Unlock Student Achievement, Teach Tier 2 Words

Many of the vocabulary words I teach in science (or you teach in math, social studies, English, etc) class would be classified as tier 3 words. Yet, in order to understand these words, students are often required to understand a variety of tier 2 words. Therefore, when students lack the necessary tier 2 words, they are not able to efficiently/effectively learn the new vocabulary words. Without a robust tier 2 vocabulary, students will be locked out of academic success.


Convection Currents: current in a fluid that results in hotter, less dense material rising and colder, more dense material sinking

In order to understand “Convection Currents” a student must know and understand the following tier 2 words ‘current, fluid, and dense’. If students do not know the tier 2 words, they will be stuck memorizing the definition without gaining understanding. This problem compounds itself when students face an assessment.


Compare and contrast convection currents in the Earth’s mantle with those that happen in Earth’s atmosphere.

If they do not understand the tier 2 words, they do not have a hope of answering the question correctly, even if they know the content. For example, ‘compare/contrast’ Even if a student understands convection currents, they must also understand what the question is asking.

We can often assume that students know and understand tier 2 words since they appear everywhere and are used in multiple classes. This assuming is a problem as it makes learning much harder than necessary for low-achieving students.

I have experienced students performing poorly on an assessment who know the content well. But, when I rephrase the question, they are able to give a perfect answer.


How are convection currents in the Earth’s mantle and in the atmosphere the same? How are they different?

My students understood the content, they did not understand the question. I likely face this issue more than other teachers as I teach in an entirely ESL context. However, like most good teaching practices, there are steps you can take that will benefit ALL students.

We can explicitly teach tier two words. This will be particularly helpful for students because they will see these words in multiple classes. And if they can understand them, learning the content-specific vocabulary words will become much easier. Students will also be able to perform better on assessments because they will better understand the questions being asked. Tier 2 words are key for academic success. Give your students the key.

One way my department is trying to address this issue is by making a list of common tier 2 words with student friendly definitions. We will put this list on Quizlet and have students practice the flashcards. We used to do nothing, now we are doing something. What do you do for words in tier 2?


Getting Students To Use New Vocabulary

Present student friendly explanations first then get students using and applying the words in such a way where you can provide correction and feedback. Below are some strategies from “Bringing Words To Life”. I highly recommend you buy and read the book as it is chock full of research and everyday applications for teachers.

  1. Word Associations
    1. infamous, criminal, outlaw, bandit
    2. Ask students
      1. Which word goes with ________?
    3. Then ask students why
    4. Goal: build explicit connections between known words and new words, forces students to directly deal with the word by manipulating it
    5. Associations are not just synonyms!!
  2. Have You Ever…?
    1. Helps students associate new words with their lives.
    2. This strategy can work particularly well when the vocabulary deals with actions and emotions.
  3. Applause Applause
    1. In this strategy, the students clap hard and quickly if they would like to be associated with the word, or soft and quietly if they would not like to be associated with the word.
      1. Make students explain why they clapped loudly or quietly. This helps ensure that the students are actually engaging with the word’s meaning.
        1. This can be done by having students talk with a partner (engaging all students)
          1. You can walk around the room and listen to student explanations to make sure they are on track
  4. Which Would…
    1. In this strategy, the teacher can pose a question with the vocabulary word (students can pose each other questions as a way to review). Students should then explain why they chose their answer.
      1. Which situation would be more disappointing…forgetting your homework or losing your favorite toy? Why?
        1. Students can then talk with a partner and you can walk around the room assessing students’ understanding.

Teaching Vocab: Thou Shalt, Thou Shalt Not

A lot of this article will essentially be a summary of Bringing Words to Life. If you find it helpful, you’ll find the actual book is even better (Find it here). 

Trade books are very helpful in teaching young students new vocabulary. A trade book is essentially a large book that teachers will read out loud to the entire class. These books are helpful because the teacher can pre-teach key words and ask questions as they go. This helps keep every understand the story.

Before choosing a trade book, the teacher must first think about target vocabulary. There are two main rules for picking out target words:

  1. The word must be explainable in words the students already understand.
  2. The word must be useful/interesting/applicable to students’ daily lives.

The first is important because if you must use words outside of a student’s vocabulary when explaining them, then the student will not be likely to understand the target word. The second is important because it will help students remember the word’s meaning and, if it is applicable to their lives, it will give them opportunities to utilize said target word.

The goal with any vocab word is for it to become a permanent part of the student’s vocabulary. (No-one wants a student to forget the words after the unit/test.) To make words permanent, teachers should:

  1. Give students multiple exposures to the word/s over time (spaced and retrieval practice)
  2. Individual Reading
    1. Introduce important words (words that could disrupt comprehension) before students being individual reading
      1. 3-5 words per lesson and ~5-9 per week seem to be the sweet spot
      2. If too many words, students won’t remember their definitions
  3. Group Reading
    1. Introduce words as you encounter them
      1. Add a phrase to describe the meaning and move on
        1. Brief is best (during reading focus on text meaning, not vocab building)
      2. Too many words will disrupt the “flow of comprehension” and students will understand less of the text
  4. Thou Shalt Not
    1. Ask, “What do you think this word means?”
      1. This promotes inaccurate definitions and guessing, leading to misconceptions.
      2. Just tell them and have them apply the words.
    2. Have students regularly look up words in a dictionary as a way to learn new vocabulary
      1. Dictionary definitions are not effective for a myriad of reasons.
      2. Definitions lack context/differentiation due to space constraints
        1. Ex: conspicuous=easily seen
          1. Technically true, but likely to lead to an incorrect understanding of the word’s meaning.
        1. Vague language: definition does not include enough info to be useful to a student
        2. More likely interpretation: dictionary gives a different meaning of the word, student doesn’t know/understand and uses the word in the wrong context
        3. Multiple pieces of information: definition includes a list but doesn’t explain how to apply the list (prescriptive or descriptive)
  5. Instead of dictionaries…
    1. Use student friendly explanations
      1. Capture the essence of the word and how it is typically used
      2. Explain the meaning in everyday language
        1. Ex: exacerbate=an action that makes that makes a bad situation even worse
      3. Student friendly explanations will tend to be longer than a dictionary’s definition
        1. Often include: something, someone, describes

Side note 1: A lot of this is simply good teaching practice and is applicable no matter what subject/content you are teaching.

Side note 2: When words are homographs (sound spelling/sound but different meaning) teachers should not teach all the meanings together as this will confuse students. Teachers should teach the meaning that the context gives.

Teaching Vocabulary: The Word Tiers

I have largely used information from Bringing Words to Life, 2nd addition by Isabel L. Beck, PhD, Margaret G. McKeown, PhD, and Linda Kucan, PhD. I would highly recommend buying their book as it is very well researched and has been tremendously practical so far (I am only 3 chapters in.)

Words have been divided into three tiers. Tier one words tend to be common and used in everyday language such as dog, happy, cold, etc. Tier two words are common in literature but not necessarily common in spoken language such as equation, impulse, nutrition. While tier three words are rare in both written and spoken language such as isotope, isosceles, and impressionism.

Our students are already very likely to have a large vocabulary of tier one words, as they are so common. And, these words are common enough that if there are small gaps in a child’s vocabulary they will likely be able to pick them up quickly.

Tier two words are likely to appear with a high frequency in both written and oral communication. A helpful way to determine if the word is tier two is asking yourself, “Does this word offer my students a more specific way to describe something?”

Tier 1 Tier 2
happy jubilant
sad mourn
close precise

The key here is that the words are not just synonyms, but that the words offer students more precise ways of expressing themselves. For example, a child could say “The man is sad because his test score is low.” Or “The man is mourning because his friend man died.” You would not put the word mourn in the first sentence, and putting the word mourn into the second sentence gives it more meaning and paints a more vivid picture for the reader.

The entire concept of word tiers is not clear cut. What separates the words into theirs are general rules that the teacher can apply. This means that we do not need to get bogged down in which category to place the words into. We can use the following guidelines to help us intentionally choose vocabulary words to teach our students.

  • Importance and utility: Do these words appear in many different domains (Subjects)?
  • Conceptual Understanding: Does the word help students understand a key concept with specific language?
What a student might say Tier 2
The water goes up. evaporate
The rock sinks because it is heavier than water. The rock sinks because it is more dense than the water.
The wall blocks the light The wall is impermeable to light.
  • Instructional Potential: Can the words that can be used in different contexts with different meanings?
What a student might say Tier 2
1. The boy is doesn’t need help.
2. America no longer belongs to England.
1. The boy is independent.

2. America became independent when it won the war against England.

1. The throw was perfect.

2. What you said is true.

1. The throw was very accurate.

2. What you said was accurate.

Tier three words are generally domain (subject) specific like “Homeric Greek literature” and are unlikely to come up outside of specific circumstances. As a result, they are not worth teaching like tier two words because it would simply take too much time. The authors of Bringing Words To Life recommend that teachers teach these words as they come up in the text or class. As an important note, many subjects use tier three words as regular vocabulary words. Tier three words should not be reduced to “isolated words”. Tier three words need to be taught as content knowledge. This means that as students are learning these words, they should practice using them in authentic contexts. For example:

Science Tier 3 Words Potential Activities to Practice Tier 3 Words
1. Convection Currents 1. Have students compare the words

2. Have students draw diagrams

3. Give students concrete examples and have them explain why it is a god example

2. Plate Tectonics

When you choose the words to teach, focus on the tier two words as those have the most utility. Just don’t make students find the meanings in their dictionaries.

Why Are Flashcards So Effective?

There are two types of flashcards, physical and digital. As for which type is better, there is evidence that goes both ways. However, a recent study (Dizon and Tang, 2017) found that both are essentially equally effective if students have been taught how to use them. For teachers, I think we are fine to use whatever type works better for our context. Don’t stress about which form to use, just make sure you teach your students how to use them.

Flashcards are effective because they force students to use the study strategy of retrieval practice. When applying retrieval practice to a flashcard, students read the cue (question) and then they must retrieve, from memory, the information (answer). Then students look at the other side of the card and get feedback on whether they were correct or not. Each time a student retrieves the information correctly, they are reconstructing the memory of that fact/concept. This reconstruction makes it easier for students to recall the relevant fact/concept in the future.

The formatting of flashcards also lends itself to spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is exactly what it sounds like, spacing the repetition of the material out. The meaning and impact of spaced repetition becomes more clear when contrasted with cramming, its opposite. Cramming can be somewhat effective at improving student performance, but it doesn’t help much for actual learning as most of what a student crams will be forgotten shortly after the test (Bjork, 2012). Spaced repetition helps with both test performance and actual learning.

Now for some hard data. Flashcards have been shown to improve student performance on tests. A study found that students who used flashcards to study for every test in an “Intro To Psyc” class much better than those who did not use flashcards (Golding, Wasarhaley, & Fletcher, 2012). Another reason that teachers should use flashcards is that subject-specific vocabulary is the strongest predictor of student performance on content-based assessments (Espin and Deno, 1995). A study done by Nate Kornell looked at flashcards and test scores found that for 90% of students, spacing out their practice was more effective than cramming (Kornell, 2011). The same Kornell study found that students who used a spaced repetition flashcard strategy scored over 30% higher than students who used a massing flashcard strategy. In this case, the massing strategy involved using a small deck of flashcards on specific topics (lessons), whereas the spaced repetition strategy used a large set of flashcards that included information for the whole chapter. This provides evidence that flashcards are more effective when they utilize the interleaving study strategy.

As teachers, we care about test performance (It is important!) but actual learning (putting information into long-term memory) matters more. I believe that the above information gives strong evidence for utilizing retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving as study/teaching strategies. I also think that flashcards can be a way to integrate these study strategies into a simple, effective, and student-friendly form.


Why Vocabulary Matters pt 2

Having background knowledge is a prerequisite for academic success. One key way for teachers to help students with background knowledge is to teach vocabulary. This will then help give students the ability to talk about new concepts and make specific connections using academic language as opposed to general connections using everyday language.

For example, Student A could describe the water cycle as, “The water goes up and makes a cloud. Then gets heavier and it can come down. This can happen again and again” This shows that the student understands the concept of the water cycle. But their language suggests that they only understand it on a basic level.

Student B, who has a higher level of vocabulary can describe it with scientific language which provides greater depth. “The water evaporates and then becomes a gas. When it cools, it will condense and form a cloud. When the water droplets come together, gravity can pull them down as a form of precipitation. This process will repeat.”

Obviously, this is a simplified example, but by having the content vocabulary, a student is able to not only show that they understand the structure of the concept. They are able to demonstrate that they understand the processes of that concept.

It also gives the teacher much more to work with. If student A says something incorrect, it is more difficult for the teacher to assess which part of the concept the student does not understand because they explained the water cycle in generic terms with a generic vocabulary. Whereas if Student B makes a mistake, the teacher will be able to provide correction more easily since the student has more background knowledge to draw on (vocabulary) and they used most of the vocabulary correctly, more clearly showing both what they know and do not know.

Another important factor. The even if Student A perfectly understands the water cycle (albeit in generic language) he will fall further behind in future units that build on previous unit’s vocabulary. This makes it important for teachers to stress vocabulary and test it (to make sure students have learned it). Learning vocabulary will help students catch up and give them the ability to think more critically about whatever concepts they are learning.

Why Vocabulary Is Important

As I have gained more teaching experience, I have gained a greater understanding of vocabulary’s importance. Students must know the words before they can apply the concepts. As a result of this, I have begun to take the vocabulary teaching portion of my job more and more seriously.

A study that clearly shows the importance of background knowledge (vocabulary is an integral part of background knowledge) for comprehension was done by (Rect and Leslie, 1988). This study found that students who had low reading abilities and high content knowledge were able to comprehend a text better than students with a high reading ability and low content knowledge.

In short, the students with high content knowledge were able to “chunk” the important information together in order to retain it. While the students with low content knowledge needed to focus on every piece of information at the same time and as a result had a more difficult time visualizing and comprehending the content.

A scenario similar to this likely plays out in your classroom everyday. If you are teaching a unit on mass movement (landslides, flooding, etc), students will need to have background knowledge in the rock cycle and the environments you will be applying the new vocabulary too. Those that don’t will find their working memory to be overwhelmed as they will essentially be learning about the rock cycle, environments, and the new vocabulary simultaneously. This will lead to cognitive overload, poor performance, and worse, poor comprehension.

However, students that have strong background knowledge of environments and the rock cycle will likely understand and be able to apply the new vocabulary with much more confidence and accuracy than those without. The reason being, these students can focus on applying the new vocabulary to environments that they are familiar with. They have more background knowledge which reduces their cognitive load, allowing them to focus on learning the new vocabulary.

In order to help my students who have less background knowledge, I try to give concrete examples of the vocabulary and its applications. The concrete examples are easily attainable for most students, and it gives them a reference point of a correct example (a worked problem). The students can then refer back to the concrete example as we apply the vocabulary to new circumstances.

An example of this would be with flooding. I would show a picture/short video of a flood in a place that had many different types of plants after giving students the definition. Then we would talk about how the flood impacted the environment (weathering, erosion, deposition). This example is more concrete because the students can see what is happening even if they are unfamiliar with the environment the flood is happening in. Then, as the class goes on, we will continually refer back to the video, explaining why flood produced those particular results.

This would then be the pattern I would want my students to apply to new situations. Ex: A flood in an environment without many plants (How does not having plants affect the impact a flood has?). The students can check back to their notes to help them apply the vocabulary to a new environment.

Having sufficient subject vocabulary is integral for students to succeed, as it allows for them to focus on the content (what you want students to learn) instead of getting lost in the delivery.