Teaching Tier 2 Vocabulary



The 15 Minute Forum tonight was led by Emma Bilbrough and Danielle Walters (MFL teachers). During the last academic year, Danielle and Emma had conducted an Action Research project, with Brian Marsh (University of Brighton), investigating how MFL could promote the use of Tier 2 Language across the school.

What is Tier 2 Vocabulary?

Beck and McKeown (1985) created a three-tiered system of vocabulary based upon target words.

  • gp1Tier 1 Words
  • These are basic words which would usually appear in the majority of childrens’ everyday vocabularies.
  • These words should not require any direct teacher instruction to comprehend.


  • Tier 3 Words
  • These words are specific to subjects and only occur in unique domains.
  • These words require expert knowledge to explain to the students and aid comprehension.


  • Tier 2 Words
  • These words are not necessarily specific to subject domains but require students to have a ‘mature’ vocabulary in order to comprehend the meaning of the word.
  • These words are often integral to a students’ comprehension of exam questions or core subject knowledge.

Why does vocabulary matter?

Literacy is a current whole-school priority, in terms of developing our students’ vocabulary and use of language. In addition, the increased content and demands of the new GCSE specifications have highlighted a need for students to be ‘word-rich’. Daniel Rigney created the term ‘The Matthew Effect’ from his research into sources of inequity.

9780231149488.jpgHe described those students who are ‘word-rich’ as possessing knowledge of 7,100 words, whilst those students who are deemed to be ‘word-poor’ will have knowledge of less than 3,000 words. Rigney tells us that “While good readers gain new skills very rapidly, and quickly move from learning to read to reading to learn, poor readers become increasingly frustrated with the act of reading, and try to avoid reading where possible.” Essentially what this is telling us, is that unless teachers address the gap between the ‘word-rich’ and ‘word-poor’ students the gap will continue to grow and affect student outcomes; positively for those who are ‘word-rich’ but negatively for those who are ‘word-poor’. David Didau has blogged about Rigney’s work in more detail here.

Danielle and Emma wanted to investigate how MFL could be used to enhance the understanding of Tier 2 language of our students. Their premise was that Tier 2 words in English were often linked to Tier 1 cognates in Spanish or French. One such example is – ‘amable’ which in Spanish means ‘friendly’ but is closely linked to the Tier 2 English word ‘amiable’. To investigate this, Danielle and Emma tested two Year 8 groups – a control class and an experiment class. The two classes that were chosen were equally balanced in terms of ability; male/female split and PP student %. Each class were ‘tested’ using vocabulary starter activities.

The experimental group completed ‘dictionary race’ activities, which involved the students matching French and English Tier 1 words followed by a second exercise to match the English Tier 1 and English Tier 2 words.

The control group were exposed to English Tier 2 vocabulary. These students had to read sentences containing Tier 2 words and then chose Tier 1 words to replace them.


After two rounds of ‘testing’ the difference in performance between the experimental and control groups were marked. The class that were exposed to French and English words (the experimental class) made significantly more improvement than those students who only experienced the English words (the control class).


Whilst this is only a small sample, the significance of Tier 2 vocabulary is increasingly important in the success of our students. The use of Tier 2 vocabulary has increased in exam questions and specification content at GCSE and as such students are being exposed to a wider range of words that they may be unfamiliar with.

Danielle and Emma have continued to trial this approach with Year 7 MFL students at Durrington. In addition, they have gathered lists of Tier 2 vocabulary from other curriculum areas and are identifying links between these words and their French or Spanish counterparts. One such example is agriculture, used within KS3 Geography. A student in a recent Geography lesson very confidently explained what agriculture meant and was able to explain that they knew the meaning because the word ‘agriculture’ in French meant farming.

This approach is well-worth exploring in other schools as a means of developing students’ vocabulary and encouraging them to become ‘word-rich’.

Posted by Martyn Simmonds

This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Teaching Tier 2 Vocabulary

  1. Pingback: 2016 – a Review | Class Teaching

  2. Pingback: Make it sticky: helping students to remember technical vocabulary | Class Teaching

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