations they need their students to memorise, whilst science teachers are working hard to ensure their classes understand simple old things like chemical reactions, the workings of the human body, and the endless expanse of space. Vocabulary seems pretty low priority, right?

Wrong. Language is the tool that provides us with the ability to express and comprehend this complex knowledge. This is true for all subjects across the curriculum. English lessons aren’t purely about the attainment of new words, but how else can a student understand a text without a solid grasp of the language used? Similarly, subjects like science and maths aren’t just about memorising complicated terminology, but it’s vital that students know and understand this language so they can unlock the concepts and ideas that lie behind such confusing jumbles of letters. With this in mind, here are 3 useful tips and strategies for teaching Tier 3 vocabulary:

Make it visual!

If you’ve read any of our previous blogs on Isabel Beck’s system of tiered vocabulary, you’d know that Tier 3 vocabulary refers to subject-specific language. Every subject has its own jargon and niche terminology: Chemistry students need to know about polymerisation; mathematicians need to know terms like tangent, integer and radius, while geography teachers have to explain the meanings of abrasion and attrition.

The handy thing about this technical language is that a lot of it can be taught using visual cues – and pictures or drawings are stimuli that any student can understand, regardless of their literacy levels. For example, a decontextualised science term like velocity might be baffling for a Year 8 student, but every learner will be able to recognise a picture of a card speeding forwards on a road.

Better yet, encouraging students to draw their own pictures and come up with their own visual frames of reference for Tier 3 language is an excellent way of formatively assessing their understanding; do their drawings accurately match up with the definition and connotations of the term? And remember – always get them to rationalise their drawings to ensure they’re really processing the terminology!

Get to the ‘root’ of the troublesome vocabulary

Another incredibly useful feature of the English language is that it follows rules; contrary to how it might sometimes seem, words aren’t just arbitrary combinations of letters. Instead, words are deliberately built using patterns of Greek and Latin roots and affixes. When teaching seemingly alien Tier 3 language, the ability to break words down into these composite parts can be eye opening for learners.

Take an earlier example of the word ‘polymer’ in Chemistry. If a student understands that the Greek prefix ‘poly’ means many, whilst the suffix ‘mer’ means part, it follows quite sensibly that a polymer would be a molecule made of many parts or units. Similarly, if mono means one, then a monomer must be a single molecule that can join together to create polymers. Some fun ways to get your class thinking about roots and affixes is to create interactive class displays, like roots and affixes trees, or to have groups and pairs matching together roots flashcards.

Build semantic relationships

Finally, one of the greatest things about the English language, which all teachers need to leverage in their classrooms, is the fact that our words are all connected. Different students come to their lessons with a different bank of words they already know and understand.

The majority of these words are Tier 1 and Tier 2 words – cross-curricular language that isn’t specific to a particular area of study. Naturally, a large bank of words is always going to help students to pick up subject-specific terminology more easily; they’ll have the lexical understanding to comprehend explanations, intuit words from context, and then apply or respond to this language in exam situations. As Alex Quigley states in his book ‘Closing The Vocabulary Gap’, students with “a wealth of words” are able to more naturally make connections between related words, whilst for learners with “a restricted academic vocabulary, it can prove more of a challenge that requires support and modelling.”

By organising words into semantic groups, students build reference points with which to associate terminology. In maths, a student’s understanding of a Tier 3 word like quadrilateral is bolstered through connecting that term with simpler words like square and rectangle – related through the fact they have four sides. Below, you can see a common example of how this technique is often used in relation to the food chain in Biology, semantically linking words like consumer, producer and decomposer with other subgroups.

To add an extra layer to this, it would be really good practice to get students to then offer their own explanations and definitions of each term – the chances are, they will find themselves using even more semantically related Tier 1 and Tier 2 language to articulate their understanding!

For more information on how to teach Tier 3 vocabulary, take a look at our 10 top tips for teaching subject-specific terminology or read our blog on why words matter in maths.

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