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?