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Making the ‘word poor’ richer – with tier 2

Katy Pautz, Lead Practitioner, Falinge Park High School, shows how a school-wide move to using tier 2 vocabulary is benefitting students in all years – and their teachers

“We will proceed no further in this business,” said Macbeth.

“Oh yes we will,” I replied. (A year 10 writing in role)

The students at the town centre school in the North West where I work have some wonderful ideas but are limited by the lack of vocabulary needed to express them. In a recent piece of creative writing inspired by Macbeth, they explored relationships, power struggles and themes, yet they lacked the tier 2 vocabulary to express complex knowledge and understanding. And they are not alone.

Schools confidently teach tier 3 vocabulary: the key words that are displayed on boards, highlighted in exercise books, repeated in questions and encouraged in discussions. The problem is, you only need to try and decode a GCSE exam paper to realise that in many cases, it’s no longer the subject terminology that is acting as a barrier for our students but the tier 2 vocabulary around it.

Add to that the perception of many of our students that academic vocabulary makes them ‘sound posh’ and isn’t theirs, and it is clear that we have a challenge on our hands. As a staff body, we need to help our children over the ‘lexical bar’ that would allow them to read and understand the majority of texts they will encounter in their futures, and respond to them accordingly.

Our Assistant Headteacher for Literacy, EAL and reporting to parents has led the drive to make our students (and staff) ‘word richer’. Using Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown and Kucan), Closing the Vocabulary Gap (Quigley) and Teach Like a Champ (Lemov) we’re developing a mixture of direct vocabulary instruction (DVI) with cross-curricular reach and principles such as ‘form matters’ which work for our students and staff. I added ‘(and staff)’ to the first sentence of this paragraph as they have reflected that increasing the focus on tier 2 vocabulary in planning their lessons has indirectly made them improve the vocabulary they use in the delivery of explanations and their planned questioning. As a school, we are all developing the vocabulary range that we use and valuing the power that this choice gives us.

As a school, we are all (teachers and students) developing the vocabulary range that we use and valuing the power that this choice gives us

We have used CPD sessions to deliver the message that all staff have a shared responsibility to improve our students’ vocabulary. Over the last two years, we have introduced staff to the theory behind improving vocabulary recognition and usage, and encouraged them to understand how students learn new vocabulary and why it is so important to do so. We have shared research and resources on the implementation of tier 2 vocabulary in classrooms and beyond, and showed staff the impact the changes can have and are having. This has resulted in staff changing their pedagogical approaches within the classroom. For example, in Humanities and Science the pre-teaching of key tier 2 vocabulary before the reading of a challenging text is now a feature of classroom practice.

Subject areas’ support

We have built the support in subject areas based on their need and, as a Lead Practitioner, my support is tailored to individuals and subject areas for development. We have worked on vocabulary now with over 50% of our subject areas, and a recent survey shows staff and students are positive and actively using tier 2 vocabulary effectively. The fact that we began this in 2017 and it is a school priority demonstrates we are aiming for a sustainable change, as opposed to a short-term quick fix.

Tutor time is also recognised as key for vocabulary development. Each term, a select group of words linked to a whole-school reading text is taught through a PPT shared with all staff and modified by each tutor for their year group when necessary. The DVI (Direct Vocabulary Instruction) format alongside activities that give the opportunity to trial and refine use of the new vocabulary are helping to make the students see these words as vital if they are to clearly express their opinions and ideas.

The evidence

The students are independently applying their new vocabulary and rather than ‘sounding posh’, are seeing it as theirs. Examples include a year 7 written response from internal exams: ”I agree that (King John) did some nasty things but some of them have a plausible explanation”; and a year 11 writing a card to their ‘exemplary’ teacher.

We’ve still got work to do, but our students are becoming more skilled in communicating their knowledge and understanding to others. We can’t predict every word in every exam question, however we can give students a broader diet of language while they are in our school environment. We see this focus on tier 2 vocabulary as a worthwhile investment.

Katy Pautz
Falinge Park High School Lead Practitioner

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2 thoughts on “Making the ‘word poor’ richer – with tier 2

  1. mkaur on said:

    I think this is such a useful article as it’s something I am personally working on and I know many others are. I am an English teacher and I still find it’s English teachers who end up with this mission, hopefully more teachers in other departments will work on adding more vocabulary in and highlighting the importance of this.

  2. KP on said:

    I agree – I was going to start my article with an anecdote about a teacher from another department on my teaching practice telling me that he had a curriculum to get through, it was my job as an English teacher to teach the students the words they would need. Things are changing.

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